‘Just Stop Oil protests in museums disrespect our culture’

“I use a digital camera in a helicopter or aeroplane,” says Edward Burtynsky. “It’s moving fast and it’s bouncy and shaky, and I’m taking hundreds of pictures, because if something comes your way and you don’t get it, you’ll never get back to it no matter how good the pilot is. You need to be ready to make that picture when it happens. If you miss it, that’s it.”

The 68-year-old Canadian photographer, the great chronicler of how heavy industry is transforming our planet, is at home in The Blue Mountains, Ontario, explaining how he went from setting up painstaking shots on a tripod with a large format camera like early pioneers such as Ansel Adams, to embracing new technology. “All of a sudden, it was eureka,” he says. Yet the precision he learned as a young man still informs every image, and it’s something that a generation that has grown up with camera phones wouldn’t understand. “In the late ’80s, it cost me about $60 to take one picture. I would walk around with an eight-by-ten camera, sometimes for two or three days, and not take a picture, if the light wasn’t right. But I would make notes: ‘OK, come back here at six o’clock’.”

The hard part – the fun part – he says, was finding a photograph worth taking; the rest was a puzzle to be solved about the best conditions in which to capture it. “It’s impossible to imagine why anybody would even care to have that discipline today. It’s so easy to make pictures and there’s no cost to it. I used to catch myself doing that – then I’d say, ‘Stop. You know better than that. Wait for the right moment’.”

This goes some way to explaining something that will become obvious when the largest ever show of Burtynsky’s work – Extraction/Abstraction – opens at London’s Saatchi Gallery next month. The images on display are some of the most “painterly” artworks one is likely to see anywhere this year. A river in Ontario is turned fauvist orange by iron oxide, salt pans in Gujarat dissolve into geometric patterns, and compressed oil drums recreate the density of the abstract expressionists.

They’re beautiful – and Burtynsky has sometimes been criticised for that beauty, because they are a document of how earth is being poisoned by industry, from the snow swirl of phosphates in a pond in Florida to the psychedelic toxic spillage that is destroying the Niger Delta.

Oil Bunkering #9, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016

Oil Bunkering #9, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016 – Edward Burtynsky/Flowers Gallery, London

For more than 40 years, Burtynsky has been homing in on humanity’s environmental impact, beginning in the early 1980s, when on the back of a Canadian government grant of about £10,000, he spent four months travelling North America, “just me, my car and my camera and my thoughts”, photographing rock faces blasted for rail lines to cut through them. From the beginning, he recognised it was a “big enough idea” for a life’s work. Now he is one of the foremost artists to have captured the effects of the “Anthropocene” – the age of man’s dominance over the planet.

He understands the anger of radical climate activists who go so far as to advocate sabotage against the infrastructure of the oil industry. “It’s a well-placed anger,” he says. “We can’t let a small group of very wealthy people, who have an interest in maintaining that wealth, control the outcome of all life on the planet.” But nor, Burtynsky insists, should we be naively thinking “we can in one short period of time transition from fossil fuel dependency to alternative energy: it’s impossible.” Such a shift must avoid “destroying the fabric of society. If we destroy economies, and people can’t put a roof over their heads, then the environment doesn’t exist. It’s like, who cares? It’s my survival. If that’s the last pigeon and I can eat it, shoot the pigeon. Cease and desist is the naive position.”

It extends to industry, too. “The whole greening of the economy means we’re gonna be mining more than ever,” he says. “Lithium mining, cobalt mining, and then copper, nickel, iron ore, all of those things are key – I just went to photograph a rare earth mine – because we need the material to build the batteries and the cars and motors and all the things that are going to electrify our world.”

Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky – Seth Fluker

He’s chatting over video call from his house in one of Canada’s top skiing destinations, where almost for the first time this winter, there has been snow. Up to now, “it’s just rained,” he says, “an insane amount of rain.” The blizzard, though, has put his plans for the day on ice. “I was supposed to go see my mom,” he says, but instead, “I’m just gonna stay home and eat what’s left in the fridge.”

Burtynsky’s mother Mary turns 100 in July. She is a survivor of the Holodomor of 1932-33 in Ukraine, one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century, in which millions died of famine under Stalin. Grain from the region was used to feed the rest of the Soviet Union, but not distributed locally. “My mother talked about going to bed hungry,” he says, “and eking out [food] day after day.” She watched people starve to death. During the Second World War, her village was occupied by the Nazis and she was sent to Germany as slave labour, ending up in a displacement camp in Canada after the war. She later became a committed voice for Ukraine’s independence from Russia.

It was Burtynsky’s father, Peter – also a Ukrainian immigrant – who gave his son his first camera and later set up a darkroom at home that ignited the teenager’s passion for photography. By day, he worked on the welding line at the General Motors car plant in Toronto. It would lead to his death, when Burtynsky was just 15. His father developed cancer, the photographer believes, from working with PCBs – electrical insulating oils that are carcinogenic and can be absorbed through the skin. “Almost all of the men who worked on that line died,” he says. “He got cancer when he was 40 and then had a kidney removed, but by the time he was 43, it came back again and he died when he was 45.”

Burtynsky later got a summer job removing the PCBs from the factory to earn money to study photography. Throughout his father’s illness, Burtynsky had taken work alongside school to help support the family. “When my father was dying, he said, ‘you’re the oldest male in the family, this is your family now’. By the time I was 20, I had probably done 20 different jobs.”

Detail from Rock of Ages # 15, Active Granite Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1992

Detail from Rock of Ages # 15, Active Granite Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, 1992 – Edward Burtynsky/Nicholas Metivier Gallery

Burtynsky gained early success, winning gallery representation in New York when he was still in his 20s. But he soon realised that even artists he admired had to take other work to earn a living. He opened a photographic laboratory in Toronto that is still going strong today – but for several years, it sucked up all his energy, until a collector finally asked when he was going to produce more photographs. Burtynsky had an idea of shooting stone quarries but couldn’t spare the time. “And he just said, ‘I’ll pre-buy whatever you do.’” It restarted his career.

It’s important to be able to sell your work, he stresses. “I didn’t want to rely on grants. I didn’t want to rely on individuals.” But does the commercialism of the art world limit his capacity to be radical? “There is a class of art – call it the Jeff Koons or the [Damien] Hirst [class], where the game of the billionaires is creating a store of value in art, and somebody’s telling them, you need 10 per cent of your assets in art because it’s got a great return.” That’s not him, he insists. “I’ve always kept my work at a very accessible point in terms of dollars. Some galleries say, ‘We’re gonna really restrict the work you’re making, release five or six images a year, that’s it, but we want six figures or more to sell the work.’ I’ve always eschewed that. I’ve always put the pressure on myself to stay true to the way I want to work.”

In the early 1990s, larger prints of Burtynsky’s work could be snapped up for around £1,500; these days the smaller prints sell for roughly ten times that. But larger prints and what are regarded as iconic works can reach high prices, up to $100,000 (around £80,000) at auction. The market for his pictures helps him to travel the world, to rent a helicopter if he needs to, or hire assistants in environments where he doesn’t speak the language. Burtynsky’s “pretty persistent” when it comes to getting access, though some projects still elude him. He’s never been able to get into the Grasberg mine in Indonesia, for instance, where gold is extracted at an altitude of 10,000ft. And years of trying to get permission to shoot the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia led to the Ministry of Industry expressing concern that his work is not very positive towards the industry.

Salinas #2, Cádiz, Spain, 2013

Salinas #2, Cádiz, Spain, 2013 – Edward Burtynsky/Flowers Gallery, London

It’s “hard to be positive” about climate change, he says. “We were slow to respond to the scale of the problem. Time is not our friend any more.” What does he make of Just Stop Oil protesters targeting galleries? “Museums are repositories of things from the past that we find valuable and want to preserve, and things in the present that we feel are important and want to preserve. To use that space for protests is damaging to the cultural fabric. It’s strictly for headlines, and, you know, here’s something that society finds valuable – and I’m going to disrespect that value. I don’t agree with it.”

Finding fault with how museums support themselves, too, has to be considered carefully, he believes. “Cultural institutions often live off the graces of individual donations, government support, corporate donations,” he says. “Culture has never been able to sustain itself.” At a certain level – such as having a loan with a particular bank, or an insurer with links to fossil fuels – “they are all implicated”, and indeed, so is each one of us. “The choice is hard. At a certain point, if every artist and arts organisation worldwide turns down hugely valuable funding, there’s an undeniable risk of them being starved out of existence.” He suggests that protesters’ energies “be shifted to the doorsteps of the most egregious”.

What of those who believe that global warming is overhyped or not even happening? “The problem, I find, is that it got politicised,” he says, and “the political system is, whatever the Left says, the political Right just has an allergic reaction to it and says the opposite. I’ve always said, Left or Right, it doesn’t matter, when a hurricane comes, everybody gets flattened.”

Burtynsky: Extraction/Abstraction is at the Saatchi Gallery, London SW3 (saatchigallery.com) from Feb 14 to May 6

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