Edward Burtynsky: Overrated

by Art Fag City on May 10, 2006 · 2 comments Events

I feel like I have spent the last year reading critics who think photographer Edward Burtynsky is the greatest photographer that ever walked the earth. Charles Cowles Gallery seems to have his work up every six months or so, and while it doesn’t suck, it’s not all that great either. I’m suffering from over exposure. His concepts play out too easily, and the seduction of formalism is a limited card for a photographer (or any other artist for that matter) to be putting on the table. Burtynsky himself backs these ideas up in his artist statement which is rich in cliche and low on content. For example:

“Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning….

The problem with the words “open in meaning” is that too often they are used by artists as a stopping point for thought, and Burtynsky is no different. The artist clearly attaches a value judgment to these words, but never spells out what that importance might be. This is a problem because it leaves one with the impression that his focus is about as simplistic as it appears, even though he his stated goals vaguely suggest otherwise.

Burtynsky later goes on to say,

“…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. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.”

The last sentence reads like it was meant to be part of the screenplay in Lord of the Rings, so it’s really too bad the man couldn’t find an editor. Lack luster photographs aside, I think it is necessary to correct the misnomer that professional artists don’t need to be held to the same standards everyone else is in print. The rules of language don’t change just because you make “stuff”, and it’s time we took people to task on this. Lazy thinking is not an acceptable practice.


guest January 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I respect your opinions, but disagree strongly.

As far as I’ve noticed his photos aren’t just formalist at all.
I feel they are also really quite instrumentalist and documentary.

LWHx February 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm

As far as Burtynsky is concerned, it could be argued that seduction of formalism is limitless, since every photograph, from the vast oil field down to the textures of industrial waste, is full of aesthetic interest and grabs the attention. Furthermore, nearly all art is in some way formally engaging and uses the “seduction” of this formalism to attract attention and encourage understanding. Surely the first intention of visual art is to be appeal to the eye? I challenge you to find an effective artwork that makes no use of formalism.

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