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:
manufactured_landscapes_big

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?

13 thoughts on “Burtynsky’s Street Transactions”

  1. Of course it matters if the shots are set up! Who stages large format work and calls it reportage? Just interested. How’s about Meyerowitz’s 9-11 large format work? Staged? I doubt it.
    S

  2. There is a tradition of documentary photography outside of what is commonly known as “photojournalism.” Take a look at the following photograph, taken in Ural Mountains by Prokudin-Gorsky in 1909 during an expedition to document Russia: wikipedia link. Because Prokudin-Gorsky had to take three subsequent exposures to create a color image, the photograph absolutely had to be staged. I suppose that even if one exposure were to be taken, the speed of available film at the time would still require staging. Yet as a result we have a beautifully composed photograph that shows quite clearly what life was like in a distant region of the empire.

    I suppose Prokudin-Gorsky also paid the subjects. That would be a courteous thing to do. Yet neither staging nor the thought of subjects being paid for the shot lessens my appreciation of this photo.

  3. “Documentary images needn’t always be candid, but I always thought payment was a no no.”

    Why should paying people be a ‘no no’ as you put it? Why shouldn’t people be allowed to charge photographers for taking their time, intruding on their space, and using their likeness? I don’t get it. Should the people just allow photographers to come in, make their images, and leave? Should they not care how images of their lives and realities are put to use? Why?

    I heard this ‘no payment’ line from another doc photographer who was doing work in Kenya. He was going around taking pics with a western missionary program. He said that some people asked to be paid, and he sounded pretty irked that they had the nerve to do so–as if they don’t have any say in the matter. Now he’s posting his stuff online and calling himself a documentary photographer, without even having consent from most of the people pictured. That’s a problem, IMO.

    There are certain ethical issues in contemporary doc film and photography that need some serious attention, if you ask me.

  4. ryan a, people can charge photographers whatever they want. That’s not my beef. If subjects ask to be paid, there are two ethical options for photographers; pay them, or don’t photograph them.

    The Burtynsky example is more complicated, though. Shooting with a large format camera necessitates pre-arranging something with your subject, rather than the subject asking for payment (after the fact, or right before the shutter’s clicked).

    I’m not making a “no payment line” like your Kenya example. I’m saying I admire Burtynsky’s pictures a little less, knowing there was collusion and payment between photographer and subject. They’ve lost a bit of their spontaneous, documentary glow, that’s all.

  5. The ‘problem’ is that you’re saying that your opinion of Burtynsky’s work is lessened because you thought of them as documentary. But I don’t think Ed Burtynsky does think of them strictly in that sense and so there is no inherent dishonesty in how he composes the shots.

    From the statement on Burtynsky’s site:

    “These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.” – Ed Burtynsky

    I think that “metaphors” and “reflecting pools” clearly place his work outside strict documentary I’d say.

    There’s also the notion that documentary images are not truths in and of themselves and that the somewhat constructed image might still present a form of truth.

  6. Hey, good discussion here!

    Davin, I can’t recall ever reading an artist’s statement to try and reconcile what I think of the work. I should try that. Whether or not someone considers their work as metaphor, a reflecting pool, or documentary doesn’t interest me as much as looking at what a particular image is and knowing (or not being able to know!) how it was created.

    I have a practioner’s interest, rather than that of a gallerist.

    That said, there’s a steep and slippery slope that descends from documentary’s chairlift, and it’s littered with moguls. If you have enough money, you can buy the best skis, have the best lessons, train at St. Moritz, and maybe even pay the snowcat man to groom a nice little trail for you around the black diamonds.

    There’s no limit to what money can do, and I don’t like being reminded of that fact. Burtynsky’s view above, rather than being a unique glimpse, feels practiced, a little plastic. Purchased. No implicit dishonesty, perhaps, but as a viewer, I still feel like the wool’s crept over my eyes – even if I’m the one who’s pulled it there.

    (In the end, someone could make a value statement about the educational benefits of people learning about the destruction of the cities in 3-Gorges far outweighing the cost or ethical implications of Burtynsky making picture(s) there.)

  7. MDM:

    “I’m saying I admire Burtynsky’s pictures a little less, knowing there was collusion and payment between photographer and subject. They’ve lost a bit of their spontaneous, documentary glow, that’s all.”

    I see where you’re going, although I’m not sure I would agree with the use of the word ‘collusion’ (which alludes to secret or fraudulent activities).

    This post has me looking up the meaning of the word documentary–it seems to mean different things to many different people. But it’s clear that there is considerable debate about what constitutes documentary work.

    I guess I’m wondering how you would define the term documentary.

    “The Burtynsky example is more complicated, though. Shooting with a large format camera necessitates pre-arranging something with your subject, rather than the subject asking for payment (after the fact, or right before the shutter’s clicked).”

    So are you saying that ‘documentary’ work can’t be achieved, as you understand it, with large format cameras? Why is it a problem for a subject to be aware of the camera, aware of the process of documentation? To me, a more collaborative way of working seems pretty promising.

    I don’t know. I guess I’m trying to really figure out what’s bothering you about this particular example you’re writing about. You’re calling them staged, but then all photographs are interpretive, manufactured, highly selective representations of reality.

    Thanks though for bringing up this discussion. It’s right in line with things I have been reading about lately…

  8. Hey Davin…

    “I think that “metaphors” and “reflecting pools” clearly place his work outside strict documentary I’d say.”

    How do you define ‘strict documentary’?

    “There’s also the notion that documentary images are not truths in and of themselves and that the somewhat constructed image might still present a form of truth.”

    A photograph from a hill with a camera–whether or not the man hauling the firewood notices what’s going on or not–is still a highly constructed image, IMO.

  9. I think the AP and NPPA might have some professional issues with Burtynsky’s pix but I’m left kind of scratching my head on your reaction, Michael.

    EB is making a particular kind of picture, a particular kind of object. It is made in a very different way from the sort of “pure” Leica-toting pretend-I’m-not-here documentary, but the pictures — at least the prints — have a radically different sort of effect, too. If EB gets someone to agree to stand here, or to look there, is he asking them to do something that’s NOT characteristic? Not that I’ve seen. And crucially, while the human presence in a photo always carries huge weight no matter how small it is, ultimately EB pix are on a massive scale — the fact that his subjects always dwarf the individual humans who may be within them is a key part of their message, whether it’s his shipbreakers, Chinese assembly-plant workers, miners, etc etc.

    Do you have the same diminishment of admiration, say, for Simon Norfolk?

  10. I don’t generally jump to the artist’s statement to qualify my own emotional or intellectual reactions to their work. I went looking for something in Burtynsky’s own words because you were implying that he considered his images as documentary and I had assumed otherwise. Not that the images don’t “document,” because they certainly do, but that Burtynsky doesn’t see himself as a “Documentary Photographer” by practice.

    In terms of money and privilege (and exclusive snowcat access) I would think that the likely small amounts of money paid to subjects is nothing stacked up against the money required to transport large format equipment and stock around China. So I don’t really buy the argument that there is some form of privilege perverting the documentary process (as it stands) in his case.

    Ryan: Maybe I should have said, “a more strictly defined documentary.” My point being that it seemed like Michael was taking somewhat of a purist documentary stance. I absolutely agree that the basic act of choosing subjects and framing is a construction regardless of how vérité a practice might be otherwise.

    But I’m no purest in that sense and so I really do believe in the ability of constructed/edited reality to say ‘truthful’ things. It’s a subjective ‘truth’ but so are most really.

  11. Hey, I wanted to thank you guys for chiming-in on this. The discussion has been valuable and enlightening. (Meaning, I’m probably wrong. But like I said, sanctimoniousness ain’t flattering.)

    I like Brian’s comment, too, which points toward a long history of this kind of stuff in photography. Though I have to admit, I’d be bummed if I saw Brian paying his subjects to pose in pictures like this. Say it ain’t so!

    I’m definitely erring on the small-camera-street-shooter side of things, as KB said. It’s my frame of reference. I tend to liken docu-esque photographers who pay strangers to be in their pictures as equal to street photographers who take pictures of the homeless. It’s a money =’s power relationship, right? Didn’t we learn all that in high school?

    Perhaps this purist knee-jerk of mine can be tamed with meds. It’s annoying, for sure.

    KB, if I found out that Simon Norfolk paid all these people to stand in their well-composed spots for this picture, I’d like his work a little less, too.

    Davin, I didn’t mean to sound clipped about the artist statement — you’re right, EB doesn’t bill himself as a documentarian, precisely, so you can’t really blame him for traveling with a money clip. And we’re all in agreement that he recreates situations that definitely exist in real life – he just needs to stop them or reframe them for the benefit of the camera.

    I’m unclear where this all equals out, but I’m glad I aired a bias of mine and that you guys jumped-in and tried to teach me something. Here’s to the back & forth…

  12. No real ‘teaching’ implied. The issues are pretty wide open really. Just like any time you try to nail down something specific about artistic practice, that ol’ subjectivity gets in the mix pretty quickly.

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