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Nature Transformed: Edward Burtynsky's Vermont Quarry Photographs in Context

Art New England, July/August 2012


Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College  
Curated by Juliette Bianco and Pieter Broucke
Hanover, New Hampshire
April 21 through August 19

By Craig Stockwell

Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer, is known for his grand scale photographs of monumental settings. This exhibition takes an interesting step back to re-consider his Vermont quarry photographs from the early 90s. In taking this step back we are able to see an artist forming a sensibility, a method and a project. We also witness the curatorial voice entering into this re-consideration to successfully move the artistic project into a larger consideration of place.

The experience of viewing these large photographs proceeds through layers. The first encounter is with wonderful abstract patterning. From the patterning vivid color begins to emerge: the color of rock, stains, quarry ponds, and a touch of sky or trees in fall foliage. These photographs read remarkably flat for the vertiginous subject matter of deep open quarries that they present. The quarries themselves emerge in the streaks and colors of the various rock layers, and the cuts and breakage of the quarrying. And, after the initial rush of viewing pure formal pleasure, the evidence of working activity comes into consideration…cable lines, ladders, machinery, detritus. This brings the viewer to the activity itself, the incredible effort of removing blocks of stone from the earth. The evidence of labor emerges in details such as the long descent of vulnerable ladders; or, a single port-a-potty sitting in the vastness. This is work, the quarrying, of incredible scale, beauty and violence. Burtynsky has captured this complexity with technical perfection, an eye for color and pattern, and what appears to be a growing interest and empathy for the human effort involved. It appears that it was somewhere within this particular study of Vermont quarries that Burtynsky found his content and the methods to achieve it. A large format camera is used to produce these digital chromogenic prints. 

The curatorial hand here has done a fine job of extending the experience of the photographs into a wider consideration of the Vermont quarrying operations, the sociology of the Italian immigrant stone cutters, the geology of Vermont, and the environmental impact of gouging at the earth. The curators have also allowed us to witness and re-consider the forming of an artist.