I happened upon an amazing photography exhibit in a little art gallery in Vermont, where we had gone for a long weekend.
I stumbled upon it quite by chance, drawn in by what was billed as the main exhibit — a small collection of Edward Hopper paintings, mostly of the Vermont countryside.
While it was surprising to view a dozen or so unfamiliar Hopper paintings (his work, always lovely, with mesmerizing light and shadows), I was somewhat disappointed. I preferred the artist’s later work, especially paintings done of streets and houses in Gloucester.
The gallery sitter, an older woman, enthusiastic at her post, spoke to me as I circumvented the small exhibit several times.
When I turned to leave, the woman touched my sleeve, suggesting that I not miss the photography exhibit in the upper loft. I smiled politely, saying that I really didn’t have an interest in photography, nor did I have the time just then, to explore another exhibit. Insistent, she said I must make time; that it was extraordinary.
Not wanting to seem impolite or dismissive, I mounted the stairs to a small, second-story suite of rooms with very high ceilings, where I was at once completely absorbed.
It was a collection of photographs, many of them huge, by internationally recognized Canadian artist, Edward Burtynsky, who travels the world over, “searching out and photographing,” writes M. R. Taylor in his preface of the catalog, “places that represent the impact human consumption makes on the earth at its most profound.” And without a doubt, Burtynsky found his master subject in the depths of the Vermont quarries.
In an interview, the artist remembered looking at large buildings made of stone, and wondering where the landscapes were, from which the blocks of stone were cut, and how such altered landscapes might look when they were emptied.
Thus began Burtynsky’s obsession with quarries. Finding few in his native Canada, he was directed to Vermont, where he would discover the impressive depths of the marble and granite quarries there. His photographs of them resulted in this exhibit, which he called, “Nature Transformed: Vermont Quarry Photographs in Context.”
This exhibit showed Vermont marble and granite quarries in areas of central and northern cities (Barre, Rutland, Middlebury, Danby), some of them with depths so extreme that, as I viewed them in pictures, I experienced a physical fear of falling. I had actually to steady myself on a piece of furniture in the room’s center, so real did the photographs seem.
Burtynsky’s images were truly awesome, otherworldly.
I found the history of the emigration of Italian stonecutters and their families from Carrara, Italy, to Vermont, in the late 1800’s, fascinating.
Summoned to teach the less proficient Vermont stone masons a more precise manifestation of their craft, and impressed by the number of deep and still un-mined quarries in the landscape, many of those Italian master stonecutters settled permanently, creating what was then the largest Italian community in America.
If skyscrapers were towering masses surrounded by space, Burtynsky reasoned, then conversely, quarries were “inverted skyscrapers. Quarries were downward space surrounded by mass. They were platonic voids.” And the oldest part of a quarry is the top (at ground level), the newest part, at the bottom.
This extraordinary exhibit had an unsettling but awesome effect on me. I saw a marble quarry in summer that looked pure white - cold, like pristine, frozen snow; I saw a granite quarry dotted with autumnal trees that had somehow seeded themselves on ledges seemingly devoid of soil.
I saw things that should not happen, but they did.
I saw: nature transformed.
Susan Emerson is a regular Times columnist.