In an interminably long opening shot, a camera rolls by row upon row of Chinese workers in an enormous factory complex. This sequence demonstrates extraordinary access to a closely guarded world, as foreign journalists covering the recent spate of Chinese product recalls can attest.
But director Jennifer Baichwal completed her 2006 documentary before relations soured between Chinese industrialists and the world media, and the fact she captured a transitory moment of history meshes perfectly with the philosophy of her film's subject, Edward Burtynsky.
The Canadian photographer has made a specialty of revealing the hidden splendor in landscapes manufactured by massive earthworks projects such as quarries and mines. These are places most people view as solid and immovable, but Burtynsky knows they're actually fleeting and temporary, worlds in constant transition.
Manufactured Landscapes follows him to the new industrial terrain of a booming China, a country seeking to do in a generation what it took the United States a century to accomplish. The rapid shift from rural agricultural villages to massive industrial cities is having a huge impact on the environment, and Burtynsky has repeatedly visited China to observe the country taking great leaps forward into the 21st century.
As Baichwal (Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles) reveals, Burtynsky finds a haunting beauty in what most people would consider industrial blight. His richly detailed photographs range from overviews of immense projects such as the Three Gorges Dam to close-ups of e-waste remnants coating the soil, and each image manages to be at once hyper-real and abstract.
In sporadic voiceover narration, Burtynsky explains that while he was motivated to explore this subject matter by ecological concerns, he seeks to maintain a kind of aesthetic neutrality, letting the work spark discussion without demanding that viewers automatically take sides.
Despite this objectivity, what Burtynsky does isn't photojournalism: He coordinates people in his shots to get the maximum effect, like gathering those workers seen in the film's opening outside their factory, their uniform yellow jumpsuits matching the cheery color of the surrounding buildings.
Landscapes doesn't quite get a handle on Burtynsky's paradoxical nature, and it falters badly when trying to explain shifts in Chinese society. But it is a great introduction to the work of a driven artist with an unerring eye. By lovingly documenting what he fears most (the decimation of the natural world), Burtynsky's work serves as the iconography of progressive destruction.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Oct. 5-6, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 7. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.