Tearing Real Images from Clichés through Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes

Todd Jerome Satter
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Such a voyage does not necessarily imply great movements in extension; it becomes immobile, in a room and on a body without organs—an intensive voyage that undoes all the lands for the benefit of the one it is creating. (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 319)

Edward Burtynsky, Alberta Oil Sands #6 (2001).

[1] Edward Burtynsky's manufactured landscapes – large-format, photographic compositions of industrially-transformed environments, simultaneously precise and dynamic, static and complex, ordered and irrepressible – feature deliberate, disembodied perspectives of uncontrollable spaces harnessed by the camera and corralled by the frame. The topographic and tectonic images compel a shifting eye and reveal a liminal space neither natural nor cultural, a stratigraphic duration neither primeval nor modern, an image of thought neither rationalist nor empiricist. The visual framing detaches from human perception and reattaches to pure affect in order to interrogate the vast obscurity and silence of the contemporary sublime (Image 1).

[2] In interviews, exhibition catalogs and his writings, Burtynsky (b. 1955) invariably interprets his imagery in mimetic and moral terms, rhetorically transforming them into a didactic discourse on ecology, cautionary tales against technology, and prophecies of excess-induced dystopias, especially the precarious transgressions by humans into nature and excursions of industry into otherwise pristine environments. [1] In order to emphasize the polemical nature of his work, Burtynsky and his curators posit these photographic subjects as machines in the garden, reinforcing a divide between the natural and built environments, the authentic and the artificial.

[3] This interpretive schema, however, based on oppositions, contradictions and negation, belies the real aesthetic power and intensity of Burtynsky's images, which lie in the revelation of sensation that compel viewers into the material vitality of these constructed worlds. As Gilles Deleuze asserts, 'The question is no longer what there is to see behind the image, nor how we can see the image itself—it's how we can find a way into it, how we can slip in, because each image now slips across other images' (Deleuze 1995, 71). Photography is not just of reality; it generates and dramatizes its own reality. The act of photography, the process of immobilizing time and space, and the image itself are as much manufactured events as the conditions and causes of any represented state of affairs. Given the still photograph's integrally theatrical tendencies, any ostensible crisis of ecology is more accurately conceived as a crisis of vision, and less important than the extraction of resources and profit apparently represented by the photographs is the extraction of affect and sensation expressed through them.

[4] More than a simple interpretative conundrum, the tension between representing the material scarcity of the world, on the one hand, and experimenting with affect, on the other, amounts to nothing less than an evaluation of the ontological significance of photography. The ontological continuity and closure of moralizing impose abstract unity, identity and totality, reducing photography to the automated reproduction of what is already present in the world, while the 'ontological restlessness' [2] of experimentation restages the complexity of thought, addresses problems of representation, and expresses the boundless abundance within an image.

[5] In the transition between the two volumes of his cinema project, Deleuze provides a critical framework for (re)considering still photography, its imagery and immanent dynamics when he relates any-space-whatever to the process of '[T]earing a real image from clichés' (Deleuze 1989, 21). Deleuze's any-space-whatevers – irrational, disconnected, aberrant, schizophrenic spaces – no longer obey laws of traditional, commonsensical causality. As a locus of production in which time and space are detached from linear logic and reattached to a logic of events, sense and sensation, any-space-whatever frustrates the hope for resolution, combining all possible spaces and spatial geneses in the concrete without abstraction.

[6] However, more than sites that confound, any-space-whatevers also create by revealing the infinite potential of connections. Deleuze’s most concise definition asserts:

Any-space-whatever is not an abstract universal, in all times, in all places. It is a perfectly singular space, which has merely lost its homogeneity, that is, the principle of its metric relations or the connection of its own parts so that the linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways. It is a space of virtual conjunction, grasped as pure locus of the possible. What in fact manifests the instability, the heterogeneity, the absence of link of such a space, is a richness in potentials or singularities which are, as it were, prior conditions of all actualization, all determination. (Deleuze 1986, 109)

As such, any-space-whatever operates as a conceptual tool for extending Deleuze's philosophy into the realm of photography and exploring the processes through which Burtynsky sublimates particular milieus and deterritorializes the invisible dynamics of industrial operations.

[7] Any-space-whatever overlaps with, while departing in significant ways from, Kant's critical project, especially his treatment of the sublime, 'experienced when faced with the formless or the deformed (immensity of power). It is as if the imagination were confronted with its own limit, forced to strain to its utmost, experiencing a violence which stretches it to the extremity of power' (Deleuze 1984, 50). For Kant, understanding provides concepts to identify properties within representations, and the categories afford a foundation for mapping concepts onto experience. The power of judgment then emerges as the capacity to recognize when an object can or cannot be subsumed under these rules, and Kant comprehends the vertiginous sensation of the sublime as the inadequacy and incommensurability of seeking an appropriate unit of measure only to be thwarted when one's choice fails.

[8] However, for Deleuze, aesthetics is irreducible to a science of what can be represented in the sensible or to an oppositional tension with the representable (Deleuze 1994, 56). Moreover, Deleuze maintains that the inability to represent the sublime is invariably accompanied by dissolution of the self. Deleuze is critical of an image of thought based on an experiencing subject whose differing senses are subjected to a unified self-consciousness and its capacity to reflect on mental representations. Representational modes of thought merely reinforce what and how we already know without yielding anything new, so sensibility must be liberated through constant innovation to repel representational thinking and dogmatic images of thought. Any-space-whatever gives rise to and expresses affect as centers of indetermination, eschewing absolute givens, seeking instead the genesis of the subject's constitution.

[9] Deleuze reconfigures Kant's doctrine of the faculties to reveal how sense, understanding and identity emerge from the virtual, the unconditioned and the pre-individuated plane that constructs percepts and concepts prior to identity. Rather than apprehending (or failing to apprehend) a represented thing, a subject apprehends the fragmented object in its violence, experiencing that which can only be sensed in its encounter with material impression, awakening each faculty such that it yields an immediate and violent intensity rather than contradiction. Sensibility transmits its constraints to the imagination, which conveys them to memory, which in turn extends them to thinking. It is through this process that sensibility reveals Being as felt before it is thought.

[10] The Deleuzian subject emerges as the result of these passive syntheses, which occur in the mind rather than by it, and photographic images draw attention to this pre-individuated process that connects experiences and contracts the world into a living present or a palimpsest of an infinite number of events. Each image or body synthesizes duration by retaining, anticipating and forgetting as it forms part of a larger differential field in which subject formation transpires. Photography underscores the ongoing series of contractions, excitations or disturbances of material reality, so aesthetics must account for what is expressed and differentiated through the event as it is replayed and identify the singular conditions under which something new is produced. This protean process shifts the spectator from the transcendent to the immanent, from a capture of objects to new strategies for looking – from cliché to milieu, from milieu to tableau, and from tableau to exhaustion.


[11] In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze asserts ambivalence toward photography, which is too easily treated as an immobilized truth and a direct reification of the representational modes of thought and practice he devotes his oeuvre to overturning.[3] Deleuze repeatedly associates photography with cliché, drawing on the double meaning of the word in French as both stereotypical thinking and a snapshot of reality. Cliché marks a mechanical and instantaneous act that requires little effort or thought and results in a temporal freezing and spatial sectioning of an image of reality from its virtual and durational context. If reality were static, then capturing something new would be impossible, and photography would rightly be considered merely representational.

[12] However, Deleuze recognizes that photography is not innately mimetic, insisting that, 'The photograph, though instantaneous, has a completely different ambition than representing, illustrating, or narrating' (Deleuze 2003, 8-9). Photography, like perception in general, is not to be conflated with naïve empiricism, the acquisition of knowledge and experience through immediate sense perception, especially sight. Because photography gives the illusion of merely capturing reality, it is often reduced to that role, diminishing all objects within its purview to clichés. Therefore, Deleuze's attack is not specifically on photography but on representational modes of thought that conflate the empirical, especially the visual that gives itself to sight as presentational immediacy, with absolute truth, ignoring the element of excess revealed through forces of sensation and intensities of affect.

[13] The pervasive risk of photographic cliché emerges in Burtynsky's work when originary sensations, as well as color- and material-constructed assemblages, give way to obsolescent irony and forced intimacy. Images, such as a medium shot of an oil pipeline slashing through an otherwise idyllic meadow, substitute expressive intensity of the non-human world for mere incongruity. His 'Oil' sequence also turns the sensation of violence into a didactic discourse on it by juxtaposing a human figure against a close-up of an overwhelming refinery filling the frame. In the wake of industrial photography like that of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their Düsseldorf School, works like these introduce little innovation into the photographic medium.

[14] Similarly, his sequence of ruinous Detroit factory interiors conveys a reactionary nostalgia and a disregard for Bertolt Brecht's maxim that a snapshot of a factory cannot depict capitalism. Brecht writes, 'the situation is complicated by the fact that less than ever does the mere reflection of reality reveal anything about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the A.E.G. tells us next to nothing about these institutions. Actual reality has slipped into the functional' (reprinted in Benjamin 1978, 255). These images, photographed 'like someone fluently producing company reports' (Dyer 2011, 89), mourn a world passed and seek aesthetic and moral redemption through reification of their subject instead of extolling a world in the making.

[15] Burtynsky's transportation sequence dubiously extends his anti-oil harangue into the realm of exurban factory parking lots and heavy metal concerts, races at the Bonneville Salt Flats and Talladega Speedway, small-town parades and truckers' jamborees. He resorts to primary and secondary colors set aglow, creating visual cants Geoff Dyer calls 'as close to stadium rock as a landscape photographer is ever likely to get,' adding that while Burtynsky effectively employs bird's eye shots, 'a crane or helicopter might have been indispensable to the creation of some of Burtynsky's photographs but a crane can so easily become a kind of podium' (Dyer 2011, 90).

[16] Of course, clichés precede all arts, perception and creative acts. Deleuze writes, 'Clichés are always already on the canvas, and if the painter is content to transform the cliché, to deform or mutilate it, to manipulate it in every possible way, this reaction is still too intellectual, too abstract: it allows the cliché to rise again from its ashes, it leaves the painter within the milieu of the cliché, or else gives him or her no other consolation than parody' (Deleuze 2003, 87). These clichés on the canvas, the insidiousness of which neither critique, nor irony, nor imposed narrative continuity is sufficient to combat, represent the habitual thought with which the artist must try to break in order to express a new concept rather than recreate a pre-existing idea already categorized.

[17] Deleuze inveighs against the hegemony of perception conceived additively and dualistically as external reality plus human consciousness rather than as a Bergsonian subtraction, or a Nietzschean forgetting, in which perception operates through a complex process of selecting from a virtual flux that which is interesting, relevant and useful. Deleuze (quoting Bergson) contends that 'the eye is in things, in luminous images in themselves. "Photography, if there is photography, is already snapped, already shot, in the very interior of things and for all the points of space"' (Deleuze 1986, 60). According to these thinkers, an anthropomorphic and centered sphere of perception dissociates matter from its movement within an acentered variety of perception that posits images in themselves.

[18] Photography expresses, but never prescribes, a process of selection and focus, actualizing something singular within an inexhaustible flow of virtual potential, while excess pervades the purview of experience ensuring that 'figurative givens are much more complex than they appear to be at first' (Deleuze 2003, 90). Reality posits an overwhelming abundance of images from which the challenge is to extract feeling and sensation. The problem for photographers standing before a landscape is how to capture dynamic forces and express intensive potentials rather than static states of affairs, how to explore which infinitives will express the living present as counter-actualization of the event rather than how to represent its unseen causality or contrast it with an ideal world of eternal truths.

Edward Burtynsky, Homesteads #27 (1985).

[19] Burtynsky's most effective images evade cliché by capturing realism without naturalism, as well as a moment during which we are forced to think under the shock of the fragmented object as sensibility sets off a discordant genetic line of the faculties. Works such as 'Alberta Oil Sands' or 'Homestead' (Image 2) imply the presence of an extended world from which it screens the viewing subject while simultaneously rejecting that world. Alien structures, planes and colors absorb the landscape, obfuscating clear boundaries even as they conceive provisionally new ones. Burtynsky photographs forces corroding, discharging, surging, melding, carving, wafting and swelling rather than an environment made inert.

[20] Affect is introduced in the interval between perception and affect, forestalling action, as the structures become faces in the landscape, expressive of productive excess instead of a clearly stated purpose or origin. Deleuze and Guattari write, 'Affects are precisely these nonhuman becomings of man, just as percepts – including the town – are nonhuman landscapes of nature' (Deleuze and Guattari 1994, 169). Rather than drawing attention to pre-given utility and causal infrastructure, these images open up space, duration, subjectivity and individuation by challenging habitual modes of recognition and undermining symbolism. They foreclose the possibility of being grasped from any one perspective in order to let the world happen.


[21] We encounter photography extensively and intensively in media res or in milieu, in the fullest sense of the French word, which signifies a general setting, a specific space in the middle and the act of filling in. Milieu refers to landscape as context, to the gaps and intervals of experience, as well as to photography as a medium that emerges in the interstices between actions. As Deleuze and Guattari write, '[O]ne has made a necessarily communicating world, because one has suppressed in oneself everything that prevents us from slipping between things and growing in the midst of things. One has combined "everything" (le "tout"): the indefinite article, the infinitive-becoming, and the proper name to which one is reduced. Saturate, eliminate, put everything in' (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 280).

[22] In other words, photography and perception resist habit and cliché by refusing immediate extension into action and direct sensory-motor causality. Photographs take on an autonomous, material reality, which gives them an importance in themselves and a valuable means for addressing the perennial divide between realism and constructivism that has beset the history of photography. The documentary role of photography consigns it to a representational mode of thought slave to mimetic strategies, while the aesthetic role of art photography can often be read as inferior painting – a mauling of the image without sufficiently deforming it to definitively break with cliché.

[23] In 'Photography's Discursive Spaces,' Rosalind Krauss demonstrates how a photograph's significance and connotation varied according to the discursive spaces in which it and its viewers operated. Survey photographs did not occupy the same discursive space as pictorial photography or painting. For Krauss, such formal distinctions impose reductive attributes and reduce photography to abstract and artificial categories and modes of appreciation. She distinguishes the empirical from the rational in photography through the concepts of landscape and view. The former constitutes an objective representation of the world requiring mapped and grounded coordinates to make the space homogeneous and relatable as scientific data, while the latter forms an aesthetic act of visual creation in which the reality of space gives way to sensation. She argues that the landscape photograph had to satisfy specific, historically situated requirements and formed a coherent discourse, distinct and often opposed to the aesthetic discourse of painting and the museum.

[24] Krauss exemplifies this perpetual dichotomy between the discursive spaces of aesthetic exhibition and systematic knowledge through a comparison between the original photographic (1867) and the lithographic reproduction (1875) of Timothy O'Sullivan's Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake (Nevada) (Images 3-4). The original operates as 'a model of the mysterious, silent beauty to which landscape photography had access during the early decades of the medium,' while the lithograph, ostensibly produced for scientific purposes, 'is an object of insistent visual banality.' In 'the demotion of this image from strange to commonplace,' the faint ambience of the original has been explicated, hazy masses have become clearly defined geological features, the ambiguous boundary between earth and sky in the former has been clearly demarcated as a shoreline in the latter, and the lake has been transformed from an abyss in which objects are suspended, partly obscured and partly revealed, into a clearly articulated body (Krauss 1982, 311).

Timothy O'Sullivan, Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake (Nevada) (Photographic Original 1868).

Timothy O'Sullivan, Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake (Nevada) (Lithographic Reproduction 1875).

[25] Krauss argues that such a transformation posits these two images – the photograph and its translation – as part of two different spheres of culture, assuming a different audience and disseminating two distinct forms of knowledge and 'representations within two separate discursive spaces, as members of two different discourses' (Krauss 1982, 311). The lithograph serves as part of an empirical discourse within geological sciences, while the photograph belongs to the discourse of the museum exhibition, spatially and critically related to 'the continuous surface of wall, a wall increasingly unstructured for any purpose other than the display of art' (Krauss 1982, 312). Analytic perspective provides 'an image of geographic order' while exhibition 'represents the space of an autonomous Art and its idealized, specialized History, which is constituted by aesthetic discourse' (Krauss 1982, 315).

[26] Krauss' argument emancipates photography by materially, visually and conceptually expanding its medium. Photography's milieu is not beholden to pre-given categories, conceptual abstractions or visual boundaries. The material support of photography has special access to the visual milieu of a singular space and time, the significance and singularity of which arises immanently from the photographic process rather than being imposed upon it by a transcendent system. Indeed, Krauss echoes Walter Benjamin, who once wrote:

No matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search such a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long-forgotten moment the future subsists so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it. (Benjamin 1978, 243)

[27] Belonging to a milieu never undermines the singularity of a photograph; it simply means that drawing out the context, relations and connections in which it is mired always calls for unique and novel approaches. This immanent process arises when milieu is captured anonymously, without ascribed values, without difference imposed in terms of identity. Richard Misrach reinforces Krauss's argument by returning to Pyramid Lake, reinventing the event of O'Sullivan's work, and altering its sense (Image 5). Misrach captures the intensive drama and theatricality inherent in still photography and makes the immovable move through a series of sensations that immerse the viewer. The long exposure conveys a sensibility that obfuscates the distinction between what is given in nature and what is created by the camera. He creates a rarefied and vulnerable landscape irreducible to human demands and devoid of memory or innate historical significance, rather than imposing a teleological duty to the world.


[28] Breaking with cliché by extending milieu elevates images to pure powers or qualities without reference to the states of things or the environments that actualize them. These pure expressions are manufactured insofar as photography extracts intensities, draws out connections and extends situations. While photography is a generous medium amenable to the contingent and unintended, this attribute does not make photography passive, subjective or an indexical mirror of nature. Photographs dynamically create landscapes rather than recount or reorder an existent reality. They exist as something in themselves. Recognizing this ontological depth, many photographers in the late 1970s deterritorialized and reinvigorated the relationship between space and photography by enlarging images and producing them for the wall.

[29] This tableau form imposes a confrontational experience in stark contrast to habitual scanning, appropriation or consumption of photographs. As Michael Fried notes, the word tableau is significant because it denotes constructedness, the result of an intellectual and physical act of creation. Tableaus are neither representational nor purely aesthetic, but rather intentionally staged and meticulously manufactured expressions, every element of which is carefully selected for exact purposes. Jean-François Chevrier extends this ontological depth when he writes, 'It is about using the tableau form to reactivate a thinking based on fragments, openness, and contradiction, not the utopia of a comprehensive or systematic order' (reprinted in Fried 2008, 143).

Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #27 (2001).

[30] Burtynsky's Shipbreaking series (2000) is an exemplar of the tableau form's energy. Through a series of dozens of photographs, the artist documents the dismantling of decommissioned sea vessels during which their parts and materials are salvaged for recycling and reuse. Obsolete ships arrive at the beach – at Chittagong in this case – gear and equipment are removed, the ships are physically disassembled and deconstructed, and the steel is reconstituted as rebar. Within this non-modern space and without a pier, dry-dock or slip, the workers set the ships 50 kilometers from shore during high tide, drive them toward land at full speed, lodging them in the effluvial flats of the Ganges River. The tide then recedes, affording access to the ships. Despite the suggestion of a linear causal disassembly process, the non-linear numbering of his images distances them from any rational sequencing (Image 6).

[31] Each image in the series creates a tableau by framing and screening chaos – pre-individuated sensations and non-human becomings that envelop life. This photographic manifestation of any-space-whatever experiences two creative geneses: a universal, non-human one and a singular, subjective one. As the former, any-space-whatever submits movement without subject or object, lacks definite qualities and refuses critical interpretation in favor of indeterminacy and indiscernibility. As the latter, any-space-whatever evinces ineffable spaces and situations to which we don't know how to react. Deleuze writes, 'And just as the image must attain the indefinite, while remaining completely determined, so space must always be an any-space-whatever, disused, unmodified, even though it is entirely determined geometrically' (Deleuze 1998, 160).

[32] This twofold process of invention and becoming-other through differentiation and specification is discernible through the density of Burtynsky's images and in the visual act of framing. Burtynsky's use of a field camera and high-resolution development yields images as large as two meters wide that highlight a packed visual field containing details only visible at this scale. The large format highlights empirical details, but it exceeds any reduction to presentational immediacy by staging confrontations in which neither subject nor object can be recognized or abstracted into representational narratives. The density of the scene reveals the power to tear images from spatio-temporal coordinates such that they operate independently of their milieu. In other words, production for the wall introduces an interval – an interstitial space and time separating perception, action and affect – that forestalls movement and makes us think.

[33] While photography has the capacity to extend the senses, it can also confine them by filtering the landscape, cutting into milieus and inducing the violence that also initiates thought. Framing reminds us of the process of selection by which perception delimits the commotion of the environment. The frame acts as a provisional and artificial method of enclosure that defines the screen as a working area and reveals perceptual strategies for choosing parts from a durational whole. 'However, visual framing,' Deleuze argues, 'is now defined less by the choice of a pre-existing side of the visible object than by the invention of a point of view which disconnects the sides, or establishes a void between them, in such a way as to extract a pure space, an any-space-whatever, from the space given in objects' (Deleuze 1989, 251).

[34] Framing, however, serves to disorient as much as to unite. Burtynsky's distinct, aerial perspective includes and excludes, determines a field, as well as an out-of-field, in order to invent a composite flow of material images neither in us nor wholly outside of us. The photographer merges spatial and temporal complexity with technical details to create images that are simultaneously panoramic and telescopic. The frame into which each image is situated forces entities of all sizes and shapes to occupy the same delimited spatio-temporal boundary. This destabilizing practice deterritorializes, rather than narrates, the image, preventing it from becoming absolutely codified. The contraction of percepts and affects within, as well as the extraction of qualities and material sensations from, the image reveals it to be moving as

Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #10 (2000).

[35] Burtynsky's photography renews Deleuze's questions, 'How can any-space-whatever be constructed (in the studio or on location)? How can any-space-whatever be extracted from a state of things, from a determinate space?' (Deleuze 1986, 111). Deleuze elucidates three methods – color, shadow and lyrical abstraction – all of which are pronounced in Burtynsky's work. More than formal elements, strategies of contemplating difference in terms of identity, or bringing out socially repressed dynamics, these strategies operate as vectors and contingencies that coordinate linkages.

[36] The colors within Burtynsky's nearly monochromatic images emphasize intensification and saturation, the absorption or obliteration of lines, figures and faces. The gradients of myriad earth tones obfuscate the boundaries between built and natural environments, animate and inanimate textures. Sunlight intensifies the surface patina of the hulls, transforming them into warm oranges that dissolve into blacks. Pools of oil repeat metal patterns, amplifying their luster. This mise en abyme is repeated as the complete assembly of color – moving, oozing, listing, rusting, slicing and cracking – melds into an indistinct backdrop that dampens the images and indicates only a provisional individuation of elements within the composition (Image 7).

[37] The void of Burtynsky's reflections and haze takes on new dynamics through his strategic use of shadows, which break contours and endow objects with an inanimate life. Shadow prevents form from fully developing in order to expand space and make its power infinite. It destroys aesthetic and logical coherence by emphasizing the spectral allure of pure geometry, lines, planes and depth. Deleuze associates the darkness of shadows with a struggle of the spirit. Shadow, that is, 'endows things with a non-organic life in which they lose their individuality, and which potentialises space, whilst making it something unlimited' (Deleuze 1986, 111). The vacuous space in which nothing can find its footing attains its own meaning by decontextualizing bodies and landscapes, necessitating a new topology of

Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #13 (2000).

[38] Derived from a philosophy of cinematic movement, any-space-whatever and its accompanying strategies take on new dynamics when transposed into still photography. Both media are richer than quotidian perception and deterritorialize through decontextualization and reconnection. However, while cinema draws attention to the flows of matter and events, photography is not a movement-image in the strictest sense. While cinema overcomes the immobility of human vision, photography repeats and counter-actualizes it. Photography does, on the other hand, emphasize, even more than cinema, the process of selection, the subtraction and contraction of what is seen from its spatial and temporal connections to everything else. Photography transforms everything in its purview into a living present that erases the illusion of time as a succession of images or instants.

[39] In Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film, a vacuous landscape, not unlike Burtynsky's, imposes weak, sensory-motor connections that drain space such that its intensities exclaim more than they explain. However, Antonioni generates his own cinematic strategies for inventing colors, obscuring contours and emptying environments. Vivid fire invades a dim sky, a green coat traverses a sooty site, pastels punctuate a backdrop of smog, and industrial forms tower over scenes to construct a vision of industrialized Ravenna concentrated into alluring percepts of modernization, characterized by Deleuze as 'dehumanized landscapes, of emptied spaces that might be seen as having absorbed characters and actions, retaining only a geophysical description, an abstract inventory of them' (Deleuze 1989, 5).

[40] The moving sensations of Antonioni's mise en scène – erupting flames, blasting steam, smoldering terrain, intimately arising from the filmic medium – become frozen sensations in Burtynsky's work. Antonioni's obsessive framing pre-exists anything inserted into it, and his de-peopled and empty shots highlight a process of waiting that is absent from photographs, for which no amount of waiting will alleviate the abundant tensions or enable elements in shadow to reach the light. This lack of montage obfuscates the scale of Burtynsky's settings, interrogates the adequacy of linear perspective, and avoids the tendency inherent in cinema to re-impose a narrative function.

[41] Like Burtynsky's work, Red Desert has been susceptible to reductive moral proclamations regarding the plight of modernity, the supposed neuroses it creates in the wake of a transforming built environment. However, if there is an ethics of force and event lurking in Burtynsky's or Antonioni's images, it lies in the revelation of choice rather than a clear deontological distinction between right and wrong or a teleological one between good and bad. Absent a clear point of view and tied to the camera's own vantage point without objective reference, photography and cinema become voids, non-anthropocentric views of the world that move 'beyond perception [...] in the sense that it reaches to the genetic element of all possible perception, that is, the point which changes, and which makes perception change, the differential of perception itself' (Deleuze 1986, 83).

[42] The third strategy for creating any-space-whatever – lyrical abstraction – emphasizes movement towards such a 'pure, immanent or spiritual light' (Deleuze 1986, 117), addressing the alternatives of the spirit and the capacity to choose. The aesthetically and conceptually abstract gradients of grey in between white and black reflect stages of uncertainty rather than determinative absolutes. Adaptation to any-space-whatever cannot entail pre-given strategies, so traversing the environment becomes a matter of forgetting obsolete categories and false abstractions as much as creating new strategies of experimental engagement.

[43] No longer an objective view of reality from which to judge a situation, photography as any-space-whatever posits an indiscernibility between what is real and what is created, between actual and virtual, and it creates contingent spaces in which relationships and connections take lines of flight that undermine habitual recognition, enabling thought to continually emerge anew. Deleuze writes, 'And the visual image for its part frames an any-space-whatever, an empty or disconnected space which takes on a new value, because it will bury the event under stratigraphic layers, and make it go down like an underground fire which is always covered over' (Deleuze 1989, 279).


[44] Burtynsky's photography can only be considered in relation to exhaustion. The objects in the images – ships, their parts, the landscape, the geological stratification and the temporal duration that lies virtual in each landscape – are larger than life, exhausting the capacity of categorization into immediate functionality or moral discourse. The images invoke a reinvigorated sublime intensity while undermining anthropocentric views of the universe that suggest our aim is to control or maintain nature. The aesthetic fascination with the technological sublime can be attributed to its capacity to invest the built environment with a form of transcendence to counter the fragmentation and alienation of an increasingly secularized world without absolutes. Morally, the industrial sublime is conventionally conceived as either an enormous force for good, as when it accommodates machinery, functions and aids the human body in repetitive or complex tasks, or as a force for evil, as when it overwhelms and defies human productivity, becoming spaces of oppression. But this superficial reading misses the renewed importance of the sublime landscape.

[45] If we deduce the process of thought, creation and meaning from the image and sign as they appear for themselves without any formal, aesthetic, or ideological influences, absent a pre-determined or pre-existing foundation from which to judge works, Burtynsky's spaces become singular rather than symbolic or iconographic. The sublime works by resisting a specific function, thus opening a flux of possibilities and resisting attempts to confine it to preconceived forms. As Burtynsky's photographs reveal, the contemporary sublime connects us with a pre-individual state of becoming, neither reaffirming nor disaffirming an image of self we might hold. Art endures intensities that humans and landscapes cannot experience, but we miss this important role for art if we treat it representationally. Any-space-whatever renders the visual image archaeological, stratigraphic, tectonic, and creates an innovative discursive strategy that stimulates the emergence of the new. 'What counts in the image,' Deleuze insists, 'is not its meager content, but the energy—mad and ready to explode—that it has harnessed' (Deleuze 1998, 160).

[46] For Deleuze, any ethical imperative is inseparable from an aesthetic one. In both cases, the aim is to exhaust images. Deleuze carefully distinguishes exhaustion from the tiredness of cliché. While the latter is limited to the possible and what has already been conceptualized and categorized, the former occurs through a formation of a series, a drying up of a flow, extenuating potentialities and dissipating the power of the image. Deleuze writes, 'The possible is only realised in the derivative, in tiredness, whereas one is exhausted before birth, before realising oneself, or realising anything whatsoever' (Deleuze 1998, 152). Tiredness is a state in which the image causes an assumption of what will occur next.

[47] Exhaustion is altogether affirmative insofar as it remains a pre-individuated condition in a constant state of becoming, leading to something other than a content that simply accumulates without variation. The exhausted image never conserves or solidifies content, nor does it become a barrier to processes of differentiation. The image is ephemeral, part of a serial composition continuous with the production of the new and 'inseparable from the movement through which it dissipates itself,' (Deleuze 1998, 168). The transient nature of images and events disconnects them from established concepts, spaces or dimensions and reconnects them to processes of production and creative genesis. Deleuze continues:

There is a time for images, a right moment when they can appear or insinuate themselves, breaking the combination of words and the flow of voices. [...] The energy of the image is dissipative. The image quickly ends and dissipates because it is itself the means of having done with itself. It captures all the possible in order to make it explode. When one says, "I've done the image," it is because this time it is finished, there is no more possibility. (Deleuze 1998, 161)

Edward Burtynsky, Dam #6 (2005).

[48] In his photograph of the Three Gorges Dam, Burtynsky creates a compositional assembly that reinvents his own strategies for forcing confrontations and connections. The scale and increasingly complex density of the image conveys neither the superficial kitsch and irony of his transportation sequence nor the sparse splendor of the shipbreaking series. Burtynsky instead exhausts the image by denying a possible moment to relax one's gaze. Without a place to pause, the end of one idea necessarily entails the beginning of the next one. The captured contingency, in which immobilized cranes, halted construction and evacuated space appears simultaneously arbitrary and staged, denies any hierarchy to image. The deep focus, forced perspective, ambiguous exposure length and lack of scalar figures further obfuscate relations and context. The relatively less restricted range of hues and gradients individuate an excess of particulars yet remain conditionally united through their uniform degree of saturation (Image 9).

[49] These features, despite the ostensibly functional character of the subject matter, allow the image to resist codification and compel the spectator to experience the insufferable intensity of the image along with the aleatory nature of perception. They also allow us to reconsider the morality so often imposed on these images. Moral problems are poorly posed if they begin with denial, ignoring ideas, desires and phantasms. Manufacturing the event demands a new and parallel creativity, a progressive rather than acquiescent maneuver. The event must be actively willed rather than passively accepted. Burtynsky accomplishes this task by repeating the event differently, counter-actualizing it to the maximum of its potential, affording it a novel sense and significance.

[50] To manufacture and will these spaces is not to resign oneself to them but is rather a release from their narrative, anthropocentric and utilitarian connections. Burtynsky does not deny the event but rather returns to it by expressing its geological, physical and aesthetic duration. These spaces demand scrutiny, an image of thought in which philosophical interpretation is suspended in favor of absolute singularities, relations and qualities requiring different responses, which cannot be generalized but only communicated in their very refusal to be mollified and subsumed.

[51] The photographer, like the spectator before his work 'has gained in an ability to see what he has lost in action or reaction: he SEES so that the viewer's problem becomes "What is there to see in the image?" (and not now "What are we going to see in the next image?")' (Deleuze 1989, 272). A productive event demands we select something to affirm in it and affect a constant reinvention to alter its sense. We cannot be worthy of the event unless we strive to express it through others and for others and in response to others' expressions, unless we strive to connect it to others, as far as its potential and our potential can carry it.


Benjamin, Walter. 1978. 'A Small History of Photography.' In One-Way Street and Other . London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 240-257.

Burtynsky, Exploring the Residual Landscape [cited August 1 2011]. Available from edwardburtynsky.com.

Cavell, Stanley. 1979. The World Viewed, Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1984. Kant's Critical Philosophy: The Doctrine of the Faculties.

—. 1986. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Translated by H. Tomlinson and B. Habberjam. London: The Athlone Press.

—. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by H. Tomlinson and R. Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 1994. Difference and Repetition. Translated by P. Patton. New York: Columbia University Press.

—. 1995. Negotiations: 1972-1990. Translated by M. Joughin. New York: Columbia University Press.

—. 1998. Essays Critical and Clinical. Translated by D. W. Smith and M. A. Greco. London: Verso.

—. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Translated by D. W. Smith. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1983. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Scizophrenia. Translated by R. Hurley, M. Seem and H. R. Lane. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by B. Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

—. 1994. What is Philosophy? Translated by H. Tomlinson and G. Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press.

Dyer, Geoff. 2011. 'Edward Burtynsky.' In Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 87-90.

Fried, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Krauss, Rosalind. 1982. 'Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View.' Art Journal 42 (Winter 4): 311-319.


[1] The artist statement on Burtynsky's website is indicative of a dualistic approach and his ethical conundrum. He writes:

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times. (Burtynsky)

[2] This phrase is adapted from Stanley Cavell, who writes:

A photograph does not present us with "likenesses" of things; it presents us, we want to say, with the things themselves. But wanting to say that may well make us ontologically restless. "Photographs present us with things themselves" sounds, and ought to sound, false or paradoxical. (Cavell 1979, 17)

[3] It is unfortunate that Deleuze's most prolonged engagement with photography occurs in his book on Francis Bacon, because while the figurative painter used photography as an intermediary, a dubious and provisional necessity, rather than the ultimate image of expression, Deleuze's relationship with the photograph is infinitely more complex. Photography prefigures the 'powers of the false' Deleuze will develop in relation to modern film in Cinema 2, and he associates the medium with the affirmative powers of simulacrum, a concept developed in Logic of Sense into a potentialized expression without model rather than an inferior copy.