Introducing 'Edward Burtynsky: Oil' at the Corcoran

BurtynskyChittagongNo2.jpgOn a summer day in St. Catherines, Ontario, a 25-year old Edward Burtynsky reported for a temporary job at the local General Motors plant. He'd been around auto plants his entire life: his dad had been a line worker for GM and in the 1960's and 1970's and it seemed like everyone in St. Catherines worked for either GM or Ford. When Ed finished high school, he worked some stints in auto plants, stamping car and truck frames for GM, assembling front ends for Ford. He'd already worked at the Red Lakes gold mine too. Taking on the toughest jobs that no one else wanted was nothing new to Ed; he had to make enough money to help out his widowed mother. [Image: Edward Burtynsky, Recycling #2, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001. Credit.]

On Ed's first day at GM, a Company Man gave him the Company Spiel: Welcome Ed. Your dad worked here for a lot of years. He did damn good work. Sorry he died. Guess it's been about ten years now, eh?  Welcome to the family. Here are protective gloves. Wear them. Here is a protective suit. Wear it. Here are tanks of oil. Empty them into barrels. Simple enough, right?

Oh, and Ed, one other detail. Whatever you do, do not let the oil touch the cement floor of the factory. It will seep right through the cement, into the ground and into the water table. The oil has a half-life of decades. We don't want oil in our water. Simple enough, right?

Oh, and Ed, I forgot the other thing. This oil, well, when some primates were exposed to it, you know, like monkeys and stuff, most of them got cancer and died. So you probably don't want it touching your skin, or anything like that, OK Ed?

Ed looked at the Company Man, and then he looked around the factory. That oil, the stuff with what would come to be known as PCBs in it, wasn't just in tanks or barrels. It was on the floor, it was squirting onto machines every time they piston-pistoned, it was all over all the people, the pipes, the bins. PCBs were a part the oily air. All of a sudden, Ed understood.

Ed walked over to the part of the factory where his father had worked. A bunch of guys were there, some working, some standing around. Ed asked them how many had known his father. One man raised his hand. Ed asked the others if they, too, had worked with his dad. Only the man who had raised his hand responded.

I'm it.

Where are the others?

They all died.

From what?

Cancer. They had all died from the same cancer that killed Ed's dad. Soon Ed noticed that when he got home from PCB cleanup, he'd blow his nose and the tissue would turn black.

A few months later he quit the auto plants for good. He entered college, and later received a C$15,000 grant to begin his art career. Thanks to that first bit of support, Ed jumped in his 1981 Volvo station wagon and lit out across Canada, taking pictures of the industries he'd left behind. Inevitably, when Ed would call home from some far-off province, his mother would ask, "Eddie, who wants these pictures?"

"I don't know mom," Ed would reply. "I don't know."

Two decades after that trip, Ed Burtynsky is at the peak of his profession. In 2003 the National Gallery of Canada organized a retrospective of his work and now an exhibition featuring Burtynsky's photographs of the impact oil has had on us and our landscapes in on view at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art.

This is excerpted/adapted from a profile of Burtynsky I wrote for Black Book magazine in 2005. Look for more on the Corcoran's Burtynsky show tomorrow and on Thursday.
Edward Burtynsky, Recycling #2, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001. Chromogenic color print. Photograph copyright Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.
November 17, 2009 8:32 AM |


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This page contains a single entry by Modern Art Notes published on November 17, 2009 8:32 AM.

Ken Johnson: The key issue is curatorial independence was the previous entry in this blog.

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