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Image Arts alumnus Edward Burtynsky receives Governor General’s Award

Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky, whose images were memorably featured in the film Manufactured Landscapes, graduated Ryerson in 1982. Photo by Brigit Kleber.

Since graduating from Image Arts in 1982, Edward Burtynsky has become one of Canada’s most internationally acclaimed photographers: his simultaneously beautiful and terrifying images of industrial vistas are shown in more than 50 museums, and the subject of the acclaimed documentaries Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. He has also kept strong ties to his alma mater, serving as an advisory board member of the Ryerson Image Centre and director of the Ryerson-connected company Think2Thing. He received an Alumni Achievement Award in 2004.

Burtynsky has been widely honoured for his work, including being named an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded honorary doctorates from six universities, including Ryerson. On March 23, he will head to Rideau Hall to receive the prestigious Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts. Ryerson Today spoke to Burtynsky shortly after the announcement.


What does receiving a Governor General’s Award mean to you?

It’s quite an honour. In a way, I guess it’s a public response to a career that’s been kind of consistent. Working at something and believing in something that gets its recognition—it’s a great honour.

Your work has had a consistency over the years—do you see an aesthetic evolution?

As time progressed, if you look from my earlier work to now, I’ve always had this interest in middle ground and slightly elevated views of landscape and industry. I think as time has progressed, I’ve been able to pull further back and go higher up to continue to engage with that subject matter over time. I think, stylistically, my work has often had an abstract quality to it, and I think with the aerial view it’s become ever more so in that direction.

I’m curious to make images that speak of our world, but also make reference to the art world and abstract art. These are of our world as well, so it’s interesting to cover both of those ideas.

As someone who is very concerned about what we’re doing to the planet, how do you keep from getting discouraged?

I wouldn’t say I’m not discouraged from time to time. But I’ve brought children into the world—two girls, 18 and 21—and for a long time I’ve thought about them and what world they’re being left with. Ultimately, quite a while ago I decided to battle on the side of sustainability to try to preserve the world for them. I guess my hope comes from the fact that both in my own practice and the words and ideas I bring forward are helping to shape how we begin to address this problem. I know that I’m working with a small army of others who have the same concerns, and all of those voices together really are the hope for change. I think it’s within us to fix the problem—it’s a question of: Will we get around to it fast enough before the problem gets away on us?

Did attending Ryerson have an impact on your work?

Oh, absolutely—I’ve often stated that. I left St. Catharines in 1976 and I came to Ryerson into what’s considered the best photography program in Canada.

In those early years, I learned all about the history of art, the history of photography, the history of painting. We talked about how one analyzes the frame of an image; and it gave me the kind of background necessary to be able to develop the kinds of ideas that I did. If I didn’t leave St. Catharines and come to Ryerson, there’s no way I could’ve gotten that peer group around me who I still continue to relate to and exchange with.

It was from my Ryerson portfolio that I graduated with in the fall of 1982 that I got my first Canada Council grant, which set me on my way, and subsequent grants kept coming. That was the beginning of my whole career. Ryerson gave me the kind of foundation on which to build a career that I don’t think I could ever have built on my own—and that includes the instructors, curriculum, and peer group.


Other Ryersonians who have received a Governor General’s Award include: Image Arts professor Bruce Elder (2007), former professors Geoffrey James (2012) and Max Dean (2014), and alumnus Jordan Tannahill (2014).

Water 1
Edward Burtynsky, Oil Spill #15 - Submerged Pipeline, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
Water 2
Edward Burtynsky, Owens Lake #1 - California, USA, 2009
Water 3
Edward Burtynsky, Colorado River Delta #2 - Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011