Based on the information in the film, describe the work of the photographer featured in the film. Describe their subject matter. What do they photograph? Where? How would you describe their style? How would you describe the composition of their photographs? Are the photographs color or black and white? Do you have any information about what kind of camera, film/digital etc. they use? What seems to be important to the photographer to include in their photographs?
The film Manufactured Landscapes features the work of the photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose dominant subject matter is that of industrial landscapes. The theoretical underpinning of this subject matter, as developing Burtynsky’s explanations in the film, may be understood as one that is both traditional and non-traditional at the same time. Namely, Burtynsky takes one of the classical themes of art, that of natural landscapes, but looks at this classical theme through the perspective of artificial landscapes, in particular, creations of the industrial and post-industrial age. These are “manufactured landscapes”, in so far as they are obviously created by human beings; in their purely human as opposed to strictly natural origin, the artist raises questions concerning what the difference is between these two landscapes, if any such difference exists whatsoever.
The composition of Burtynsky’s photographs could therefore be said to mimic traditional landscape photography, for example, employing concepts such as the “rule of thirds.” Yet, at the same time, he often employs a downward angle when capturing these industrial objects, thus bringing out a new perspective on our industrial and post-industrial world, since we traditionally view these objects from an “embedded” point of view. In addition, Burtynsky relies on colour, arguably to capture the normal way we experience these objects: the “twist” in his approach is therefore to take this above angle view.
Burtynsky thus disrupts our traditional relationship to these “manufactured landscapes” with two techniques. Firstly, he makes a direct connection between manufactured landscapes and natural landscapes. Secondly, he takes an altered perspective of the former in terms of largely above angle shots, which helps us look at these familiar settings in a different light, thereby transforming their very familiarity. Burtynsky wants to include in his photograph a challenge to our preconceptions of how we relate to the environment by questioning our own human accomplishments within this same environment.
Select 3 photographs shown in the film and describe them to me. Describe them to me as if you were describing them to me on the phone (and I could not see them.) Start with what is actually in the photograph. What elements are shown? How do those elements relate to each other? How does the photographer frame or compose the photograph? How do they use color or black/white, texture, tone, lighting, shape?
Burtynsky’s series of photographs on the “extraction” industry, that is, the mining and quarry industries, are some of the most prominent examples of manufactured landscapes in the film. Especially compelling in this regard is the photograph of an open mine quarry, featured at 16:33 of the film. What Burtynsky brings to the viewer of the photo is the remarkable symmetry of this quarry: the concentric circles that formulate the levels of the quarry, moving downward into the earth, shows an unlikely aesthetic aspect to industrial extraction. The pool of water at the bottom of the quarry almost creates a natural effect to the whole scene, as it were a mountain landscape that somehow developed an almost perfect symmetry, leading to an idyllic oasis of water. This creates an almost illusionary image to the photograph, as though it were a form of oasis: yet this is betrayed by the clear indication of a highway road and electrical poles in the foreground of the picture. Burtynsky’s use of composition therefore makes us think about the close relationship between natural and man-made environments: at the same time, the darker colours of this photograph, above all dominated by a grey sky seems to indicate that he is questioning the industrial process as a whole in relation to nature.
Burtynsky’s images of stranded ships, for example, as featured at 39:52 of the film, further this pessimistic tone in a more explicit manner. The grounded ships, caught amongst sand and left to deteriorate, are signs of the failures of human civilization, the relics it has left behind. In this particular photograph, it is the loneliness of the ship, centered in the middle of what appears to be a dried out lake or water way in Burtynsky’s composition, that arguably expresses the disposability of our consumerist and industrial culture. In this photograph nature, on the other hand, overtakes all human accomplishments, rendering them insignificant, such that the basic elements of the photograph provoke themes of man’s ultimate relation to nature, as is consistent across all of Burtynsky’s work.
The mammoth industrial factories and power plants, as featured for example in a photograph at 57:54 of the film, are shot from above, once again disrupting our apparent familiarity with such an object. The only element of the photograph is one such plant under construction and what is revealed from the above angle is a striking symmetry and intricacy to such a plant. Arguably, Burtynsky also captures the beauty of such objects in their complexity, while also forcing us to question what they mean to us at the same time.
How does the film portray the photographer? Does the film portray them in a positive way? A negative way? Mixed? Give two specific examples of ways the film portrays the photographer.
The film portrays the photographer in what can be considered to be a unique way: firstly, through the contrast of his work with real scenes of the industrial world. For example, the theme of Chinese hyper-industrialization is emphasized throughout the film, comparing Burtynsky’s work to the philosophical and ethical questions such “progress” ultimately render apparent. The demonstration of workers in the film, in a certain dehumanization of mass production, helps underscore Burtynsky’s philosophical arguments in the film about wishing to challenge some of our preconceptions of the relation of man to nature. The film thus portrays Burtynsky as someone who uses aesthetics in an ethical and philosophical manner.
This is further underscored by how the film lets Burtynsky develop his thoughts concerning his own work. Burtynsky mentions, for example, at the outset of the film his intention to precisely confront the viewer with the reality of our relationship to nature and thereby provoke questions concerning, for example, environmental endangerment. The film at the very outset therefore lets Burtynsky in his own words explain the deeper conceptual objectives behind his work, thus setting a tone whereby the viewer may appreciate the work according to Burtynsky’s own intent. This demonstrates the filmmakers’ commitment to the value of Burtynsky’s work not only on an artistic level, but also on a philosophical and ethical level.
What moral or ethical issues about the photographer, their photographs or what they photograph are raised in the film? Give a specific example of a moral or ethical issue raised in the film. Elaborate on the nature of the issue.
As mentioned above, the primary ethical issues that the film develops are that of the relationship between man and nature. This is not a simple issue, as Burtynsky’s work itself acknowledges, since arguably the destructive power plants and extraction industries that he features in his work become things of beauty at the same time.
This is not to say, however, that Burtynsky does not wish to endorse mass industrialization, as he himself mentions in the film when explaining his position, to the extent that, for him, the destruction of nature means the destruction of the human species. There is a critical edge to Burtynsky’s work, for example, in the abandoned industrial projects that stand out as cemeteries to human achievement in contrast to the surrounding nature.
Yet to the extent that the artist also finds an aesthetic value in these works can be interpreted as the complexity of the issue. Certainly, industrialization at times seems necessary to growth of the species, falling in line with notions of “progress.” Progress, at the same time, however also yields its negative side, and Burtynsky’s dual intent of aestheticizing and critiquing the industrial and post-industrial elements of his photography demonstrates precisely this duality at the heart of human progress.
What is your personal opinion about the photographs shown in the film?
What is your personal opinion about the photographer him or herself?
Are these two opinions different? What is your opinion of the film itself?
The photographs in the film are especially powerful, providing not only an aesthetic value, but also a philosophical and ethical value. In so far as they force us to re-think our relationship to nature, Burtynsky therefore shows how photography can itself lead to philosophical questions. Burtynsky as a photographer is therefore not only a photographer, but his work also contains a deep conceptual thought. Accordingly, he is inseparable from his own work.
The film not only provides us an introduction to Burtynsky’s work, but also can be said to mimic this same work, becoming something to the effect of a cinematic version of Burtynsky’s still photographs. This makes a perfect symmetry between the two, as film now highlights, accentuates and develops Burtynsky’s own philosophical and aesthetic interests. From this viewpoint, the film becomes an extension of Burtynsky’s photography, taking the latter’s concerns into a new medium.