Architecture, almost by definition, is a distinctly human endeavor. While the two underpinnings of architecture—form and function—exist in a healthy tension, the two are employed in varying degrees of balance but always in the service of people shaping a world in which to live.
The large-format work of Vancouver photographer David Burdeny—a trained architect and interior designer who shows in Canada, Brussels, New York, Boston, Newport Beach, and Ketchum at Gilman Contemporary—frequently addresses our efforts to frame human spaces amidst a titanic landscape. However, what is often not so subtly missing from Burdeny’s photographs are people.
“When you remove the people, you think about the space and invent your own narrative,” Burdeny explained in a phone interview from Vancouver. “It’s like a stage set where there is the anticipation of what happened and what will happen.”
In his most recent series, “A Bright Future,” Burdeny photographed the Moscow and St. Petersburg metros: elaborate chandelier-lit, marble subway stations built by Stalin. All are devoid of people. While one motivation of the work, according to Burdeny, was aesthetic—the stations are beautiful and remarkable demonstrations of human creativity—another was his “longstanding interest in the relationship between architecture and power.” To elaborate, Burdeny posed the question, “What is the underlying reason we build things the way they are?” Much has to do with the projection of power and how it is imposed on others, he added.
Despite their beauty, the metro stations—photographed in 2015—can also be viewed with some irony, particularly given the historical context. With the elaborate tunnels in the images receding in the distance to a confining point, the future portrayed does not, in fact, seem so bright. Nor did it end up bright for millions of Soviet Union citizens killed during Stalin’s Great Purge.
In a 2013 series themed “Suadade,” a Portuguese word akin to the English word “longing,” Burdeny included several images taken from the air of intricate rice terraces in China. They present the quintessential architectural dialectic. From afar, the large images are exquisite abstract forms, beautiful in color and structure. At a more granular level, they are the ultimate demonstration of function and our penchant to architect the natural world for utilitarian reasons.
Left: “Shanghai Skyline (Dawn), China, 2011” Right: “Traverse, South China Sea, 2011”
Burdeny, the son of an engineer and a designer, was raised in Winnipeg, a city surrounded by vast prairies and skies. The landscape of his childhood clearly informs his work; many of his images reveal wide horizons, enormous skies, and light captured at the edges of the day that lends a surreal quality to the photographs.
Much of Burdeny’s early work was done with a large, 8-by-10-inch-format camera that employs a 240-millimeter lens. The camera enabled him to capture exceptional detail and wide horizons. It also compressed foreground and background, which had not only a spatial but also a temporal effect: the images seem to exist outside of time. However, the process entailed using cumbersome equipment: big bellows, heavy supplies of film, a large tri-pod, dark cloth and focusing ground glass. Commonly, he would shoot with 5- or even 10-minute exposures. It was not unusual for him to dedicate an entire day to creating a single image. While he has moved to a digital format for practical reasons (the film is no longer available), Burdeny loved the lengthy process. He likened it to making a movie. “I was forced to sit and observe and experience taking a photograph. I didn’t always get a usable image, but it was meditative.”
Though he uses digital technology now, he makes all of the technical adjustments manually. So, it is still a time-consuming process. However, Burdeny said, the resolution of the modern digital camera is finally approaching that of the old 8-by-10-format cameras. He is now able to capture highlights and shadows similar to what he could achieve with his film camera.
When Burdeny feels he has a usable image, he will spend up to a week printing one of his 44-inch- or occasionally 50-inch-wide photographs. It will involve printing small images, posting them on his wall and living with them for some time to fully contemplate and decide on any color corrections or printing settings he might want to implement for the final product.
Several images in Burdeny’s 2013 series “Suadade,” as well as a number in “Traces of Time” (2012), “Traverse” (2011), “Ancora” (2010), and “Sacred & Secular” (2009), incorporate dreamlike vistas of water with architectural forms. Burdeny attributes his fascination with coastlines and water to his upbringing on the waterless prairies of the Winnipeg area. In many of his photographs, the water is measureless and commanding, the human traces slight and diminished. By contrast, Burdeny pointed out, everything in a city is built to our scale. “At the ocean, you feel human again. You remember you are human and … insignificant.”
Burdeny’s image “Carnon-Plage, France 2012” is one such image that strikingly exemplifies his minimalist sensibilities but one that also conveys the artist’s attraction to aesthetic human constructs. In the photograph, vestiges of architectural forms—perhaps the wooden pilings of a pier—are subsumed by a seemingly limitless sea and sky. The colors are subtle and the forms simple. The image is at once dreamy and haunting, absent of people, of course. The narrative is there, but only barely so.