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Edward Burtynsky and Ansel Adams: A pairing of devastation and beauty

In a new exhibition, Ansel Adams's iconic nature images are contrasted with Edward Burtynsky's industrial scapes of rock quarries, coal heaps, and rusty ships.

By Mike IvesContributor / July 23, 2010

‘Tailings #30, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996,’ by Edward Burtynsky.

Courtesy of Hasted Hunt Kraeutler/Nicholas Metivier Gallery/Shelburne Museum

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Shelburne, Vt.

Last month, Stephan Jost felt jittery, not because he was curating the Shelburne Museum's inaugural photography exhibit, but because the exhibit presents more than 60 prints by 20th-century American photographer Ansel Adams and contemporary Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky – artists whose respective works, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed.

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"Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky: Constructed Landscapes," which runs through Oct. 24 at the Vermont museum, features four rooms of Adams's signature black-and-white wilderness photographs and three rooms of Burtynsky's color photographs of rock quarries, coal heaps, and rusty ships in North America and Asia.

"This pairing makes both of them look better," says Mr. Jost. "It makes Adams more interesting and relevant, and it makes Burtynsky look aesthetically stronger, because he can stand up to Adams's work."

When Adams died in 1984, he left a formidable legacy: The San Francisco native's photographs of the American West promoted photography as a fine-art medium and created iconic visuals for the American conservation movement. In a 2001 introduction to a major Adams retrospective, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art called him "one of the century's great modern artists."

Adams's photos are small – typically the size of a legal pad – but he captures landscapes and nature scenes in a way that simultaneously conjures aesthetic themes of 19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century Modernism.

In "Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, California, 1944," for example, snowcapped peaks recall writings by 19th-century naturalist John Muir, a cofounder of the Sierra Club. Meanwhile, a dramatic contrast between the peaks and an ominous black foreground reflects Adams's aesthetic affinities with such fellow Modernists as the photographer Paul Strand and the painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

Burtynsky's self-styled "residual landscapes" impress for different reasons. The washing-machine-sized prints document scenes from contemporary factories, shipyards, and oil fields, forcing us to ponder connections and tensions between material consumption, industry, and ecology. Viewers not familiar with Burtynsky's photos or "Manufactured Landscapes," the award-winning 2006 documentary film that chronicles his globe-trotting, may be equally saddened and cheered by the devastation and beauty he captures in such desolate environments.

"Is that coal?" one incredulous visitor asked on a recent afternoon as she pondered Burtynsky's "Tanggu Port #1, 2005," a bird's-eye view of a sprawling coal port in Tianjin, China, where heaps of coal vaguely resemble forested hills.

Burtynsky's most provocative photograph in the exhibit may be "Tailings #30, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996," a pastoral landscape tainted by bright-orange nickel residue. Although Burtynsky photographed the industrial effluent in his native Canada, it brings to mind the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills – and their impact on marine ecosystems.

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