Jennifer Baichwal Talks About Collaborating with Edward Burtynsky

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Before she was approached to make a documentary about the work of Edward Burtynsky, filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal had known of and followed the landscape photographer’s work for years. The collaboration between the two visual artists resulted in the widely acclaimed Manufactured Landscapes, distributed by Zeitgeist Films, and lead to a second collaboration, Watermark, which is currently on the festival circuit. This interview focuses primarily on the making of Manufactured Landscapes, one of my favorite documentaries. Read more…

“I was amazed by the capacity of Ed’s photographs, because of their ambiguity, to raise questions about your own impact on the planet in terms of sustainability,” Baichwal commented. “The collaboration began because a photographer named Jeff Powis, who’d traveled with Ed to Bangladesh and China, had shot 80 hours of Mini DV footage. He wanted make a film, but didn’t know how because he’s not a filmmaker. A mutual friend introduced us. In looking through Jeff’s footage, I realized I couldn’t make a film using it alone. But I could incorporate it into a film that would use Ed’s photographs as a point of departure, and would try to extend the meaning of those photographs into the medium of film.”

MERIN: That would be technically and philosophically challenging because of the aesthetics of Ed’s photographs — which are monumental, exquisitely framed panoramas of what is essentially detritus, the byproduct of industrialization and its impact on the environment and on human life. How’d you approach the task?

BAICHWAL: Technically, it’s very difficult to represent one medium in another. I’d found that to be true when we made another film about a photographer — The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia — which is essentially an argument about the politics of representation. It’s a very dense film, and I encountered the same problems in it. But Manufactured Landscapes was technically more difficult because it’s harder to represent a still photograph on screen if it’s oriented vertically instead of horizontally — if you respect the edges, the frame, you’ve got big black areas on either side of the screen, and moving the image by photographing inside it’s frame is difficult because you’ve got to worry whether the image’s patterns give you that sort of stuttering jittery feeling. But those are just technical issues.

The big aesthetic, philosophical questions were that if you’re beginning with somebody else’s vision, how do you extend that vision and add to it when you’re bringing it into another medium? And that’s difficult because you want to avoid implying that the photographs don’t stand alone in their own right. You’re creating a context for them to be looked at in, I suppose. And, if you just show the photographs in the film and say this person took these shots and here they are — which is what most portrait-of-the-artist films do — that would be a total failure. It’s almost impossible not to fall into the cliches of that genre if you’re making that kind of film — but I didn’t want to do that kind of film, and Ed understood what I was interested in doing, and was on board with me from the beginning. So that was fine. But to find a way of intelligently translating his photographs into film, into a time-based medium, was pretty difficult. Actually, at one point, we’d considered just showing the photographs at the beginning of the film, just using them as a departure point for going into our own world.

JM: What was wrong with that approach?

JB: I always want to make ongoing references — especially in a film about photography, or any documentary work, I suppose, which can be seen as an argument about representation, about the politics of seeing.

We could’ve made the entire film about the politics of Ed’s work, I suppose — about how these ambiguous photographs hang on the walls of the board rooms of corporations and, at the same time, in the offices of environmentalists who’re fighting against those corporations. Most people see that as a contradiction that needs to be clarified at some point — it demands that you to state which side you’re on, right? Yet, I found through my experience of living with these photographs for 10 years, that ambiguity is at the heart of them, at the core of the work, because it draws you in without being didactic, without forcing you to take a position, and without oversimplifying a very complex situation. So, going back to the idea of representation, it was always important to me to make reference the fact that we were actually in these worlds that eventually end up in photographs. I mean, the end point is that actual experience goes into a photograph that hangs on the wall of a museum or gallery, and people who have a relationship with that photograph are interfaced with that actual scene. This is a relationship that describes most of the art world, but is incredibly problematic for all kinds of reasons and you could probably, as I said, just make a whole film about that.

JM: Frankly, I don’t think most people looking at art interpret the art they’re looking at in that way. Do you?

JB: I think, for me — well, especially with the Shelby Lee Adams film, where the photographs are of marginalized people living in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, and Adams is accused by some of perpetuating stereotypes, while others say he’s telling it like it really is — but when you see people in a gallery in downtown Chicago or New York, sipping glasses of wine and looking at pictures of poor people, it’s a tough thing…

JM: I agree. But I think most gallery goers see themselves in relationship to art as an object, not as a representation of something else that’s actual. And I don’t think they question themselves while they’re looking at images, or do they?

JB: Well, they should question themselves.

JM: Do you consider it your obligation to make them do so, to be more aware of themselves in relationship to art and what it represents? How would you confront them to do that?

JB: But that’s the question. There’s a trinity there, and the subject’s on the bottom of that triangle, always. So, in this case, the reason I didn’t want to just start with photographs and end there, was that I wanted the people watching to be wondering whether they’re watching an actual scene or whether they’re looking at a photograph that’s hanging in a gallery. There are moments in the film that almost trick you because you don’t know where you are, and that’s deliberate. It was a way of pointing out the trajectory of Ed’s work, and let’s not forget that trajectory while we’re watching the film.

JM: Let’s talk about your switching back and forth between color and black and white. What’s the guiding principal you used to determine when you’d switch?

JB: There’s one completely unjustifiable thing that happens in the film, which is in the Bangladesh sequence when black and white becomes color for no apparent reason. There were pieces of metal falling off of these ships, and it was such a rusty, orange, sepia light that there was something about turning that to color all of the sudden that was very appealing, but actually had no philosophical basis. And we wrestled with it quite a lot. But all the black-and-white footage was shot by Jeff Powis. It’s essentially archival, and it was already different enough in some respects — it’s very shaky, handheld, almost like a home movie shot on location. So, in working with this footage, I suppose I wanted to distinguish it from the much more heavy, monumental, tripod-based camerawork that we were doing, which was, in a way, mimicking the scale and breadth of Ed’s photographs. Our footage was much more filmic and intended to be fluidly extending from the photographs. It was a direct contrast to Jeff’s footage and I wanted to further distinguish them so they felt even more different. We took the color out of Jeff’s footage and made it black and white.

JM: That’s interesting. While watching the film, I thought the black and white footage was intended to represent Ed, the artist, when he, as a subject, wasn’t leading us to some other vision through his work, while the color footage seemed to be about Ed’s work and your extension of those images into film. Does that make sense?

JB: Actually, yes. It’s interesting. I can see that. To me, it’s almost a relief when Powis’ footage appears because it seems so immediate. You know, too, those are the only sequences that have quite subtle and carefully constructed sound design over them. So in some ways they’re more removed, but in some ways they’re more immediate. And, to me, it felt like breaking away from the universe you enter when you see the photographs. Powis’ footage is incredibly valuable, too, from an archival standpoint — especially his Three Gorges footage from China, because that whole area has been flooded and is underwater now. The Bangladesh footage is invaluable because nobody can get in there anymore. So for those archival reasons in looking back on Ed’s body of work, its very important.

Copyright Jennifer Merin
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