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One Picture

Photographer: Edward Burtynsky
Title: Silver Lake Operations #12
Place: Lake Lefroy, Western Australia
Camera: Hasselblad with digital back

The landscapes in Edward Burtynsky’s viewfinder are manufactured rather than natural. “Woundscapes,” as one critic called his recent exhibition of outsized prints from the goldfields in Western Australia. Indeed, the celebrated Toronto photographer’s lenses have focused on marble quarries in Vermont, immense piles of old tires in California, railroad cuts in the otherwise pristine mountains of British Columbia, oilfields in Alberta, a huge refinery in Houston, ship recycling in Bangladesh, decrepit factories in China, and colorful container ports in Canada. “Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work,” Burtynsky writes. “I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning.” He adds, “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence . . . our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet.”

Burtynsky typically works with view cameras, which generate large negatives that yield highly detailed exhibition and gallery prints. His Australian commission, however, was a challenge, since his “tripod” would be a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter. Holding a field camera while hovering over an enormous open-pit mine was out of the question. So Burtynsky turned to a late-model Hasselblad with a high pixel count digital back mounted on a gyro. As Michael Mitchell relates in Burtynsky’s book Australian Minescapes, “The last big issue was where to stand. Fly too high and the landscape became mere pattern; descend too low and all context and scale impact are lost.” After some trial and error, Burtynsky found that the best height was 300 to 400 feet above the subject.

Many of the Australian photographs, like our featured shot, show the impact of gold-mining operations at Lake Lefroy, a 200-square-mile saltpan that rarely contains water and is regarded as one of the best places in the world to sail land yachts. The scene is stark, the arid plain scarred by a fan of tire tracks from mining activity, smudged by wind and rain. Yet a dazzling picture.—Les Line

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