For about 35 years, Edward Burtynsky has been photographing humankind’s industrial impact on natural landscapes. The Canadian photographer and artist known for his large format photographs of industrial landscapes has used helicopters and, since 2012, a bespoke drone. His images help us look down on our planet in a new and detailed way.
From copper mining in British Columbia to oil pirating in the Niger Delta and a gleaming Italian marble quarry, Burtynsky provides the visual evidence on a breathtaking scale — with all the wasteland, spills and debris that result from them.
“The technical revolution has turned us into a virus consuming all living organisms, diminishing biodiversity,” he says to CNN. He is recording it beautifully though, making it as “visually compelling and as transcendent” as he can.
Burtynsky’s prints are large, usually 60 inches by 80 inches depictions of swirls, spirals and loops. The artist’s latest body of work is entitled “Anthropocene,” the term some scientists use to define our current age where humanity has became the dominant influence on the planet’s climate and environment. He believes this era began in the 19th century with the widespread use of the internal combustion engine. Others think it began later, after 1945 and nuclear testing.
Regardless, Burtynsky claims to be non-judgmental, saying that his work is “revelatory not accusatory.” The landscape is simply “the consequence of what we are.” He likes to hope that his images — his “compendium of that rash spread across the planet,” as he puts it — has had some impact, not least on the next generation who are “less engaged in materiality.”
“I like to remain optimistic that technology will save the day,” Burtynsky says, though his tone suggests otherwise according to CNN. He expresses surprise at “how slow we are to react, and how impossible it seems to tackle the problem on the scale it needs to be tackled.”
“After 35 years looking at the wastelands of our cities, of our lives, we’re running out of time.”
In 2005, Burtynsky published a book about China called “China”. For his next book, he’s switched his attention to Africa. At 63, he’s quietly ticking off the countries he’s photographed, which includes Nigeria (whose capital, Lagos, he refers to as “the hyper-crucible of globalism”), Kenya (where he captured a huge pyre of burning elephant ivory) and Ghana (where he photographed an engine recycling plant from above). His remarkable photographic depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of over sixty major museums around the world.
Burtynsky was named “Master of Photography” for this week’s Photo London fair, where he’s showing work and has given a talk.
Photo London is on until May 20, 2018.