When you have published ten or so books, you could be forgiven for finding the prospect of producing a new title offering a fresh perspective on your work daunting. Not so for photographer Edward Burtynsky, who collaborated with curator William A. Ewing on his latest publishing venture, Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements. The Canadian duo has created a tour de force of a book, inviting readers to consider Burtynsky’s work anew by shaking up and reframing his vast back catalogue.
In essence, the book – which includes 140 (almost all colour) photographs, up to half previously unpublished – is a survey of the Canadian photographer’s work across four decades. A Greatest Hits it is not, however. Divided into five ‘free-flowing’ contrasting sections, Essential Elements eschews the project-based thematic approach that has served Burtynsky so well in his many previous publications – Quarries, Water, and Australian Minescapes to name just a few – and instead pairs images selected from across his career, mixing up assignments and personal work to form visually compelling juxtapositions that offer a wealth of insight and new perspectives. By doing away with a formal chronology, Ewing allows photographer and curator to discover and create new photographic dialogues within the work.
Ewing puts it well in his introduction to the book: ‘What does the work say to us as a whole, putting aside the category in which each image was meant to fit? If we think of Burtynsky’s entire oeuvre as a well-ordered deck of cards, what happens when we give it a vigorous reshuffle?’ There is something quite playful and even mischievous in Ewing’s statement, and he is well aware that such an approach may well invite criticism. His defence is the existence of other Burtynsky titles that readers can turn to should they wish to see individual bodies of work in their historical contexts. To have produced a book that neatly presents each project one after the other would have been ‘excruciatingly boring – like a school textbook’, he says. The aim was to ‘shakeup people who thought they knew Burtynsky’. Besides, this is ‘purposeful disorder’, not an arbitrary process of mixing; every pairing has been carefully considered.
On one level, the book privileges Burtynsky’s distinctive visual language, using this to guide the reader through the work. Often the pairings are strongly driven by aesthetics – the shapes within each image, or the colour palette used – which encourages a focus on the mechanics and components of each image, and the relationship between them – the similarities and differences, and how one might riff off the other.
The pairings also invite conceptual considerations, as Ewing explains in his introduction. Construction must result in digging down elsewhere to some degree, he muses, and in one pairing, a photograph of Houston’s skyline with its towering skyscrapers is shown alongside an image of Lake Lefroy in Western Australia where diggers dot the landscape like ants. The comparison is not a literal one of course, but the contrast is striking visually, and also because it asks us to reconsider the impact of human endeavour on the world; that is, the cause and effect of progress.
Interspersed throughout the book are snippets of text – 41 excerpts culled from book introductions and magazine and newspaper articles. Any book that takes a view of a photographer’s career, should, Ewing reasons, include the most interesting things that have been written about him or her. The resulting ‘plates’ and ‘passages’ arrangement forms the backbone of the book, with Ewing in the centre, a kind of conductor or magician, controlling the intensity and pace with which the work unfolds.
Overall the book’s ‘idiosyncratic’ approach is a success, deftly guiding the reader through selected works and contributing to its undeniable lyricism and rhythm. Ewing may be in the driving seat, but Burtynsky’s works are as majestic as ever.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Gemma Padley
The exhibition Edward Burtynsky: Salt Pans and Essential Elements is on show at Flowers gallery in London until 29 October 2016. www.flowersgallery.com.