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Why we love the art we love: Edward Burtynsky on the beauty of photography

In this series, The Globe and Mail partners with award-winning platform Wondereur to explore the diversity of contemporary art from a completely new  perspective. The Globe and Wondereur will approach radically different minds  engaged in culture across the country and around the world. Each month, we will  ask them to share with us the work of a contemporary Canadian artist who deeply  touches them. This month, Globe Arts editor Jared Bland talks  to photographer Edward Burtynsky about his childhood, his work  and the photography of his chosen contemporary artist, Rafael Goldchain.

Photo by Johan Hallberg-Campbell, homage to Julien Douvier. A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art and a winner of the Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward competition, Johan Hallberg-Campbell has also won awards from the National Magazine Awards and the Canadian Red Cross for his work. Here, he explores the world of Edward Burtynsky.

Was there art in your home while you grew up?

There wasn’t as much of what I would call “art,” classic art or anything like that. My father was an amateur oil painter, so some of his oil paintings were on our walls. There was one above the piano, of a famous Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, playing an instrument known as a bandura. I remember that one kind of resonated with me; it was always central in the living room. My father was also a fairly crafty guy as well. He came from a small town in the Carpathian mountains of western Ukraine. I’ve never been there, but from what I understand, the whole town was engaged in either wood carving or ceramics or painting, so it was a very artisanal place where everyone made things. Somehow, I feel in my DNA, somewhere, there is this kind of need to create, so that was something I always did. Then I turned 11, and we got a darkroom.

Documenting the future of the art world, Wondereur is a ground-breaking cultural platform capturing the creative process of the most inspiring artists worldwide and providing exclusive access to their work. To learn more about Edward Burtynsky’s top pick in contemporary art, continue to Wondereur’s photo documentary on Rafael Goldchain.

I understand your father acquired it from a widow.

Yes, and that darkroom was transformational for me, in that I enjoyed it far more than painting. Photography was this instant compositional tool that in a fraction of a second captures an idea. I joined camera clubs and figured all the technical stuff out: how to expose and process film and how to make prints. I transitioned at that point to just doing my own thing with a camera, with a fair amount of independence. From then on I was the guy with the camera all the time, wherever I went.

Did your father cede the darkroom to you eventually?

The first few times, he went into the darkroom with me and helped me figure it all out. Then he realized that I was doing well, and backed away. I wasn’t in competition with him in the darkroom – that became my space. Every once in a while, he would do a family portrait and I’d process and print. It was interesting as well because I think this eventually fed into my whole entrepreneurial side, because he said, “Look, I’m not going to buy you new chemistry, and I’m not going to buy you film.” I remember the camera store had 100-foot rolls of Tri-X and that cost something like $4.50 at the time. I burned through those, but needed money, so when I was 12 or 13 I started shooting the local community. I quickly realized that having kids’ faces smiling at the camera was the best chance of selling stuff. I think an 8-by-10-inch print was 75 cents, and 5-by-7 was 50 cents. The parents would want pictures of their kids and I would sell them. I would shoot events: the choir, or the troupe, or the kids are at camp, those kinds of things.

Do you remember any specific photographs?

I remember the first roll of film I took. It was wintertime and I wanted to shoot a roll of film to practice processing it, so I took an entire 36-exposure roll of my dog, Tippy. He was jumping around in the snow outside, and then I processed the film and made a contact, so there were 36 similar pictures of him. I picked one out and printed an enlargement it. That was the first 8-by-10 print. So I had just made that picture earlier in the day and all of a sudden it’s emerging in a tray in this orange safelight. To me it was like magic – I was mesmerized. What I think I knew intuitively and naturally is that I had shot 36 pictures of the exact same subject, but yet one seemed better than the rest. And there was my sudden recognition; that in getting close to what you want, and taking a lot of pictures, one of them would always seem to emerge as the best. Quantity allowed a more qualitative decision.

This is a rule you still employ?

It goes right back to that first roll of film. For my last project, I rented a 70-foot bucket lift, and I drove around California. At the end of the day I came back and I looked at what I produced, and realized that I wasn’t high enough. Ultimately, I allow the subject to determine where I have to be, and what kind of light I should work with, what time of year I should work, all those things. I strive for that engagement with the subject matter, then reverse engineer myself to the place that speaks effectively about the thing that I’m going to photograph. So after I tried the bucket lift, and realized that that wasn’t going to get me there, I rented a few fixed wing airplanes. They were difficult to work from so I started renting helicopters. It’s interesting that when you’re doing aerial work, you never are in the same spot twice; interesting because it can be off a little higher, a little lower within 50 feet, or only 10 feet, even from a high aerial perspective, I could go click, click, click, and maybe I’m only moving 20 kilometres an hour but they’re all different pictures. I find myself shooting heavily, because there is always one that, for whatever reason, is more interesting.

It’s the Tippy-the-dog effect?

It’s the Tippy-the-dog effect.

But how do you know which one is the one?

It’s interesting. I’ve even done things here in the studio where I’d get a dozen of my staff and I’d say, “Here are 50 images, and they’re all similar theme, everybody gets sticky notes. Don’t look at the back, just put your sticky note on the back of the prints you like. Don’t look at what else is there, just pick 10 or 12 or 15.” And then we turn them all over and see if there’s something that everybody’s responding to in a similar way. More often than not, there is. I think we all see similarly, perhaps they are related to Jungian archetypes, or the collective consciousness. I believe it exists.

Inside Edward Burtynsky's office

Tell me about Rafael Goldchain, the artist you’ve selected for this series. You went to school with him. What was he like then?

We met in first year, 1976. He had just come from a kibbutz in Israel. He had a great portfolio, a good eye, and good handle of the medium. He was coming in with his entrance portfolio that was more accomplished than what I had done at that time in my life. We became lasting friends. There’s a famous curator, John Szarkowski, who wrote a book called Mirrors and Windows, and in it he categorized photographers: some of them were mapping an interior space; their own consciousness, a search for something within themselves, which is a mirror, and some seek out something in the world, a window. I always saw myself in the window department, but Rafael is very interested in the interior space, considering questions of identity and of belonging; and I think those tensions have always resided in his work. He was born in Chile, then fled Pinochet to Mexico, then the kibbutz, then on to Canada. So home was an amalgamation of these different places, and not any one of them one could he point to and say, “This is really my home, this is where I grew up, this is where I go back to.” When I go back to see my mother in St. Catharines, those streets are still familiar, that’s my home, that’s my identity. But with Rafael, it was a constant seeking, of trying to define how to live in that exile space, to define his own history and place within the world. He uses the camera to explore that interior space.

Do you think he ever envies your status as a window? Or do you wish you could be a mirror?

Not really. I think what I always ask myself is, is there an intelligent vision? Is there a rigour in the work? Let’s face it, we’re awash in images, we live in a world where billions of images are produced on a daily basis, endless selfies. So when somebody’s working with the medium and exploring ideas with depth to them, and pursuing their own way of seeing, developing their own kind of language – that, to me, is what makes an artist, and what makes a body of work rich. I think when you see an authentic body of work where somebody has pursued something and then committed to an idea and followed through on it and created something, you just look at and you know there’s something going on here, there’s something that he’s talking about that’s powerful. When you see it, you know it, and there’s a mutual respect for that. So I don’t envy him, and I’m sure he doesn’t envy me. But we do cross over, we look at the world sometimes similarly in landscape, he goes out and makes urban pictures as well, so sometimes we cross over a bit. But I think he’s found his own remarkable unique voice.

So your next project: all selfies, then?

Yes, just selfies with a stick.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Photo by Ryan Walker

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