Ed Burtynsky

Bullfrog Founders Club

Ed Burtynsky

When did you first develop a passion for photography?

It began with my interest in landscapes. Back in the 1970s, landscapes were largely represented through a black and white photographic response—no one had tried to address them in colour. Colour was still seen as the medium of commercial, rather than artistic, photography. But with colour I found a tool ideally suited to Canadian landscapes because it provides the ability to render the world in excruciating detail, complete with colour as one of its features. Colour can be just as artistic as black and white —and it’s in the hands of the artist to make that conversion.

How do you approach your photographic subject?

I’ve trained my eye to process chaos, and look for compositional opportunities within a very complex space. That approach is something I brought forward from the pristine landscape tradition to industrial imagery. I’m a maker of images, not a taker of images, which means taking into consideration multiple factors including point of view, light, optics, texture and line. I am very conscious and deliberate in my approach, and try to construct new ways of looking at something. I leave little to chance. For example, I am very careful about the appearance of light. I prefer overcast light from cloudy conditions and generally avoid sunny locations. I pick seasons during which there isn’t full-green foliage. Photography involves a hundred little decisions that need to coalesce for an image to be the thing that you want it to be.

Many of your images delineate the transformation of the environment by industry (oil refineries, mines, etc.). How did this perspective evolve?

I realized that I could make a difference by showing how we are changing the landscapes in places we never see, places that are outside our normal range of perception. I could bring these places, like mines, into clear, sharp focus and underscore that we are disconnected from this larger theatre of industry. Something is going on in these landscapes on an unprecedented scale—we are engaged in excavation on a scale that we have never seen before. We are doing the reverse of building the pyramids.

You have commented that “our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction.” Can you comment further on this “uneasy contradiction”?

Our economic system is based on the concept of consumer demand and supply, and that supply and demand will find equilibrium through the market. But our economic model is flawed —because it fails to recognize that the materials of the globe are finite. We must look at the consequences of production. We have been relying on the faith that technology will outsmart the situation before we reach a dire ending, but that remains to be seen. This is still an unfolding story.

How did your experiences in China shape your perspective on the environment?

My optimism stalled somewhat in China. China is rapidly expanding its footprint to the level of affluent countries in the west. As the largest CO2 contributor and the head of the economic pecking order, the US has a duty to show leadership and set an example for nations like China to follow. If the US fails to lead, it gives countries like China full license to proceed in a similar fashion, including developing more coalfired electricity generation.

Our current environmental policies in the US and Canada are inadequate, but at the same time, I believe that if the electorate gets the wake-up call, and we recognize that we’re facing a moral imperative to mobilize to avert global warming, we can change things.

How would you define our role as stewards of our planetary resources? What is our responsibility?

We will always be consumers. We need to stay warm and get around, but the question is how we do that. Our responsibility is first to become aware, and then to engage with the world on new terms. That engagement must include the histories and futures of the resources and products we consume. Where did a car come from? Where does it go when we’re done with it? The more we know about sources and consequences, the better. We need to understand these back stories. Our impacts on the world are not limited to the moments in which we engage with its resources—our perspective needs to expand to encompass the lifecycle and to appreciate that our immediate engagement with a consumer product like a phone is only one part of its history.

Why did you switch your household to green electricity from Bullfrog Power?

We are an urban society that needs to become a smarter society. Bullfrog Power is an alternative that makes sense and can start moving us in the right direction. Government policy is lagging behind individual action. Individual initiatives like this are driving change. I wanted to find ways to walk the walk and Bullfrog fit with that.

What other measures have you taken in your life to help the environment?

I own a hybrid car, and I would drive an electric car if it was available. I want to be able to drop my kids off at school with a clean conscience. In the city, I brought in GreenSaver (www.greensaver.org) to do an energy audit on our home and discovered that our energy leakage was equivalent to leaving a 3-foot window permanently open. GreenSaver helped us strategize and implement a plan to save energy that included insulation, caulking and fixing our roof. We also installed a Centameter™ to show us how many kilowatts of electricity we’re using at any given time. The device enables awareness of our consumption patterns and how we can affect them. It’s got everyone in the family thinking about energy and its consequences. I’ve also purchased offsets to reduce my carbon footprint from other areas of my life like transportation. Up north, I installed a ground source system in my country house. And about 20 years ago, we planted 2,000 trees on 15 acres as part of a reforestation effort. I wanted to avoid monoculture, so on the advice of the Ministry of Natural Resources, I selected a variety of trees including red pine, white pine and spruce.

Ultimately, as individuals and citizens, we hold the most power to effect change through our vote and wallet. If we want politicians to make a difference and set an example, we need to get them into power and hold them to their promises. And we need to exercise our power through our purchasing decisions.

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