Through the Lens with David Burdeny
In Conversation | David Burdeny
Foster/White Gallery: You worked as an architect before turning to photography full time. How does your background influence or shape your photography?
David Burdeny: My first exposure to the arts was actually through photography, which I feel ultimately steered me towards an interest in design and architecture. I started taking pictures and developing my own film and prints at the age of 13. At that age I was limited to what I could photograph close to home or reach on my bike or bus. The internet did not exist at that time and other than a few books, I was on my own and learned early on how to simply roll up my sleeves and just figure it out. Most of those early images were abstract compositions of buildings in the neighbourhood or downtown. I’d hop off the bus with my camera (those were different times)! I was (intuitively) playing with shapes, lines, solids, and voids and discovered early on how perspective, light and time of day could transform an object - a piece of architecture in this case. Over the years I experimented with different genres as anyone learning does, but my fascination with built form never waned and I eventually entered design school.
Most of those eight years predated the move towards CAD-based drawings and my aesthetic over time increasingly reflected the vast horizontality of the Canadian prairies - the only landscape I had really known up until that time. I was also drawn to the works and drawings of Japanese architects such as Tadao Ando and Kazuyo Sejima. I studied their work extensively, their country, and why they did what they did. I loved how they formalized light, volume, and ritual into very simple and reductive forms. The work has a beginning, middle and end. It’s all about the temporal quality of being as you move through the spaces - the art of getting there. I carry that simple notion with me still to this day as I think of how, when, and where I make images.
Many of these early experiences were the springboard for early works or inspiration such as the Drift series, where the film was pulled across the shutter much like a pen is pulled along a parallel rule. From a technical point of view, they were more akin to drawing than photography. After that I would begin what has become an almost two-decade love affair with travelling and photographing in Japan. I’ve made pilgrimages to most of the buildings designed by Ando and Sejima, which in part lead me to some of those early locations along the Seto Inland Sea near Osaka.
F/WG: What draws you to certain locations as subjects in your work? Your aerial photography, especially of the Great Salt Lake, is iconic, but you also have series with more of an architectural focus from across Europe, in Cuba, Russia, and Brazil. Which are the most compelling subjects for you?
DB: More often than not, it’s a serendipitous encounter that will pave the way to choosing or visiting a location. Back in the early 2000’s when I was still shooting 4x5 film, I would often head down to San Francisco for the day to rent time on a drum scanner. Having a lab scan any quantity of them was cost prohibitive, so when I had a certain critical mass of negatives I wanted to digitize, I’d hop on the next flight down from Vancouver. On one of the trips I noticed the beautifully coloured evaporation ponds that border the runway. They were particularly brilliant that day and I couldn’t shake the experience of seeing them. I was working in black and white exclusively those years, but I’d always come across an image of a pink lake somewhere in the world that would keep the notion alive.
Fast forward ten years and I find myself reexamining where I would like to take my landscape work. I had progressed towards a more realistic representation of space over the years and was interested in revisiting some of the surrealist-realist themes of the previous decade. Those images were a fusion of fiction and reality where the familiar would fuse with an unfamiliar presence. They were less documentary and more about representing things as they seem or could be.
The Great Salt Lake evaporation ponds seemed like the perfect place to move the needle back a little. I made the decision early on to incorporate the horizon into each frame as a way of summarizing the whole within a single frame. I’m showing you this is part of the earth, but the colours and geometry lead you down another path. They are almost too impossible to believe, creating a sort of micro-mystery for the viewer to ponder.
The architecture work is in many ways 180 degree turn from landscape photography and I like to alternate between the two ways of working. I find the two keep each other in balance and in many ways keep me centered. When I’m in Japan or France collecting seascapes, I’m generally working without an agenda or formal plan. The process is completely fluid and open to improvisation. If I come across a scene of interest I like to give myself the option of staying for hours, days, or even weeks - whatever it takes. You’re very much in the flow, often riding the cycle of the sun, moon, tides and weather.
Being able to slow down and feel the time pass, watch the moon rise then set is a great luxury I will forever cherish in our hurried world. It’s this process that inspires me really, and pushes me through to the next series or location. The architecture work however is very disciplined, predicated on months of pre-planning and research. If permits are involved, I’m retaining a local production company to sort through the logistics and schedule time and day to shoot. Still, even with all that advanced planning there’s an element of uncertainty in not being able sort out every possible angle. I love the challenge of trying to extract something from a scene even though it’s not immediately apparent.
More than anything though, the local culture is especially important for my work from a conceptual point of view. Cultures all over the world are subject to many stereotypes and enormous misconceptions. But once you study the language, the people and their history, you acquire a deeper knowledge of the reality of the country you are working in, both the positive and negative aspects. We all live in the same world, but it is interpreted by many opposing points of view, which can show us other ways of being.
F/WG: The views you capture are not always taken from vantage points accessible to the general public. Have you ever had difficulty accessing the locations you wish to shoot? What kind of hurdles have you overcome to take the images you want?
DB: I’ve found over the years patience and a smile will take you places no permit can. People all over the world are generally kind and interested in what you are doing and willing to help if approached gently. I always remind myself that I want something from them and they don’t want anything from me. By way of some miracle, most people I approach are receptive to me invading their private spaces, and I’ve been welcomed into peoples’ homes, let up on their roofs, and even been asked to stay for lunch just by being polite [in my approach].
Sketchy helicopters aside, the most dangerous place I’ve worked was the Favela in Rio Di Janeiro. To get this angle I had to go deep down into the labyrinth of buildings and climb out into the open on top of a roof. My assistant, who had grown up in the Favela said she would never do (while hiding behind a wall) what I was about to do, and suggested I take the image quickly before someone opened fire on us. I spent no more than thirty seconds up there but could have easily used an hour.
The photographs in the Russian metro series were the product of a few lengthy and somewhat personally invasive permit applications. The metro stations still serve double duty as nuclear fallout shelters and transit hubs, and are overseen by the Russian military, requiring me to provide my passport and submit to a background check. After selecting which stations and in what order they were to be photographed, my local producer applied for separate filing permits for each station along with security and background checks for everyone going down to the platforms.
The whole process took about three months and we were granted a half hour per station after they closed for the night. Photographing anything security related such as the 2-meter thick blast-proof doors and other sensitive areas was strictly prohibited and overseen by station security. Even though they were closed, I found the stations surprisingly busy with cleaning and maintenance staff. To give the appearance of them empty we would set up and get the composition and exposure where it needed to be and then have everyone move outside the frame or hide behind a column if that wasn’t possible. In few images there are actually a dozen or so people just beyond the columns.
F/WG: You say you are drawn to capturing images of what could be considered sublime, places that connect the actual with the ephemeral. What is your role behind the camera?
DB: I like to think of myself as a guide pointing out aspects of the world that are important in some way and worth looking beyond a cursory glance. It might be something beautiful like a blooming cherry blossom in Kyoto or darker subjects like a Brazilian slum. Both make up the fabric of our existence and have equal importance in my eye.
I often use a long exposure time. I find it fascinating that the camera is capable of summarizing a whole hour in one single image. That type of photography intrigues me – the film can perceive a wider spectrum than our eyes. It can observe very quickly or very slowly. In most of my pictures, the camera is not so much a witness to the moment, but registers a state of being, a lapse of time where reality is denied and enriched by the photograph.
F/WG: Where in the world do you plan to go next? What ideas have you been wanting to explore?
DB: I made my first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa in 2019 and completely fell in love with the place (as so many do). I have been back a few more times since then. After photographing unpeopled landscapes and architecture for several decades, I’ve found the challenge of this new genre exhilarating as I’ve had to reset so many aspects of my practice. I’m scheduled to return this August, but as of today the borders are still closed to international travel, so I’ve been playing it day by day in hopes of returning. I originally went to photograph the landscape on that first trip in 2019, but the animals that call the area home stole my heart. I have turned the lens more towards them and have begun to make increasingly intimate images and portraits of them. I can’t say for certain where I’ll take them, but the image-making takes on a life of its own and I move in different directions on each subsequent trip.
2020 was the first year I had to skip my annual trip to Japan in almost 15 years, so I am anxious to return once the borders reopen. I missed the Sakura season, a workshop I was conducting, and the first trip there with the whole family. This year was especially disappointing as far as travel goes.
For the past year I’ve been experimenting with printing on natural papers and precious metals as a substrate, and had planned to include new imagery taken in Japan while exploring this new medium. These prints were to be smaller, more precious, almost gem-like. The image is more of an object itself and less a surface or mechanism that projects back the captured image.
F/WG: Have you been able to continue photographing during this nearly global shut-down? How have you sought and found positivity in each day?
DB: I haven’t been able to actively venture out and make any exposures in the way I previously have. Instead I’ve just sat down whenever I feel the need to take photographs and review the thousands of files I already have in storage. I’ve been so busy collecting images the past ten years it was enlightening to do a post-mortem on all those captures and see into the past and my train of thought at that time.
Blue Quadrilateral was the product of one of those sessions. It’s a rare vertical and I’m not entirely sure what possessed me to rotate the camera at that moment, but time and distance from the point of capture breathed new life into it and I’ve now made it available as a new print. I’m doing more of this now - revisiting cutting room floor captures in the same way I like to go back and revisit the same location year after year.