By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Apr 25, 2013
The camera is at the end of a long row of workers. It starts tracking to the next row, and the next, and the next. The director is in no hurry, and as the rows continued, I became agitated. I wanted it to be over. Seven minutes later --- this was surely the longest tracking shot in the history of film --- we were at the end of an enormous factory in China.
You want to see "Manufactured Landscapes" for many reasons, and scale is the first. In America we talk about climate change and environmental degradation and maybe we see a picture of an ice cap and a polar bear or a giant landfill, but we rarely see how big these things can be.
Edward Burtynsky is all about big.
He started, decades ago, by wondering what happened to the quarries that produced giant slabs of stone. What he found were excavated masterpieces --- inverted monuments, exactingly carved, extending hundreds of feet into the earth. In their way, they're gorgeous.
In the last few years, Burtynsky has moved on to China, an agrarian country transforming itself, at warp speed, into an industrial powerhouse. That means: One Chinese factory produces 20 million flat-irons a year. That means: the third largest aluminum recycling yard in the world. And a dam so big --- the largest ever conceived, by 50% --- that 1.1 million people had to disassemble their homes and evacuate 13 villages so the thing could be built.
Many of these images show factories and apartments that are new and shiny, light years from what we think of as sweatshop workplaces and workers' housing. But don't be fooled. Much of the labor we see is so repetitive that none of us would last an hour. And a lot of the processes in these plants throw off waste in such volume that residents of the Pacific Northwest and Canada are its beneficiaries.
But don't jump to the conclusion that this is a film Al Gore could have made. Mass production is not without beauty --- the photographs of Andreas Gursky prove that by making us think twice about supermarkets and lobbies. But Gursky digitally manipulates his images. Burtynsky just sets up his 4x5 or 8x10 camera, takes an insane number of shots, edits ruthlessly, then prints on giant sheets of paper. What we see is what he got. And Jennifer Baichwal simply follows Burtynsky around; her film shows how he works and what he chooses to photograph. [To buy the DVD of 'Manufactured Landscapes' from Amazon, click here. To rent or buy the video stream and see it right now, click here.]
And what is that?
You look at this film --- at women putting caps on wires thirty times a minute, at people scrounging through mountains of discarded computers in search of tiny pieces of value, at gleaners harvesting scrap in a stream of chemical waste --- and you think you will never buy anything in Wal-Mart again. And that's just for openers. The computer you're using right now --- how much did you pay for it? How much would it cost if the people who labored over its components were Americans, in a union and paid a salary that reflected their expertise? And then consider the true cost of your microwave, your iPod, your flat screen, and….
But that way of thinking is too narrow; this time, it's not all about us. Burtynsky is fascinated with China because it's creating new “landscapes” on a scale that dwarfs all other nations --- in a matter of a decade, it's recreating the process of industrialization that took a century to transform America. In China, we can see our past, projected at warp speed. And in China, we can also see our future. China, China, China --- for the first time, you get what a vast impersonal force resides there, and how it works in silent, compliant efficiency, and the connection between anonymous workers and sophisticated consumers.
Burtynsky should be a zealot --- his father, who worked in a GM factory, died young from a cancer allegedly caused by lubricating oil --- but he takes no position on the environmental changes he photographs. If he presents his work as a political statement, he says, it's a take it or leave it offering: You agree with him, or not. And on you go to the next exhibit, the next movie. His aim is to invite you to think about desire and repulsion, about your attraction to products and your fear of what lies beneath their shiny surfaces. After all, he points out, “We are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success.”
Burtynsky's conclusion --- not shared in the documentary --- may come to be yours: ''I feel like I'm living in contradiction with myself. But I don't know any other alternative to how I live…. It's a dilemma of our times, in that there's no easy prescription for our ailment.” His solution, however tentative, is to “look at the world straight on, in a way that won't let us immediately turn our eyes away.''
To buy the book, “Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky”, from Amazon, click here.