Economists often speak in glowing terms of the creative destruction behind modern capitalism's massive productivity. Capitalism's creative destruction is also the subject of photographer Edward Burtynsky's works and it glows there, too. His landscapes include glistening mountains of e-waste, luminous lakes of crimson poison and open-pit coal mines resplendent under the mid-day sun. Burtynsky captures the creative parts as well. That is, if factories full of automatons assembling gizmos can aptly be described as creative.
The new documentary, Manufactured Landscapes, follows Burtynsky on his photographic forays into the field and, in the process, becomes a damning critique of the current form of globalization. Its images are at once awe-inspiring and awful, and its further collection of inconvenient truths will appeal to lovers of An Inconvenient Truth as much as to fans of photography.
Director Jennifer Baichwal opens Manufactured Landscapes with a tracking shot that glides slowly through a Chinese assembly factory, past row after row of workers, until it's clear the factory's architects must have needed to account for the curve of the Earth in the building's design. This first shot introduces us to one of Burtynsky's primary subjects: immensity. His wide-format photographs are exclusively macroscopic; his subjects are vast factories, towering ship hulls and global trade.
Burtynsky's frames, if they have humans in them at all, show them
as tiny, inconsequential components of colossal machinery, as if, in their yellow get-ups, they are plastic widgets. But his work is not cold, exploitive or without human interest; precisely the opposite. (Baichwal's last film, the 2002 documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, examined another photographer accused of exploitationâ€“perhaps with greater justificationâ€“the portraitist Shelby Lee Adams, who is best known for his images of Appalachian poverty.) Burtynsky renders humans without humanity because he is quietly commenting on a system that does just that. Where a portrait can capture an individual's spirit, Burtynsky's photos make us look at a system that has no room for such pleasantries.
Manufactured Landscapes' cinematographer, Peter Mettler, both mimics Burtynsky's broad lensing and goes beyond it. Like a patron perusing Burtynsky's work at a museum, Mettler zooms in on faces, rediscovering lost humanity.
Burtynsky himself is rarely on screen. There are a few shots from a lecture he gave, which sums up his general stance as an artist and explains why he decided to focus on this subject matter. There are also several scenes of his process in the field, including some 2001 archival footage. The absence of interviews with Burtynsky, his admirers or detractors, shows refreshing restraint on the part of Baichwal. This is no cliche biopic; it's about Burtynsky's work and it's a piece of seamlessly integrated art itself.
What Burtynsky reveals in his large images is the big picture.
Here is a world of irrational self-destruction made up of tiny, myopic and very rational decisions. Energy must be supplied, gadgets must be made and people have to make a living, right? And yet what emerges from the aggregate of all this ingenuity and bureaucratic rationality is total insanity: a planet's surface scared and depleted, and inhuman working conditions.
Without being preachy, Manufactured Landscapes forces viewers to seriously reconsider the tiny part they play in this gargantuan global game gone wild.
Directed by Jennifer Baichwal
With Edward Burtynsky