Before The Flood And Manufactured Landscapes

by Sean Connolly


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Before The Flood, a publication of Robert Koch Gallery, 35 pages in color, in a soft cover format ($25) is available from the Robert Koch Gallery at 415-421-0122 or by email at .

Manufactured Landscapes is a hardcover book published by Yale University Press ($55), 160 pages, containing 56 four-color plates.

The content of Edward Burtynsky's photographs of the earth's face are industrial tattoos and dynamic scarification left by mankind blind to its fate. Burtynsky's photographs of quarries, dams, rail cuts, ship breaking and other massive projects done in the name of industry and wealth show us something voluptuous. They hit the eye with a luxurious play of color. And this from what was originally a black and white photographer.

Both catalogue and book, present us with histories of events still wide open as seen through the eyes of a documentary artist who turns the formal Black &White into a dominant Chrome & White splendidly apt for each image. So, it is rust and white on the beach in Bengal where the ships are torn apart. Alabaster and white at the quarries, or make that ebony and white, or opal and white, or sarcophagus white on pale lime on the floodplain, which is soon to hold the lake generated by the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River in China.

The temptation to describe this opulent opera for the eye is too great to continue. The text in the catalogues does this more than sufficiently. The authors begin by wringing their hands about all the environmental consequences of our lust for feeding and breeding and parading ourselves. Burtynsky simply says we are momentary and place is eternal, immutable. This is a poet talking. He shows us this evidence of Man.

This comes out in the interview with Michael Torosian, a Toronto photographer, in Manufactured Landscapes, and I never once felt lectured or dizzy from any of the abstract talk about form and content. It all began in a place called Frackville, PA where Burtynsky had wandered off the highway and found himself surrounded by mountains of slag and a pool of vivid green. A Canadian, he went back north looking for other such eerie landscapes.

The curators Lori Pauli and Mark Haworth-Booth, and the art critic Kenneth Baker, add historical perspective in Manufactured Landscapes, tracing Burtynsky's provenance through various landscape painters and photographers, and although they place him in the realm of those deemed profound, astonishing, brilliant and breathtaking, they can't shake the destruction and devastation the subjects of his photographs leave in their hearts. Too bad. But, then again, the quarries and mining projects are massive. And so are the photographs, but nowhere is their size given in Manufactured Landscapes, and given bare mention in Before the Flood - some of the images as large as 50 x 120 inches.