Robert Bourdeau’s Unwitting Ode
by Lorette C. Luzajic
Station Point by Ann Thomas et al. Magenta Publishing for the Arts
Canadians love their landscapes. Canadian photographer Robert Bourdeau earned recognition for his sprawling monochromatic pictures of natural terrain, transporting his audience into forest glens and parched gulleys, into the dazzling fractals of leaves and Ontario marshes.
“He may take hours or days to study his subject and he exposes only one negative sometimes for an hour or more, literally allowing light to paint its presence on the negative’s surface,” writes James Borcoman in the Canadian Encyclopedia. “…His photographs are an initiation into a hushed world of reverie, where nature’s forms are the excuse for a mood of subdued contemplation.”
Now, I like a lake as much as the next person. And like many others who have lost religious faith, I’m most likely to experience a pulse of it when witness to the stars or meadows, beauty that could only be God’s handiwork. So the awe that Bourdeau’s nature evokes is real. But sometimes I can’t help thinking that concentrating on sunsets and forests and gnarled old trees is taking the easy way out. The beauty is too obvious. It is not until Bourdeau shows human intervention- ghosts, in the form of abandoned industrial landscapes- that the full power of his work is realized. Magenta Press’s Station Point chronicles Bourdeau’s considerable contribution to photography with gleaming reproductions, but for me, ironically, the work does not come to life until the pages turn into decaying machines and abandoned factories.
“These are places and things of darkness beyond secrets unattainable for which keys have been lost,” Bourdeau says about his work in general, in his artist’s statement. He has used the word “foreboding” and “ominous” to describe what he has seen.
Ann Thomas uses the word “ominous” as well, in one of the book’s essays. A photograph of rubber hose “strikes an ominous note,” she writes, interpreting this work as “alluding to the intrusion of technology and human destructiveness into the landscape.” It hints at “uncontrolled human intervention” and also that “the little that is left of the natural landscape is threatened.”
Of course, Thomas doesn’t mention the intrusion of nature or natural destructiveness into human or other life- let’s say, bed bugs, cholera, death through childbirth, or the massive graveyard of bones that deserts proudly simmer into dust. Commentary and philosophy about the role of man in nature always critiques man’s supposed destructiveness and offers saccharine sentimentality about the pristine and peaceful place the would be without man (but never was.) How absurd it is that the statement and critique of such art is never celebratory. It always centres around our supposed alienation from nature, and thus from our true nature, even as the art itself documents the grandiosity, the beauty, of industrial ingenuity.
These stunning testaments might suggest the redemption wrought by man’s technological imagination. But few artists and fewer audiences will have the bravery to see them without the suffocating politically correct perspective that denigrates man’s progressive instincts. The alienation from nature is not disconnection through industry and greed, but our self-hatred, which denies the validity of our success and denies the “naturalness” of “manmade.”
“We will always have an ambivalent feeling toward the rotting industrial carcasses that Robert Bourdeau presents to us with such deep feeling,” says William A. Ewing in Station Point. “We are who we are because untold numbers of these plants with their iron and steel behemoths spewed out the material wealth of their age… we simply walked away, leaving our toys out in the rain. We now know, too, that the cost in environmental degradation was incalculable… Bourdeau… is pointing out, quietly and with grace, that a lesson has not been learned.”
Early industrial photography, though rife with the hardship of brutal labour, showed enthusiasm and wonder. The possibilities of trains and mining and energy were exciting historical markers, a point of promise for a future world. Not so today.
But it is precisely what Boudeau did not intend that attracts me to his photographs. Unwillingly or not, he has created gorgeous documents of our achievements. This was also my reaction to Ed Burtynsky’s Oil exhibition at the Royal Museum of Ontario – I simply couldn’t muster the condemnation of petrol or the “oil economy” as we are supposed to. Oil is nothing sinister- it has made exponential strides toward the eradication of human slavery, it has fed hundreds of millions of people by benefiting agriculture, it has lifted economy and brought millions out of subsistence poverty. It has made technology, art, light and plumbing available on a wide scale. It is pure asceticism and human hatred to hate oil, acceptably disguised as hatred for a few rich oil barons. The truth is, human destitution that results from oil is nothing compared to its humane benefits.
And so, it may be unforgivably gauche to find glorious tribute to human innovation in works meant to inculcate solemn lament. But I cannot help the awe that springs up inside, or quell the thrill of bridges and coils and pipes and tanks and levers and engines and rails. This feeling is why I love industrial photography, and why Burtynsky and Bordeau are among my favourite photographers.
I frequently use this Camille Paglia quote, and it is relevant again: “Construction is a sublime male poetry. When I see a giant crane passing on a flatbed truck, I pause in awe and reverence, as one would for a church procession.” If the gentle brooks and stars can convince me momentarily of divinity, providing an idyllic gloss to shelter me from the true chaos and destructiveness of nature, it is the gurgling tanks and chugging racket of quarries and axes and petroleum sands and steel that tells me of man’s divine potentiality, and of how far we’ve come. Engineering and energy and technology are our hope for salvation. Nature will destroy us no matter what.
Anton Chekhov’s cheeky assertion to his colleague Leo Tolstoy comes to mind here. Chekhov saw through the ultimately useless sentimentality in Tolstoy’s spirituality. “Reason and justice tell me there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism,” he said.
Visit Lorette C. Luzajic’s site at Idea Fountain.