Friday, June 29, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

To get out of the heat yesterday I caught a matinee at the Film Forum of Manufactured Landscapes, a feature documentary by Jennifer Baichwal on photographer Edward Burtynsky. With so many pages on the internet about him and his photographs, I'll just give some impressions I had of the movie, hopefully without giving too much away.

The film opens with an extremely long pan across the floor of an assembly-line production facility in China, ending in the Burtynsky diptych below.

Manufacturing #10A/#10B, Cankun Factory, Xiamen City, 2005

In this first scene, the photographer gives his basic philosophy, namely the inseparability of man and nature and a change in the last 100 years from natural landscapes to industrial or manufactured landscapes, a change that requires a new way of thinking about our surroundings, our actions, and how the two resolve each other.

Oil Fields No. 1, Belridge, California 2002

What almost single-handedly makes Burtynsky's photographs so powerful and popular is scale, be it the scale of the photographs themselves (roughly 3x4' in galleries and museums) or the scale of what's presented, be it excavation, garbage, ships, dams, industrial processes, or the oil infrastructure. Filmmaker Baichwal uses this scale to her advantage, many times showing us a detail of one of his photographs and slowly zooming out until we see the whole image. In a way it replicates the museum experience, allowing us to see the sharp detail and deep focus of Burtynsky's photos, but it is also makes the final image even more powerful, a manipulative but effective cinematic presentation.

Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie #5, Yangtze River, China 2002

One surprising aspect that comes across in the film is the way Burtynsky's photos are as manufactured as the landscapes he presents. This happens in a couple ways. First, the way he admits that he is part of the industrial landscape he presents, be it via driving or the processing of film. In that sense he's locating all of us (all of us not part of the third world) within the same landscapes, as we play a part in the excavation, dumping, and so forth that are supposedly required via our habits.

Second, the way Burtynsky will manipulate what he's shooting to the extent he can, for reasons of beauty or emotional impact. I'm guessing at the reasoning as he's not explicit about this and the director does not pursue it. An example of his manipulation is the photo of the destruction of a town displaced by the Three Gorges Dam Project above; we hear the photographer cue the man and his donkey, after which Burtynsky's assistant gives the man what looks like money. The final image gains a center via the location of the man and his donkey in the foreground, though it also gains some meaning (tradition vs. progress, natural energy vs. machine energy, etc.) that might not otherwise be there. If the photographer saw the man walking and asked him to repeat his actions we're not sure, though the director's willingness to include this scene does something: it asks us to question what Burtynsky's is showing us as much as Burtynsky asks us to question what he's photographing.

Urban Renewal #14,, Hongkou District, Shanghai, 2004

Much of the film deals with China and its fast-paced development, or what Burtynsky calls coming late to the party of modernization. He sees that country's action as extremely important in this century, and I'm sure he's not alone. But where his photographs again focus on scale -- of cities, of buildings, of change (in the above case of "urban renewal") -- the filmmakers show us the lives that are being displaced and the ones replacing them; we hear them talk about the places they live and we can't help but notice the break that is occurring, a break that has already happened in other places around the world. These scenes are when the film is its best, when it goes where Burtynsky's photos can't or won't: the human scale.

Three Gorges Dam Project, Wan Zhou #4, Yangtze River, China 2002

For more on Burtynsky, be sure to check out his web page, which includes large versions of some of his photographs, and his TED | Talks lecture, parts of which are included in the film.


  1. Thts interesting.....hi its shubh here architect from india...nice blog u have got

  2. I saw this movie in the theatre. I must say, I was depressed for most of the day however, it is one of the movies that has changed my life. It is definitely a must see. Or, take a look at his book with the photography from the movie.


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