Review: China by Edward Burtynsky


Book Reviews

The success of the Chinese government to transform their country into something highly industrialized and economically powerful can hardly be denied. As a direct consequence, environmental problems in China have exploded, and if the country continues its current course, the consequences for itself and for the whole planet will be desastrous. Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed contains enough details in one of the final chapters, and there is no need (or space) to repeat them here.

Of course, there are those who will ask: Who are we to lecture other people about what to do with their environment if we have been such bad offenders ourselves? While this is not a bad point, it also partly comes close to arguing that if we see child reaching out for a pot of boiling water we must not tell that child not to touch the pot if we ourselves burned ourselves in the past. But of course, reality is always more complicated than simple talking points, which is why vast portions of our societies decided to abandon reality and inconvenient facts altogether to live by pipe dreams, delusions, and outright fantasies.

Those who do want to know more and who are not satisfied with mere descriptions such as those in Jared Diamond’s book might want to have a look at Edward Burtynsky’s China. Before turning his attention to China, Edward Burtynsky documented the destruction of our natural environment by taking large-scale photos of quarries, landfills, oil fields and many other ugly aspects of our highly industrialized life styles. China continues that tradition.

In my opinion, China might represent the best that contemporary photography has to offer. It combines high quality photography with a commentary about our world. I am aware of the fact that there will be many who will complain about this, the complaint being that there are so many bad things in the world and on the news each day that “one” just wants to see something else. I am not sure that is a very good complaint to make, and I suspect many people who voice this complaint actually never have a look at all the “bad news” anyway - just like, for example, people who constantly complain about hard work usually don’t really do any hard work at all.

In any case, China - a book not all that much bigger than the 8x10 negatives from which the images were printed - contains many utterly stunning photographs, with a wide variety of topics, some of them repeating Edward Burtynsky’s earlier imagery. The impact of the sheer size and resolution of the photos is hard to describe in words. There is an overabundant amount of detail in each and every one of the photos, and you can spend quite a bit of time looking at just a single one - which shows that larger formats can indeed result in larger impact - provided there is a photographer present who knows how to take good photos. Edward Burtynsky is one of them. China has quite easily become one of my favourite photography books.