Ed Burtynsky is one of the world’s most acclaimed and relevant
living photographers. His large-format and richly textured
images of industrial landscapes have forced the public to acknowledge
the sublime, but deeply disturbing, effect of accelerated
industrialization. An inaugural winner of the TED Prize for
innovation and global thinking, Burtynsky’s work was the inspiration
for Jennifer Baichwal’s recent documentary Manufactured
Landscapes, which was named Best Canadian Film at the 2006
Toronto International Film festival and was nominated for the
Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
The Power of Environment
Growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, you can’t help but be affected by and interested in industrial sites. They are part of your day-to-day experience. I was fascinated with them.
As a kid, factories were mysterious places. People seemed wholly disconnected from them. The world experienced their products on a daily basis, but few people had any idea what went on inside. I used to walk past the forge plant near our home, hear the Bam! Bam! Bam! emanating from inside, and try to imagine what was going on behind the walls. When I finally got to see for myself, the scene of red-hot ingots being poured out and all these men in aluminum suits was surreal. It wasn’t at all like I’d imagined.
Since that’s where the money was, those industrial environments were eventually where I worked to pay my way through school. At seventeen, I worked at Hayes-Dana, a large plant that built truck frames for GM. Later, I worked at the GM and Ford plants as well. I did two years on production lines. That was as much of a taste as I wanted. The problem was that the pay made it very seductive. Guys would start out with no intention of staying, but then they would get a huge mortgage on their house, buy a big car, and suddenly their lives would be sucked into the vortex of factory life, never to emerge again. Working there made me focus on getting out of that world.
Though hungry for escape, I was also hungry to learn as much as I could. “What’s going on here?” I’d ask myself. “How does it all work?” If they wanted someone to work on a particular line, I’d always be the first to volunteer. Then I’d figure it out and be able to do something new.
I’ve always felt that, whatever you’re doing, you should put your best foot forward. I don’t care if you’re flipping hamburgers. Try to learn as much as you can and try to engage with the people around you. If you tell somebody that you want to do something, they’ll eventually let you do it. You can’t be bashful. You have to ask. If they don’t know you’re interested, they’re not going to go out of their way to make it happen.
Those years of working on production lines and learning about industrial processes informed my view of the world and the type of work I would eventually do.
While I worked at the factories and completed my courses, I never stopped shooting. Living in Canada, we’re blessed to have an enormous amount of raw nature at our fingertips. I was in awe of the unspoilt and I tried to capture as much of it with my camera as possible.
Eventually, I began taking night classes in pure photography. That’s when I realized I couldn’t escape it: photography was what I needed to be doing.
“Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started”, © 2008 by Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel. Published by Dundurn Press, www.dundurn.com