I still remember the weight of my jaw dropping when I first saw Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtynsky’s landmark photo book from 2003. I’d studied with Ed at Ryerson and knew his work but this was stuff of a different order. He’d found his calling. His photographs captured the impact of industry on the landscape, but they did so neither from a stance of celebration nor indictment. I liked that about it. There was beauty in these brute, manufacturing incursions, but much of it, they seemed to proclaim, was necessary. It would have been easier just to indict manufacturing outright with images like Uranium Tailings #12.  Yet even that image was as beautiful as it was sad.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon Songs of the Future, the AGO’s collection of over 100 like-minded photographers from the permanent collection. I was completely ignorant of our 150 year old tradition of industrial photography, blending environment, industry, landscape, wonder, beauty and design. George Hunter’s stunning dye transfer prints, in particular, foreshadow Burtynsky’s work in their balance between the impact of industry and the beauty of the landscapes despite – or perhaps more accurately – because of their presence. His high angle 1954 photo of Hamilton’s steel mills struck me for their common aesthetic and perhaps their common concerns. Here it is, above Uranium Tailings #9 by Burtynsky.

Among the works on display is a wonderful, 100 year old book that documents the paper production process in Newfoundland.  J.C.M. Hayward’s photo album for the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company includes gelatin silver prints that still glow. Here’s one of them, Pulp at Bothwood, a typical industrial photograph in that it features the equipment, stacks of the product and the thing that makes it all possible – the railway – at its focal point.

STAN DOUGLAS’ False Creek Flats is one of the more famous photos in the collection. But though it resides at the Tate and other great galleries, I don’t see how it “contrasts the transient (shipping containers) with nature, exposing Vancouver” as a “staging ground for … global trade and the film industry. ” You tell me – a disunited work or an insightful piece of art? 

Sorry, I prefer a work of art to speak for itself rather than be just one component of an idea.

Songs of the Future mostly succeeds in delivering the simple aesthetic experience I prefer.  And it’s interesting!

It’s on at the AGO until April 29, 2012

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