Monday, December 26, 2016

Edward Burtynsky's new pictures: his best yet?

Burtynsky, Salt Pan #16, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016
I dropped in on Howard Greenberg the other day on my way home from Tom Gitterman's, since they'd lately been showing some alchemic things designed to add, as I imagined it, a needed chunk of spice to the usual fare of big-name conventional shows, and I wanted to see more of that.  I'm referring specifically to their alternative show of last September, curated by Jerry Spagnoli, with Adam Fuss's daguerrotypes and Sally Mann's wet-plate ambrotypes catching my eye in a great, unanticipated feast of alternative on East 57th Street.  I had no right to expect to be blessed twice in a year but that's no reason not to hope.

Burtynsky, Salt Pan #23, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016


detail, Salt Pan #25, 2016

Burtynsky, Salt Pan #5, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016

Burtynsky, Salt Pan #29, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016


detail, Salt Pan #25, 2016

So frankly I was blindsided by Edward Burtynsky's new pictures, the Salt Pan series, on display till the end of the year (a parallel, broader sampling of his work was running until recently at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea).

Burtynsky is an inescapable presence these days in the swankier venues and the best museums.  He has been making outsized prints of blasted, ruined landscapes for quite a while, of oil derricks, open-pit mines, iron scrapyards, effluents, slagheaps, often at herculean scales or from helicopter perspectives.  Because of this, or partly because of it, humans are nowhere to be seen - they would be dots at best - but this absence becomes both a vengeful ghostly presence and, predictably, an indictment, and is at least as striking as the marks which human appetites have left on the face of the earth.  So while these pictures, in their hi-megapixel magnificence, may be impeccably drawn and fastidiously detailed  thanks to processing at Toronto Image Works, it's their implicit form, a backstory of flat-out human degradation and greed that suggests why they convey the impact they do.  The lives of the Gujarat salt-harvesters represented here are short and brutal; that of their owners and bankers, soft and luxurious.  Some have called these eco-pictures but I would disagree and go further: behind an aesthetic mask, they are an outraged condemnation of capitalism.

Now that I've said that, let me take back what I just said even though it's also very, very true.  These pictures would be great even without being eco-pictures.  They're great, it seems to me, because they are less photographs than most of his previous work, and more akin to paintings.  There, I've said it: paintings.  With them he at last begins to liberate himself from the constraints of a reactive photography that receives signals and records them, and moves to a position where he combs the world for materials for a composition all his own and seizes upon them.  Acknowledging a debt to abstract expressionism (or his take on it anyway), he is mastering ways of using the fullness of the plane, the suggestiveness of the line, the control of an acerbic color palette.  He brings with him an idea, an abstract idea, formed of painted dreams, then looks to find ways to express it in what nature gives him as data or input, the rest falling where it may.

And to think we thought all this time he was just documenting stuff.

We're not going back to the gum-bichromates of a century ago, to pure pictorialism.  This is important.  There's no danger of that.  The moral imperative remains, the lessons, the openness.  The sheer contemporary grandeur.  But if you come to these new pictures looking for photographs, you are left grasping at nothing familiar and it's hard to understand them on those terms.  I'll give two examples that struck me on first seeing them.  Examine the white lines in the last detail from Salt Pan #25.  Notice how they stutter, then widen and billow, then resume: a highly painterly effect, uncanny in a photograph.  I thought at first they had been drawn with a white pen marker, but when I swooped in on that same salt pan with Google Earth I realized that was how salt looks raked up in little rows and piles.  Stock photos of the Gujarat salt-harvesters show the same thing:

salt-gatherers in the Little Rann of Kutch
Another example of Burtynsky's skill in making a picture is in his control of tonal range.  In salt pans elsewhere (San Francisco, Morocco) and even in the Little Rann of Kutch, bacteria and algae color the evaporating water variously according to the level of salinity in a particular pond.  Colors will range from blue to green to orange and red (dunaliella sp., archaea sp.) to, eventually, black, when the organisms have died, to white, when microbes have cleansed the salt crystals.  Seeking a muted palette for his Salt Pan series, Burtynsky waited until light conditions were favorable, the desert darkening somewhat and the boldness of some of the ponds' colors attenuating.  He may have chosen to photograph toward the end of the harvest as well, to assure a preponderance of blacks and whites.

I am reminded in looking at his results of certain works of postwar British abstraction.  Here's one from the 1960s by Roger Hilton.  Even its moody title, October, echoes Burtynsky.

Roger Hilton, October, 1965
In the past, Burtynsky's interests have swung from what could be taken as activist environmentalism, all the way to a pure geometric, almost tantric, contemplativeness.  The latter include his series on Borromini's ceiling at Sant'Ivo (1999) and his Pivot Irrigation series from the Texas Panhandle (2012), which, until he produced his Salt Pans, was one of my favorites.  But with this new work, everything has changed.

Near the end of a recent radio broadcast on the BBC, he characterized his work, perhaps all his work, as a lament.  Is there a deeper sense of life than that?