Photographer Edward Burtynsky spoke Friday about his exhibit at the Mary Elizabeth Dee Shaw Gallery. The exhibit, “Industrial Sublime,” features 31 photographs showing how nature is being changed through the world’s industries, such as oil and copper.
Burtynsky said he first got the idea for this project from an assignment he was given by an instructor. The assignment was to find evidence of man, and he focused on some ruins in Canada. He later came back this idea in 1981.
“I’ve worked in the auto industries, I’ve worked in dig factories, I’ve worked at Ford, GM, (and) I also worked as a gold miner,” Burtynsky said. “Of all that working background, which was helping me go through photography school . . . I also was unknowingly gathering the key ingredients to begin to think about where I’d go with my work.”
During his talk, Burtynsky went through the photographs individually in a presentation and talked about the kinds of things negatively impacting the environment.
“He actually told us what he was aiming for. Not a lot of photographers do that,” said Suzy Johnson, a botany student familiar with the environmental issues Burtynsky discussed.“He talked about controversial things. There are clearly issues we have, and he is addressing them visually.”
One of the things Burtynsky took pictures of was copper tailings. When copper is mined, only about 5 percent of the copper is actually used, and copper tailings are left over. Some of the biggest tailings in Canada are 6,000 acres across and 150 feet high, and people have been mining there for more than 100 years.
“Tailings are a direct consequence of mining,” Burtynsky said. “They are often blamed for being one of the downsides to mining because of the toxins that may remain in the tailings and leach out into the water, and then contaminate downstream water systems.”
Art student Jessica Pluim said her favorite photograph in the collection was called Nanpu Bridge Interchange, which is located in Shanghai, China.
“It makes you realize the extent our culture goes to for things like gas,” Pluim said. “I don’t travel, so it’s amazing how busy some places are compared to my corner of the world.”
Todd Gale, a visitor at the gallery, said he found Uranium Tailings #12, a picture taken in Elliot Lake, Ontario, and Oxford Tile Pile #5 from Westley, Calif., to be particularly shocking photographs.
“Everything was dead,” Gale said about the tailings, “and all the tires, tens of thousands, we don’t know what to do with. We’re poisoning the planet. There has to be a better way to do things.”
Burtynsky also has pictures of busy cities and huge crowds of people. He showed pictures of people watching NASCAR and showing off their cars at car shows.
“As I look at spectacles, I think it might be interesting in 50 years when we are running out of oil, and they’ll think, ‘Look what they used to do with oil,’” Burtynsky said.
The photographs will be shown in the gallery until Nov. 22.