Burtynsky: Quarries edited by Edward Burtynsky. Steidl. Hardcover, 176 pages. $80.

The cover of Burtynsky: Quarries

Dig it. That’s what they do, the folks who work in marble and granite quarries. And they dig it deep—creating pits that descend vertiginously like inverted cathedrals. Words such as pit and hole hardly suggest the architectural grandeur—shaped by decades of canny engineering—that characterizes the quarries Canadian landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky presents in this marble slab of a tome. Known for ranging around the globe in search of dramatic interactions with the environment (ship breaking on Bangladeshi beaches, dam building in China’s Three Gorges), Burtynsky visited quarries in Vermont, Italy, Portugal, and India, as well as returning to China. Then he peered into the depths: Most of the photos in Quarries were shot from the rims or upper levels of these massive cavities (the improbable prospect above required a platform cantilevered from a wall), so viewers may grow faint—some images drawing you forward, inviting a headlong fall to the glassy green water below. While the photographer aims here and in other projects to reveal in high relief the particulars of environmental damage, the ingenious compositions that serve his epic inclinations make it difficult to look at these man-made canyons and not marvel. How did they lift huge blocks of marble out of that hole? How did they lower massive machines to its bottom? The very scale of ambition and prowess on display complicates a facile response to the despoilment. In other cases, images of New England quarries fallen into disuse—the walls stained burnt orange, golden-leafed trees sprung up on the ledges—appear to be the product of pastoral reverie. Burtynsky’s nuanced regard for such dualities informs each photo—this is landscape art (people are rarely in evidence, and then often as little more than pencil marks at the bottom of a great white well) in which the human mind is omnipresent, having been cut, hammered, and blasted into the very heart of the earth.