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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.

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"Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption, and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction," Burtynsky writes in his gallery statement. "For me these images function as reflecting pools of our times."

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Jost predicts that viewers will "come for the Adams [photographs] and leave talking about Burtynsky." Burtynsky's images, he says, are counterpoints to Adams's pristine landscapes, which do not visually address globalization.

By juxtaposing Adams and Burtynsky, Jost attempts to present a simplified "continuum" between nature and industry. "I'm not sure where people should live on that continuum," the curator says. "But I'm trying to provoke a conversation."

In reality, landscape photographers have always oscillated along the nature-industry continuum. Jost explains that early American landscape photographers were documenting both nature and human impacts on nature as early as the mid-19th century, when railroad companies and the US government paid them to record track construction and undeveloped land.

Ansel Adams and Edward Burtynsky are part of that tradition. While Adams served on the board of the Sierra Club and loved to photograph the Sierra Nevada, he also accepted commissions from U.S. Potash, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and the Kennecott Copper Corporation;. Today Burtynsky photographs industrial activity with permission from companies, and, according to Jost, his work is praised by both environmentalists and CEOs.

Unfortunately, "Constructed Land­scapes" doesn't include any of the industrial photographs that Adams produced – images that may have established a stronger visual link between the featured photographers. Jost says he considered including Adams's industrial photos, but worried that they might have "raised another group of questions that I wasn't trying to raise" about the photographer's legacy.

Still, Adams's industrial side pokes through in "Cemetery Statue and Oil Derricks, Long Beach, California," a 1939 photograph in which oil derricks form a faint backdrop for a stark white statue. Jost claims that the print, a clear departure from Adams's sublime landscapes, "quietly undermines the polarity of the exhibit."

Another surprise: When Adams photographed "Dunes, Oceano, California, from Portfolio IV, 1963," one of his clients, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, was proposing to build a nuclear power plant in the Oceano area – over fierce opposition from factions of the Sierra Club.

After negotiating with the club, the company eventually agreed to build the plant in a different, but nearby, location. Adams, a longtime Sierra Club board member, supported the compromise, but other members claimed their organization was selling out to corporate interests. Adams urged compromise, suggesting that nuclear was a better alternative than fossil fuels.

In a 1969 letter to the editor of a Sierra Club newsletter, Adams sounds a bit Burtynskyan: "I wish all members of the Sierra Club could realize they live in a different world than that of John Muir!" he wrote, defending his decision to support the nuclear proposal. "The problems are immense. An adult attitude towards all the forces of society is imperative."

The letter suggests that Adams, like Burtynsky, understood the need to balance an appreciation for nature with an awareness of modern realities. Indeed, says Jost, while Adams has been canonized as a nature photographer, "He's much broader and [more] interesting than people realize."

If this exhibit hints at a broader Adams, it also celebrates Burtynsky's nuanced ecological sensibility. In a back room of the gallery, four Burtynsky photographs document the "shipbreaking" of a tanker in Bangladesh. The color prints could be stock footage for a shipping company. But upon closer inspection, the series shows a ship's transition from disrepair to reuse – a kind of mechanical life cycle.

Jost says the photographs express "seasonality," a word that normally describes spring showers and fall foliage. Perhaps that is Burtynsky's point: At a moment when the largest oil spill in American history looms off Louisiana's coastline, his photographs remind us that natural forces inform even noxious industrial processes.

Because we have to live on this planet, Burtynsky seems to say, we should appreciate landscapes no matter how tarnished they appear.