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Burtynsky’s Street Transactions

The Edward Burtynsky documentary “Manufactured Landscapes” has now reached wide release, or wide enough to bring it here. The substance of the film doesn’t differ from (or significantly expand upon) his TED lecture which made the rounds when TED began to make their presentations available online. Unlike “War Photographer” or the Eggleston doc, “Manufactured Landscapes” isn’t a portrait of an artist, it’s more of a glorified slideshow.

I like Burtynsky’s work well enough (yes, it’s not street photography) but I was most surprised to see the two sequences in which his assistant is shown paying people to be in the pictures. Specifically, this one:

Right after, there’s a scene where Burtynsky’s assistant pays a man carrying firewood. You get the feeling that the payment was given because each man was halted from what they’d been doing, and asked to do it again, for the benefit of a photograph. Services were rendered. It’s polite to pay for that, no?

Sanctimoniousness isn’t flattering, but I’ve always looked at these images as documentary, and they’re not, necessarily. Yes, Burtynsky may be using available light, but his frames are staged, including these from the 3-Gorges project, and the Chinese factory pictures. I like how large-format photographers tend to see this as the cost of doing business — that the format necessitates a deliberateness, a slowness with the set-up that lends itself to staging/stage craft. And to question that set-up is really beyond the point - it’s the final image that matters, right?

In my mind, no. There’s something about the photograph above that feels lessened, after learning it was staged. You might say more is manufactured than just the landscape in Burtynsky’s work. Documentary images needn’t always be candid, but I always thought payment was a no no.

To the filmmaker’s credit, they included the scenes that reveal these payments in their edit. To Burtynsky’s credit, he’s recreating scenes to show them as they actually are, on the street or in the factory. Perhaps. It’s a fine line and a not so fine line, isn’t it?

Tag: Tidbits