Edward Burtynsky sees the world from a different vantage point than most of us — quite literally. The St. Catharines, Ont.-born photographer has spent decades taking bird’s-eye-view shots of tailings ponds, sawmills, potash mines, and garbage dumps.
But long before those shots from the air, he was taking photographs at ground level in Toronto as a student at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, now Ryerson University. This week, Burtynsky gifted 142 of those early photographs to his alma mater.
It’s the first instalment of his multi-year donation to Ryerson, where he began his career in the late 1970s.
He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about how a school assignment at Ryerson got him hooked on capturing how humans were bending nature to their needs. Here’s part of their conversation.
Ed, we know that you have taken photographs and films around the world … When you were back as a student, though, at Ryerson, what pictures were you taking then as a young thing?
Well, the things I actually fell in love with were things around me, which was a lot of nature. So I ended up doing a lot of landscape photographs. And I also did things around the industry in St. Catharines.
So I looked at the GM plants, and I used to love going to an abandoned factory and all the machinery was still in there. And I’d take pictures there, and the Welland Canal, the ships would go by and I’d be really fascinated with that. So I kind of grew up with industry all the way around me, and as well as looking at these great ships, which always boggled my mind going through the canals — we could just be right up close with them.
We used to be able to stand right beside them, so you can just see the ships go by, you know, five feet away from you. And that was quite something as a young kid.
So you started off, like many people, taking pictures of nature. But you were drawn to industry. You were drawn … not just to the wonders of industry, but just the dark side of industry, where you [captured] them in their sort of their ugliness and their beauty. What drew you to that?
My first real powerful recollection of industry was, my dad worked at the GM plant. And there were these large hammer forges that worked there the whole time. And it was one of the signatures of St. Catharines. And the whole area would shake, as these forge plants would pound out, apparently it was a steering knuckle for the front steering of a car.
And, you know, as a 17-year-old, I was looking at these massive forges with red-hot ingots and guys in these aluminum suits, [who] looked like space aliens flipping these red ingots. And just thinking that, you know, this world that I kept hearing as a kid, I knew my dad worked there and all of a sudden being able to see that world.
So it always fascinated me that the car that I’d be driving and going by there was created in a place like that. And we never see these places, but they’re kind of massive and surreal at the same time. So I think there was just a pure fascination at the beginning that turned to a kind of dread, as I began to see how we were expanding it around the world.
Was there something at Ryerson? Did you get directed in some way that led you to do the work that you did?
Well, it was actually this assignment I got in the first month of school there from a teacher called Rob Gooblar. And he said, go out and photograph evidence of man. Now, I know that wouldn’t be politically correct today, but that’s what it was in 1976. And I kind of saw it as an escape card from saying I have to always, you know, be implicated in this. I could be the observer.
It allowed me to kind of think of looking at the world as if I was an alien, and as if I had to kind of report back to some other intelligent species about what we as a consciousness and species here are doing to the planet.
And to me, it was an interesting kind of opening. And I think in some ways I continued along that simple idea of collecting evidence of the greatest examples of human incursions into nature and into the things that we need to survive.
Was there something else in your instruction at Ryerson that led you to this idea that things should be that big? I mean, was it just an idea of go big or go home?
No, I just thought that … I had the opportunity to look at some very large-scale industries while I was putting myself through school. I worked in the mines north at Red Lake and I worked in the factories in GM and Ford. So I saw industry at scale. So I understood that scale was really a part of, you know, of that world.
It seemed that there was a greatest possibility of creating this moment where what I’m showing through the image is something that looks completely surreal. [It] doesn’t look like it should be possible, and it always makes us as humans, the small actors in our own theatre of our own making.
I was always interested in that, that we are kind of almost subsumed by our own world that we have created to create our worlds. So [it] diminishes us as a figure in that landscape.
Now that you’re donating your archival images, your early work to Ryerson, to your university, what do you hope the students get out of it?
I think what the body of work and having at one place will show, is that you can take an idea — if it’s strong and big enough at the beginning — and begin to just work it. It’s almost like taking one idea and then finding all the facets of the idea, just kind of turning that idea around and around in your mind and looking for other facets for it.
It’s really about that curiosity and the constant evolution of an idea that can create an artistic body of work over a long duration. And for me, it’s over 40 years.
Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.