Edward Burtynsky Gifts Career-Spanning Archive to the Ryerson Image Centre

by Photo Life
Edward Burtynsky, Self Portrait #1, 1983, chromogenic print © Edward Burtynsky/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. The Edward Burtynsky Collection, Ryerson Image Centre, Gift of the artist, 2019

The Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) announced a multi-year donation of photographs by celebrated Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, whose iconic images have brought worldwide attention to the impacts of human industry on the natural landscape. The first instalment of this gift comprises 142 photographs from the artist’s early career, a selection of which have been made public in a virtual gallery on the RIC’s website. Subsequent annual gifts will make the Toronto-based photography centre the most important global repository for the study of Burtynsky’s oeuvre.

Edward Burtynsky began his career in the late 1970s at the School of Image Arts of Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Ryerson University).

“It was important to me that my life’s work be housed in a Canadian institution, and it felt like a fitting ‘homecoming’ to entrust these works to the same place where I first developed as a photographer,” Burtynsky says. “The Ryerson Image Centre has become one of the leading museums in the world for photo historical research and has a growing collection of artist archives. I realized that there was no place I would rather have my work preserved and studied.”

Burtynsky’s first donation includes photographs made between 1976 and 1989, primarily taken at locations across Ontario and Western Canada. Many are unique, and the majority are unrepresented in other museum collections, making the RIC’s collection a critical resource for exploring the origins of the artist’s mature style.

The earliest works are the original landscape photographs and city views Burtynsky submitted to his Ryerson instructors in his first and second-year portfolios. While still in school, he began to focus on industrial sites and the relationship between humans and their environment. Rarely-seen photographs from the 1980s trace Burtynsky’s early explorations of society’s attempts to control nature—from studies of industrial greenhouses and meat-packing plants to interior views of taxidermy studios. Seen together, the photographs in this group represent Burtynsky’s evolution from classic black-and-white landscape and documentary traditions to the richly-coloured, large-format overviews of industrial sites, mines, and homesteads, and altered landscapes that first established his reputation worldwide. The donation extends to the end of the 1980s, when the artist’s first major exhibition Breaking Ground began touring museums in Canada, and he began producing his photographs in editions.

“We are thrilled to be chosen as the place that will preserve Edward Burtynsky’s work for posterity,” says Paul Roth, Director of the Ryerson Image Centre. “He is the premier photographer dealing with the issues surrounding global climate change—the critical subject of our time—and one of the most influential landscape photographers in the history of the medium. He is also a great friend of our institution, as an alumnus of Ryerson’s world-class photography program and a founding board member of the RIC. We look forward to making his life’s work accessible to students, scholars, and other audiences here in Canada and around the world.”

Each annual donation will add another chronological stage of Burtynsky’s career to the museum’s holdings until his entire career is represented. Once fully comprised, the collection will span five-plus decades of his photography on a range of subjects related to industrial manufacturing; landscapes altered for the economic exploitation of oil, water, stone, and other resources; waste and recycling; and the incursion of transportation routes and commercial and residential development into nature.

Burtynsky’s images have been widely exhibited and published around the world, and have become profoundly influential—both for photographers inspired by his arresting style and elevated viewpoints, and by mainstream audiences transfixed by his vision of humankind’s outsized impact on the environment.

Established in 1969, the RIC’s collection comprises nearly 375,000 objects, with a special focus on photojournalism and documentary photography. Research and teaching are at the heart of the RIC’s mandate and the works in the Burtynsky collection will be available for scholars, students, and the public to view by appointment at the RIC’s Peter Higdon Research Centre (currently closed until further notice due to COVID-19).

Edward Burtynsky is regarded as one of the world’s most accomplished contemporary photographers whose works are included in the collections of over 60 major museums around the world. Major (touring) exhibitions include Anthropocene (2018), Water (2013) organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art & Contemporary Art Center, Louisiana; Oil (2009) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; China (2005 five-year tour); and Manufactured Landscapes (2003), National Gallery of Canada. Film collaborations include Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006); Watermark (2013); and the third film in the trilogy, ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch which opened in theatres across Canada in October 2018 and in theatres across the US in September 2019.

Burtynsky’s distinctions include the inaugural TED Prize in 2005, which he shared with Bono and Robert Fischell; the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts; the Outreach award at the Rencontres d’Arles; the Roloff Beny Book award; and the 2018 Photo London Master of Photography Award. In 2019 he was the recipient of the Arts & Letters Award at the Canadian Association of New York’s annual Maple Leaf Ball and the 2019 Lucie Award for Achievement in Documentary Photography. Most recently he was awarded a Royal Photographic Society Honorary Fellowship (2020). He currently holds eight honorary doctorate degrees.

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