Searching for the Future

It’s amazing what you would see, if only you looked up from your BlackBerry.

One of my projects, ongoing and open-ended, is figuring out what the twenty-first century looks like. What exactly separates the present from the past? What do I see every day on the street or highway that I wouldn’t have seen eight or nine years ago, back on the far side of the millennial divide? How do I get enough perspective to see clearly the world all around me?

Some things are obvious. Baby carriages, for example, have changed in shape and attitude much more than cars have. Microfiber-clad mommies pushing Bugaboo strollers always look as if they’ve walked in from some Hollywood set designer’s version of the twenty-first century. The aural landscape—punctuated by all manner of cell-phone rings and BlackBerry buzz—has changed more conspicuously than the physical scenery. Yet mostly what I notice is that other people are not noticing. They’re increasingly isolated from their immediate physical surroundings. People lost in cell-phone conversations or text messages walk the city streets blindly, as trusting as children, their attention elsewhere. But then there’s only so much you can see from street level.

More through inattention than any attempt at concealment, the shaping of the twenty-first century is happening offstage, out of sight. We can sense that large-scale change is happening, but we can’t exactly see it. Some of the current popularity of satellite imagery—now readily available to anyone with a modicum of bandwidth—can be explained by a simple desire to see. Maybe if we can get enough perspective, we can understand how the world is changing.

My own hunger for perspective is why I was drawn to the work of photographer David Maisel. He’s one of a group of photographers considered practitioners of the “industrial sublime.” For years Maisel has been taking deceptively gorgeous aerial shots of environmentally ravaged landscapes like Owens Lake, diverted and drained in the 1920s to supply Los Angeles with water. His latest book (published by Nazraeli Press, Portland) and accompanying exhibition (at New York’s Von Lintel gallery) are titled Oblivion. The photos are views of Los Angeles shot from a helicopter flying at an unusually high altitude—about 10,000 feet. In a conversation at his gallery Maisel explains that he took the photos while holding his camera in the open doorway of the helicopter. Although he was strapped in, he says the experience “was really terrifying.”

The photos, large-format black-and-white squares printed in negative so that much of the urban landscape is a snowy white—“It’s almost like everything’s made of dust”—are meant to convey the horror of the city’s relentless small-scale march across the landscape. But at the same time the images are quite beautiful, and the endless expanse of insignificance takes on a monumental quality when viewed from high above. The freeways possess a grace from two miles up; and the high-contrast technique gives the city a crispness, a formal elegance, that it lacks at ground level. In his attempt to render the nightmare of unchecked development—the ugly corollary to the destruction of Owens Lake—Maisel actually succeeds in glorifying it.

But perspective isn’t something you can get reliably from a helicopter or a satellite. Sometimes it’s just a matter of paying attention. Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky has devoted himself to capturing “nature transformed through industry.” Generally he doesn’t need to get much higher than a rooftop or the bucket of a cherry picker. The first time I encountered his photos, they were hanging on the walls of a luxurious modern house in Toronto. The architect who designed the house was giving me a tour, but the moment I saw Burtynsky’s large-format shots of Bangladeshi workers pulling apart massive junked oil tankers by hand, I completely lost interest in the architecture.

On a recent trip to Vancouver I stumbled upon the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, which tracks Burtynsky as he documents the ongoing reinvention of China. (It will begin a U.S. run in June, at Film Forum, in New York.) Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, the film opens with a slow pan inside a factory in Xiamen City. The shot goes on seemingly forever because the factory building is absurdly long. Even in Burtynsky’s still photo of the factory’s interior, the building seems to continue beyond the vanishing point. So if you want to know what the twenty-first century looks like, maybe you look at Maisel’s shot of greater L.A. stretching from the Pacific to the San Gabriel Mountains or at Burtynsky’s Chinese factory that extends to the edge of topological improbability.

Manufactured Landscapes offers a handy synopsis of the extraordinary work Burtynsky did in China: he photographed the factories where the bulk of our consumer goods are manufactured, documented the leveling of the 13 cities that were about to be inundated by the Three Gorges Dam, and tracked the unparalleled urban-renewal movement that has transformed Shanghai into a modern high-rise city.

Burtynsky is now beginning to tackle a subject larger than China. “I’ve been interested in trying to photograph things that may exist today that will not exist tomorrow,” he says. He’s set out to document the idea of peak oil and its impact on society. “I’m looking at the industry and the oil fields and the last great sources of oil on the planet.”

I asked Burtynsky which of his photos best depicts the present moment. He replies, “The one Shanghai picture where it’s just this forest of skyscrapers is the one that, to me, stands as a sobering reminder of a world we’re creating.” Burtynsky is clearly not the first one pointing to China as the spot where this century’s course will be determined, but his perspective is uniquely powerful. He tells me that China expects a migration from rural areas to cities of as many as 300 million people in the next 10 to 15 years. “What are the cities going to look like with that many people in them?” he asks.

Implicit in both Maisel’s and Burtynsky’s work is the notion that we are pushing the limits of how much we can make and build and consume. Certainly both are crafting powerful messages about the environmental impact of modern life. At the same time they create works of extraordinary beauty. It’s a paradox—to draw our attention to the overwhelming awfulness of what we’ve created by living our contemporary lives, these photographers must make it eye-catching. Embedded in that contradiction, however, is a genuine insight about our particular moment: it’s a beautiful nightmare. The iPod in your pocket is as gorgeous and mysterious as the monolith worshipped by the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but in truth we know as little about our fetish objects’ origins as Stanley Kubrik’s primitives did. Burtynsky’s photos demonstrate how the production of little changes one routinely sees on the street—like the proliferation of attention-sucking gadgets—has caused an epic transformation on the other side of the world. Maisel sums up the situation as “seduction and betrayal. We’re all seduced by the pleasure of twenty-first-century life, but then there’s a payback.” Or maybe it’s the butterfly effect in reverse: a cell phone rings in New Jersey, and it causes an earthquake in China.

Recent Programs