In headlong leaps toward capitalism, during the past 25 years, the lifestyles and landscapes of China have been changing beyond recognition with blinding speed. To officially signal the change to the world, in 1992, Deng Xiao Ping proclaimed, “To be rich is to be glorious!” Yet the mad rush to embrace Western ideals has — and is — creating profound consequences for the people of China and for the rest of the world.

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky worked through diplomatic channels to gain access to photograph many sites undergoing enormous change. With his large format camera, over the course of three years, Burtynsky has captured the vast scale and minute details of monumental transformations of a society. He documents today’s "factories for the world"; the dumping grounds for the hand-recycling of the world’s e-waste; the unprecedented migrations of millions of humans toward brand new urban environments; and the ecological footprint of Three Gorges Dam, the largest dam on the planet that forced the relocation and threatened the livelihoods of more than 1.13 million people.

Burtynsky presents his prints in large format, as well. Many measuring 40 by 50 inches (100 x 125 centimeters), which creates a dizzying effect on the viewer because every detail is in needle-sharp focus from the foreground to the distant horizons.

An excellent book, published in 2005 by Steidl, introduces the work and subject matter with four articulate essays, and then presents the images one by one, grouped by theme, but shown without captions or text. At the back of the book, the themes are reprised with brief, “just the facts” explanatory texts, and captions for each photograph. It’s a very effective and compelling design. And a sobering call to be mindful of the inevitable consequences of short-sighted hubris, desire and greed.

I had the chance to meet and interview Burtynsky in Paris in November 2005, and I am pleased to include his 13 minute audio commentary about this work here.

To view more of his work, and larger images, I encourage you to visit the artist’s website:

— Jim Casper

Burtysnky — China 
by Edward Burtysnky
With essays by Mark Kingwell, Ted Fishman, Marc Mayer, and the artist.
180 pages, 80 color plates.