Certainly it's all the rage right now, he had the big Manufactured Landscape show and book at the National Gallery of Canada a couple of years ago, his new China book came out last year and another on the Three Gorges, he won the Ted Prize with Bono, there's even Burtynsky the movie.
But somehow the photographs just don't excite or intrigue me. And the thing is, they should. I think it's pretty obvious I'm a big Struthsky fan (along with Lynne Cohen, Candida Hoeffer, Chris Jordan etc). I really like the big, colour modern (post-modern?) work. I've looked closely at Burtynsky's books, I've peered at the big selection of prints that the Art Gallery of Alberta has, I've heard him talk and even buttonholed him afterwards, but somehow the juices just don't flow. In fact the feeling I had after spending quite a while in his show and his well illustrated lecture was... disappointment. I just didn't come away from it excited or moved or full of new ideas (which is how I felt after seeing Gursky and Struth at the Tate Modern for example).
Among all the recent praise there was, unusually, a rather scathing review in the NY Times - The reviewer didn't like Burtynsky's work, but mainly for all the wrong reasons. He was put off by the way Burtynsky will abstract something so you aren't quite sure what it is, or how he will use the same approach to different subjects - which are all approaches well utilised by plenty of other photographers. The closest he actually came to defining his unease was in suggesting that Burtynsky is really "just" a National Geographic photographer with a big camera - but I'm not entirely convinced that it's that either (though I think perhaps he had a kernel of something there).
My biggest difficulty with the work is that it is full of excellent ideas, good concepts - but that's where a lot of it stops - it doesn't go the rest of the way and find something more deeply important, something meaningful - beyond the obvious. It's not clinical like Lynne Cohen's work, but perhaps cool (in the chilly sense of the word), intellectual, but not felt - or at least that is what comes across to me. The work is very contemporary in style, but it's almost too flat, not sharp (punctum) or poignant. I guess I could sum it up by saying I found Burtynsky far more interesting to listen to than I found it looking at his work. He had a few early pieces which were actually quite intriguing but it's almost as if he lost the way after this. The message has taken over, the idea has become the thing - but that's only half of it - the work is missing the rest. The message has become the medium.
Yes, there are certain individual pictures of his that draw me more than others - the oilfield pictures for example - and also some that are individually beautiful. There are others that fascinate for a little while - the scale of the Three Gorges photographs. But I'm still trying to figure out why, when I like so much apparently similar work, I can't quite get hooked by his? Maybe I'm the only one that doesn't get it... So any hints - let me know.