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Nature Transformed: Edward Burtynsky’s Vermont Quarry Photographs in Context

September 1st, 2014

Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH | April 21 through August 19, 2012

Burtynsky’s vivid and iconic photographs of the quarries of Vermont are explored within the context of the geological and social history of the area, including in particular the Italian immigrant stoneworkers in the marble quarries around Rutland and the granite quarries near Barre.

Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer, is known for his grand-scale photographs of monumental settings. This exhibition takes an interesting step back to reconsider his Vermont quarry photographs from the early '90s. In taking this step back we are able to see an artist forming a sensibility, a method, and a project. We also witness the curatorial voiceentering into this reconsideration to move the artistic project successfully into a larger consideration of place. 

The experience of viewing these large photographs proceeds through layers. The first encounter is with wonderful abstract patterning.  From the patterning, vivid color begins to emerge: the color of rock, stains, quarry ponds, and a touch of sky or trees in fall foliage. These photographs read as remarkably flat for the vertiginous subject matter of deep open quarries that they represent. The quarries themselves emerge in the streaks and colors of the various rock layers, and the cuts and breakage of the quarrying. And, after the initial rush of pure formal pleasure, the evidence of working activity comes into consideration-cable lines, ladders, machinery, detritus. This brings the viewer to the activity itself, the incredible effort of removing blocks of stone from the earth. The evidence of labor emerges in details such as the long descent of vulnerable ladders, or a single porta-potty sitting in the vastness.  This is work, the quarrying, of incredible scale, beauty, and violence. Burtynsky has captured this complexity with technical perfection, an eye for color and pattern, and what appears to be a growing interest and empathy for the human effort involved. It appears that it was somewhere within this particular study of Vermont quarries that Burtynsky found his content and the methods to achieve it. A large format camera is used to produce these chromogenic prints. 

The curatorial hand here has done a fine job of extending the experience the photographs into a wider consideration of the Vermont quarrying operations, the sociology of the Italian immigrant stone cutters, the geology of Vermont and the environmental impact of gouging at the earth. Curator Juliette Bianco, assistant director at the Hood, has provided a rich re-consideration of the forming of this artist. Craig Stockwell (Art New England July/August 2012)