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Edward Burtynsky
New Quarries

Edward Burtynsky
New Quarries

Iberia Quarries # 8, 2006 Cochicho Co., Pardais, Portugal Digital Chromogenic Print, 152.4 x 121.92 cm (same size substrate)

Rarely considered in the construction of architectural achievements are the cavities that excavations of stone leave behind. Edward Burtynsky’s twenty-year exploration of quarries examines these chasms with forensic attention, celebrating their voids with authority. His fascination stems from the idea that quarries represent an inverted, natural architecture, created by the pursuit of raw materials. He has photographed among the largest in the world, culminating in Quarries, published by Steidl in 2007. This documents his journey from the granite pits of Vermont in the early 1990s to the historical marble quarries at Carrara, Makrana, Xiamen, and Iberia.

Burtynsky successfully captures the tension in a landscape stained forever by the desire for progress, revealing how considerably the surface of the world is reshaped. He comments: These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence… We are drawn by desire — a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

Significant in Burtynsky’s photographs is the friction between the romance of vast landscapes and the environmental, economic and social costs represented. The magnitude of the landscapes, the dramatic angles, the sheer drops and flat areas of white create a disorientating ambiguity of scale. Detail, achieved by his large-format camera, makes the tiniest features mesmerizing. The apparently miniature, toy-like cranes, ladders or fine cables scattered across the quarry floor proclaim irrelevance against an infinite backdrop.

Carrara Marble Quarries #11, Carrara, Italy (1993) encompasses large marble blocks standing against a white sky. The soft light is important, allowing forms to be read more flatly. The effect is a diaphanous, milky haze: light as white, triggering thoughts of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist paintings. Abstraction appeals to Burtynsky: I really see a 4 by 5 inch or an 8 by 10 inch blank sheet of film as an open canvas, and I fill it. It is an exciting thing to try and fill it with something that has resonance, fidelity, detail and colour. In Western art, marble has been used to portray the whiteness of divine purity. As early as the sixteenth century, artists including Michelangelo travelled to Carrara’s quarries in search of the finest and most translucent blocks of the stone, the raw material used to carve masterpieces such as his Pieta in St Peter’s.

In Burtynsky’s quarry photographs, the compelling beauty of a great gash in the landscape can make uncomfortable viewing at times. Human suffering is inescapable at the Makrana quarries in India: for instance, Makrana Marble Quarries #11, Rajasthan, India (2000) captures in prosaic detail workers, often just children, toiling with ropes in the white dust, barefoot. Yet the unrelenting taupe colour of the entire scene is engrossing. The magnitude of the work site and the means by which Burtynsky uses colour and composition to find order in the landscape is riveting.

Contradictions such as this and the objectivity of the artist engage the viewer. These sublime photographs are both a platform for contemplation and a cruel trick. Enticingly beautiful, yet they slowly reveal a plethora of tragic realities. Burtynsky’s examinations play out the paradox of anxiety creating a dialogue, which may, in some way, point to change.

Artist: Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who lives in Toronto. His work is represented in the collections of major museums, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris, the V&A in London, the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He was awarded the TED Prize in 2004 and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada in August 2006.

Writer: Di Poole manages photography at Atlas Gallery, London. She curated ‘the living is easy: international contemporary photography’ at Flowers East, 2006.