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Jennifer Baichwal's film about Edward Burtynsky shows his photographic project showing the effects of modernization and industrialization in contemporary China. So it is both about him and about the subject of his work. Burtynsky's photography is beautiful even when it is showing the landscape being scarred and old buildings being destroyed. Baichwall shows the ecological concerns behind Burtynsky's work, and in doing so she supplements and changes his project. Many of Burtynsky's photographs are visually arresting: he has been working on the effects of human endeavors on landscapes for a couple of decades, and often his pictures seem very artistic and aesthetic; they are far from the familiar genre of documentary photo. The photographs when they are displayed in exhibitions are large, showing large expanses of land or building, and the printing is extremely detailed, so one can spend a long time on each work just looking at all the small details one can see. This fascination that the pictures generate is in tension with the moral disapproval that one generally expects to experience on seeing the destruction of nature. Hearing Burtynsky discuss the pictures in his commentary over stills bears out the sense of moral neutrality one sees in his work; he does not get angry or outraged, and he is mainly interested in the power of the image.
Baichwal's documentary clearly aims to duplicate many of Burtynsky's images with its own camerawork; this is done both when simply accompanying him as he takes his pictures, and also in consciously replicating some of his earlier images. Yet at the same time, it also gives more emphasis to the health problems caused by new technology, and the control of the press in China. One understands some of Burtynsky's motivations better as a result, but he says very little about his artistic motivations in the documentary. He says a little more in his commentary on the stills of his photographs, but even there his main focus is on the geographical and industrial facts about the effects of urbanization in China, as if he were purely a documentary photographer. So one is left to wonder about the creative process behind his choices.
Nevertheless, Manufactured Landscapes is an excellent introduction to Burtnysky's work. The early scenes in the film showing massive factories are stunning, simply because of the scale of the places. The same is true for the massive Three Gorges Dam, which is simply massive: to construct the dam, 13 cities were flattened. The various other scenes in the film reveal other fascinating information about how quickly China is changing. So it is a very informative DVD; yet there's very little commentary in the documentary, and there are points where the speech of the Chinese people is not even subtitled. There are periods of time where there is no dialog, and we only hear the rather gloomy atmospheric electronic music that runs through the whole documentary. This sets the film apart from regular documentaries, echoing Burtnysky's separation from documentary photography. The extras are varied but quite substantial. The deleted scenes are interesting, especially with Baichwal's commentaries, and Burtnysky's commentaries on his own work give far more information about his process than is available on his website or in his books. This DVD will appeal to those interested in modern photography and those who are environmentally conscious.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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