Fotofreo: Edward Burtynsky
The images in this book are remarkable for three reasons. The first is, quite literally, the most obvious: the subject matter itself. For these lines and curves, textures and colours, mounds and depressions are writ into the land on a vast scale. Whatever the ideological lens through which one views them they are a powerful invocation of humankind’s capabilities; sublime in their awe inspiring beauty.
The second remarkable aspect of these images is implicit within the treatment of the subject matter. Edward Burtynsky’s extensive exploration of the visual aesthetics of the manufactured landscape involves a subtle balance of photographic virtuosity and interpretive reticence. They reveal but they do not instruct. The artist’s oft-quoted description of the great pits created in the search for minerals to service the global economy as ‘inverted pyramids’ emphasises that these are feats of both civil engineering and cultural expression. And, like the pyramid of Giza, the oldest wonder of the ancient world and the only one to survive to modern times, their complexity of meaning is as great as their potential for longevity. Burtynsky distils this expansive state of being into the two-dimensional moment of the photograph while losing none of the sense of scale, import or involution.
The third remarkable aspect of these photographs is not to be seen in the images themselves, but understood through the story of their making. For they are the result of a commission by the small but increasingly influential Australian photography festival: FotoFreo.
Since the establishment of Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles and 1960s scores of photo festivals have sprung up around the globe. Some are compact like Tampere or Braga. Some spread out through a metropolis like Paris or Mexico City. Some primarily engage their local community like Naarden or Odense. Some operate like international business conventions such as Cologne or Houston. FotoFreo, at six years old, is but a stripling and yet it stands amid the Goliaths of the international photo-festival scene like David, fleet and with an eye firmly on the future.
They may be located on the outskirts of ‘the world’s most isolated city’ but the organisers of FotoFreo have a considerable sophistication in their understanding of the current state of the international photography scene. Those with a truly international perspective see this clearly. Trent Parke, Australia’s only member of the renowned Magnum photo agency, has gone on record as saying: “The FotoFreo organisers are very on the ball with the international photographers they choose – often presenting them ahead of major shows in London or New York. And they get the movers and shakers of the world to come to Australia. FotoFreo opens people’s eyes and minds to what is going on.”
One of those movers and shakers was Susan Bright, author of the influential Thames and Hudson book Art Photography Now and curator of the recent blockbuster Who We Are – the Tate Britain’s first ever photo show. Now based in New York, she recalls FotoFreo as not only “the friendliest festival I have ever been to” but also that “the organisers are very aware of the international photography scene. They are ahead of the game.”
It is one thing to have insight, another to act upon it. The commissioning of new work by established festivals is rare; their focus falling rather upon the juxtaposition of extant exhibits, albeit of new work. I know of none that have commissioned a body of work involving such a major international artist and high-stake mode of production. If they do exist they are certainly rare, the province of large and well-funded events. This ambitious Burtynsky commission is all the more surprising then when one considers that FotoFreo 08 and its three predecessors have had no paid administration: they were run wholly by volunteers.
Landscape has had a consistently important place within the range of genres shown at FotoFreo. In the work of Edward Burtynsky the organisers saw a new way to explore the subject that was both global in its context and firmly local in its subject. Bob Hewitt, the festival’s main volunteer coordinator, has a background in mining and a pragmatic approach to getting things done. This, combined with a robust Australian ‘have a go’ attitude saw the development of an audacious plan involving the world’s largest mining company, Australia’s biggest open-cut gold mine, one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary photographers and over two million square kilometres of Australian desert.
The result transcends the period of the festival event to create a lasting legacy: a body of work that engages the art of photography to speak of worldly matters. Photo festivals – the good ones – are about more than a heap shows and a bunch of people. They are places where photographers and the wider community can meet and … well … commune. The best festivals do not attempt the airport-lounge neutrality of generalised internationalism but found their event on the nature of place, engendering a sense of locatedness. Indeed, festivals such as FotoFreo engage that most contemporary of ideas: that, in a globalised world, we are not reduced to lowest-common-denominator clones in a sea of uniformity but rather that globalisation is played out as a networking of diverse communities – a meshing of the discrete and the specific into a global conversation.
Gael Newton, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, has said that she believes FotoFreo has the potential to become a major calendar event in the Asia Pacific region – the area of her own specialist expertise. Projects such as the commissioning of Edward Burtynsky’s Australian Minescapes are proof of this potential. In a networked world leadership springs from imaginative vision and gritty resolve far more than proximity to power. The metropolis is no longer the centre of the artistic universe – weighed down by sheer gravitational mass it collapses into myopic self-regard. Like spinifex, it is on the edge of the cultural organism that new growth is found.
This essay was first published in Edward Burtynsky: Australian Minescapes (Western Australian Museum 2009). This lavishly illustrated monograph (cover shown above) can be purchased here.
For further information on Fotofreo go here.