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Ed Burtynsky, one of Canada's most celebrated contemporary photographers, is speaking to me on his cellphone from a boat on New York's East River. He's there scouting a location, a patch of industrial wasteland on the riverbank near Brooklyn called Newtown Creek, and it's just the kind of locale that gets Burtynsky's creative juices flowing. "This is one of the last big industrial areas left around here," he says. "There's some nasty, nasty stuff here from the old oil and copper refineries. Exxon has left quite a legacy - a couple of hundred-thousand barrels of contaminated soil. They figure it's going to cost them $200-million (U.S.) to clean it up." His voice trails off in wonderment. It's just one of a thousand examples of short-term gain for long-term pain.

In a way, the site is not that different from the mining and manufacturing facilities Burtynsky worked in as a young man, coming of age in St. Catharines, Ont., and he has devoted the past 25 years to documenting the impact of these industries on the land. For the last five of those years, he has shifted that investigation from North America to China, the burgeoning manufacturing giant that is re-enacting the drama of capitalism on a scale never before attempted. "There is an element of this new work that is driven by autobiography," he says. "I have always wanted to shoot these giant factories. I had that desire to see where these jobs have been relocated."

For Burtynsky, who turned 50 in February, these quiet moments of looking and reflection on the East River are a welcome respite from life at full throttle. Within the last 10 days, he has opened his mammoth touring retrospective, Manufactured Landscapes, which is capping off a five-city tour at the Brooklyn Museum; he has launched commercial shows of his most recent China photographs in New York, at Charles Cowles Gallery, and in Toronto, at Nicholas Metivier Gallery (his works sell from $15,000 to $50,000 Canadian); he has met with The New Yorker magazine to talk about a possible upcoming shoot for the magazine; and he is bracing himself for next week's trip to Europe, where he will be showing the new work in London and Barcelona. All this against the backdrop of the growing digital custom photo lab in Toronto that he runs with his wife, Jeannie Baxter, Toronto Image Works. It's the kind of workload that would make the weaker among us weep, a life rich in complexity. Burtynsky is that rarest of creatures, the left-wing entrepreneur, running the business of art, and the art of business with equal ease.

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The works in these current exhibitions - gloriously vivid, exquisitely printed large-scale prints that he shoots with his 4x5 and 8x10 format cameras - pick up where his now famous images of the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze left off. The shows are accompanied by a lavish coffee-table companion book, China: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky.

Where the earlier Three Gorges pictures documented the Chinese government's epic efforts to equip itself for a capitalist future - despite the risk of environmental desecration - his more recent pictures visit, with a kind of astonishment, the factories that will be supplied by that power, revealing, among other things, the working conditions of the manual labourers and the sheer scale of their ranks.

As is often the case in Burtynsky's work, it is hard to know exactly where he stands on the subject matter he is presenting, but it is this precisely calibrated ambivalence that makes the work so interesting. Burtynsky is a photographer, after all. His job is to make us look, and think, and he succeeds at both. Still, the pictures leave you curious.

Take the cover of the new book. The image features rows of yellow-clad factory workers assembled in orderly groups in a denatured utopia of canary-yellow factory sheds. Does Burtynsky intend this image as a revisitation of the old racist theme of "the Yellow Peril" - an image of Asian automatons threatening to rob the West of its prosperity, seed carriers of a nightmarish culture of regimentation? Is he scrutinizing racism, here, or perpetuating it? In this context, undeniably, the colour yellow is highly charged.

Other pictures are equally chilling: endless acres of pink-clad workers fitted out in their masks, busily disassembling chicken parts (an image of industrialized animal husbandry that triggers post-SARS Western fears about viral epidemics, not to mention animal rights); workers' housing apartment blocks with the inhabitants' clothing (all eerily similar) hanging on outdoor lines to dry; a shift change at the Yuyuan Shoe Factory, featuring a river of humanity large enough to rival the crowd at Times Square on New Year's Eve. It's an Orwellian universe of strictly regulated collective effort on a scale that is unimaginable, and - to my eye at least - it's scary. I think of the traditional art-historical definition of the sublime: a mixture of beauty, terror and awe.

"It tells me a lot about the viewer, when I see how you interpret it," Burtynsky says, when I ask him to talk about the yellow picture. "The Chinese workers in those factories are very proud of where they work, and with good reason - if pride can rightly be taken in the efficiency of a manufacturing system. The West has built itself on the idea of efficiency. The Chinese are just doing what we did, but with a vengeance. I refer to Shanghai as capitalism on steroids. These are amazing things to behold."

And what about the colour yellow? "I didn't miss the fact that yellow is a very predominant racial cliché," he says, "but to me the shot was more about the vastness, and it just happened to be yellow. I thought this was an interesting coincidence." After a pause, he adds: "That they chose that colour, too, was interesting to me."

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As always, Burtynsky fields questions about the darker interpretations of his work without defensiveness, seeming a lot less scared than fascinated by what he has observed in China. One senses in him a weariness with Western liberal oversimplification and black-and-white thinking. Asked about human-rights violations in China, for example, he answers somewhat dispassionately: "There are 1.3-billion people living in China. How do you stop a population that large from forming into rival groups and tearing itself apart? I don't think we can tell them how to do that."

What the pictures reveal, he says, is not an indictment but simply visual evidence that, in China, "you have a Communist party running a capitalist system," and that's bound to produce some strange effects. "Capitalism does not breed consensus. It is more anarchic - it's every man for himself and may the best man win. In communism, there is this deep commitment to the idea of the collective project."

So far, he says, the Communist government has been able to engineer an economy that is also producing new wealth for the people, but this success depends on this factor of the itinerant, displaced and willing worker - an army of more than 130 million at latest reckoning. "As long as the government is achieving economic growth, they will be able to hold on to power," he says.

The factories he has photographed are "the largest and proudest new industries in China today" - such as the Deda chicken processing plant in Jilin province; the Cankun factory, which makes domestic irons and coffee-makers in Xiamen city; and Bao Steel in Shanghai. Burtynsky gained access to these sites (and to a number of older, dilapidated ones) only through the intervention of the Chinese department of external affairs, making the argument that this pivotal point in China's history must be documented. "It's like that moment in the U.S. in the thirties and forties when the Hoover Dam and all the roads and bridges were built," he says. "Great expansion, fuelled by an abundance of cheap and willing labour. I came to understand that we don't have images to go with what we hear about manufacturing in China. There has been no visual record."

Currently, Burtynsky says, 32 hydro-electric dams are under construction in China, not including the Three Gorges project. The roads and highways now being built within its borders could circle the equator seven times.

The citizens, he says, are mobilizing massively to fuel this economic growth, drawn by the opportunity of gainful work. Over the next 10 to 15 years, some 400-million people will move from the countryside into the cities. "That's the combined population of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico," Burtynsky says.

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But many of these manufacturing jobs are in industries that have been relocated to China from the West, often for environmental reasons and at great health cost to the Chinese people - such as the waste from the electronics industry. Eighty per cent of North American "e-waste" goes off shore, and 90 per cent of that ends up in China. "Salvaging is a cottage industry," he says, often done by hand in rural communities, resulting in contamination from cadmium, mercury and lead.

"I found out about this by accident," Burtynsky says, "when I returned to a site in Ontario that I had shot before: 25 acres of e-waste beside the Highway 20, just outside of Hamilton. I went back a year later because I wanted to rent a lift and take a picture of it from up high, to get a sense of the scale, but it had all vanished. When I asked where it was, I was told it had been sold and shipped in containers to China."

Since the Basel Convention of 1989, it has become illegal for a richer nation to ship its toxic substances to a developing nation for recycling or disposal. "But it is still happening just as it always has," Burtynsky says. "The only difference now is that it can't be shown. It's all optics."

Burtynsky's Toronto show includes photographs of mounds of discarded telephone dials and circuit boards. Taking these pictures got Burtynsky into one of several scrapes with the Chinese police, who also detained him for shooting "the holdouts," the crumbling older neighbourhoods in Shanghai and other cities that are now surrounded by high-rises. He had shot many other such areas without incident; but Shanghai had recently been the stage for a municipal corruption scandal that was reported in the papers, so it was a sensitive subject.

Not long ago, he says, these sorts of heated negotiations between the city and the developers (on one side) and the residents (on the other) would have been unthinkable. "Five years ago, they would have just sent in the bulldozers and said, 'Get out.'"

But the coming of the Olympics to Beijing in 2008, and the World's Fair in Shanghai in 2010, are fuelling the relaxing of government controls in the major urban centres. "When the Olympics come," he says, "they know there will be more than 4,000 international journalists here. They realize that they are going to have to able to accommodate dissenting opinions."

Democracy, though, may ultimately spring from a somewhat less obvious source. "I was in Wuhan back in 2002, while I was making the Three Gorges pictures," Burtynsky remembers, "when I saw the first billboard there advertising an insurance company." The sight of it came as a shock. "I asked the guide who was with me how long these companies had existed in China and he said 'Only a few years.'" Now, Burtynsky says, these billboards are everywhere.

"The rise of the insurance industry in China is a result of the sudden and growing need to protect private property, and the rights of the owner," he continues, ever the pragmatist. "With this, you get the rise of a class of lawyers who are paid to interpret the work of the insurance industry, to protect those personal rights. Eventually, the idea of protecting human rights will flow from this defence of personal property rights," he says. "It's not going to come from some edict at the UN."

Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky continues at the Brooklyn Museum until Jan. 15. Burtynsky - China continues at Nicholas Metivier Gallery, in Toronto, until Oct. 22 (416-205-9000).

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