Edward Burtynsky, one of the world’s most timely photographers, has achieved an aesthetic and a perspective that give us a feel for how the built environment connects to nature and to the human footprint on Earth. The spectrum is spectacular, and the great theatre of Earth becomes the canvas. With Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, Burtynsky has formed the Anthropocene Working Group, whose “ambition for the work is to be revelatory, not accusatory, as we examine human influence on the earth both inplanetary scale and geological time… The shifting of consciousness is the beginning of change.”1 The group visited every continent (expect Antarctica) documenting sites initially researched using Google Earth and GPS technology.

A native of Hamilton, Ontario—a working town if ever there was one— Burtynsky worked in a gold mine while studying photography. It was then that he realized that capturing the human impact on the environment could be a natural continuation of early photographers’ documentation of westward expansion in North America. The near-pristine landforms and scenes captured by early travel photographers such as Carleton Watkins and William Notman during the periods of colonization and early industriali­zation had now become the endpoint of global excess and overproduction. During an interview on the occasion of his solo show at Flowers Gallery in London, U.K., Burtynsky stated, “We’re at a critical moment in history where we’re starting to hit the thresholds of human expansion and the limits of what this planet can sustain. We’re reaching peak oil, peak fish, peak beef—and the evidence is all there to see in the landscape.”2

The super-size scale of Burtynsky’s overviews of nature transformed by humans makes them alluring, even beautiful. Along with other photographers of his generation, Burtynsky is evolving a new “conscious” environmental aesthetic. Photographers such as Richard Misrach and David Maisel from California, Sebastian Salgado from Brazil (the subject of Wim Wenders’s wonderful documentary Salt of the Earth), Andreas Gursky from Germany (to an extent), and Burtynsky observe and capture Earth from a distance. Humanity seems small, but our interventions are omnipresent. As Burtynsky says, “It is interesting that we have all eventually gone to the air, either using helicopters or drones. There is something we can see from that point of view that we can’t see standing on the ground. You can’t get how these human systems are interconnected and the scale of these systems when you are on the ground.”3

Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal with drone pilot Mike Reid
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
© Edward Burtynsky
Courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Capturing the effects of the Anthro­pocene, a geological era in which the human presence dramatically intervenes on the planet’s environment and atmosphere (a concept first introduced by Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Jozef Crutzen in 2000), involves capturing scenes from a middle distance to engage the viewer while sustaining an overview, thus making the human presence a visible part of these scenes. The makers of the film Anthropocene (supported by Fondazione MAST, a non-profit institution in Bologna that organizes the Foto/Industria photography biennial) present news from nowhere. This dynamic, dystopic aesthetic, now institutionalized and part of the société du spectacle (Guy Debord), involves the daily consumption of images and objects by humanity. Is that enough? As historian Lewis Mumford wrote back in 1952, “The earth as we know it holds both a promise of heaven and a threat of hell. If we are heedless of our environment and of human needs, the processes now at work will doom our whole planet to destruction – slow destruction.”4

Venice is flooding, and the film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch offers a glimpse of this. We see St. Mark’s Square flooded, complete with tourists shopping in rubber boots and chefs wading among restaurant tables and chairs. As dystopia becomes a comfort zone, part of the institutionalization of the passive disaster industry, an air of hysteria saturates any rational consideration of how we might counter the effects of the human imprint on earth. Paul Hawken’s initiative called Project Drawdown presents one hundred ways to combat global warming.5 More than hysteria, we need concrete solutions like Project Drawdown, as evidenced by so many working worldwide to find living ecological solutions to the dilemma. We urgently need a ban on plastic and other materials. Alternatives are already available. Actions are the response we need in these times. Vermont- and Florida-based Michael Singer, an artist turned designer/landscape architect, is an example. His modular seawall living pods are a very real response to sea-level rise. Unlike many “designers,” “artists,” and captains of industry, Singer is not copyrighting his product but encouraging others to copy and produce the pod modules to help secure shorelines worldwide.

Burtynsky and the Anthropocene team fulfil a function that many agencies, such as the United Nations, should be performing but are not. He highlights the ongoing and jarring changes taking place in the natural world as a result of human activity. We see the evidence of plastic in Spain’s farmlands, the destruction of old-growth forests in British Columbia (just 10 percent remains on Vancouver Island), the changing conditions in Makoko, a community in Lagos nicknamed the Venice of Africa, and Nigeria’s shoreline base for moving the timber from the decimated forests nearby, among many other silent physical invasions of natural reserves, resources, and landscapes. We walk around a 3D image of a functionally extinct northern white rhino using the free AVARA technology app: an uncanny enigma, a hopeless icon of our capacity to document and “save” what no longer exists in the physical realm.

Burtynsky and the Anthropocene team fulfil a function that many agencies, such as the United Nations, should be performing but are not. He highlights the ongoing and jarring changes taking place in the natural world as a result of human activity.

In Burtynsky’s photographs, dogs stand atop piles of rubbish in the Dandora landfill in Nairobi, Kenya, and people weave their way through landscapes of trash. Burtynsky paints, composing with real-world elements, the connection from the world’s largest lithium reserve seen drying in piles in the Atacama Desert, Chile, to the world’s largest metal smelter in Norilsk, Russia, to a lithium plant in Michigan. During terraforming at the Hambach mine in Westphalia, Germany, vast swaths of the landscape are transformed, whole villages are eviscerated, totally removed, as eight of the world’s largest 12,000-ton excavators remove earth in an ever-expanding search for coal. We see images of a church and spire being demolished, almost like a twenty-first-century inversion of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic paintings of God in the land. Images of vast potash mines in Russia, of the coal and fracking industry’s willy-nilly disrupted landscape in Wyoming, and of trucks and shovels dancing to opera music like synchronized monsters at the Carrera marble quarries in Italy all generate a response from us. We see the never-ending assembly of a 120-kilometre-long seawall using concrete pods in China. These human- generated cement techno-fossils of the future will form part of a layer of geo-strata from the Anthropocene era.

As Burtynsky’s film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch evidences, the effects are pervasive, actual physical scars on the landscape and in the oceans that affect all life. The photographs, films, and augmented-reality experiences in the AGO and National Gallery of Canada exhibitions bring together, in each single “photograph,” thousands of still images, all effectively stitched together with software into extreme-high-resolution murals measuring 3.6 x 7.3 metres. The photogrammetry process achieves this, assisted by AVARA technology. When triggered, the augmented reality enables the viewer to experience near-life-size 3D images. One of the images, President Kenyatta’s Tusk Pile—also a sequence in the film—was captured on April 30, 2016, when Africa’s largest-ever destruction of illicit ivory (worth more than $100 million) took place in Nairobi National Park, Kenya. Eleven pyres composed of 105 tons of confiscated elephant tusks and 1.35 tons of rhinoceros horn were publicly incinerated as a clarion call to halt all trade in ivory and rhino horn, making the threat to African elephants and rhinos from illegal poaching clear.

The images that flow in the film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch achieve a long-term view of civilization. They are like mimetic shadows of our resource-extraction and -production systems, visual fodder that explains an ultra-toxic relationship between humans and Earth. Describing dystopia, the Anthropocene team speaks to all of us, all the people in the world. We see climatologists poking at screens like monkeys, landscapes of oil refineries, coal trains in Wyoming, complete despoliation.

Ed Burtynsky is a master of scale and spatial views sequences. Like depth markers or gasometers, each image measures encroachment, erasure, displacement, and containment. Anthropocene—the film and the photographs—are a must-see. As these images make clear, the future is not just for us, but for our children and our children’s children, and the biosphere, the animals, the plants – all life forms that we share this planet with.

Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration
Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
September 28, 2018—February 24, 2019

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
September 28—January 6, 2019

(1) Press release for the Anthropocene Project, November 15, 2018.

(2) Oliver Wainwright, “Edward Burtynsky on His Ravaged Earth Shots: ‘We’ve Reached Peak Everything’,” The Guardian, 15 September 2016.

(3) Ed Burtynsky in conversation with John K. Grande, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, September 2018.

(4) Lewis Mumford “Introduction,” in E. A. Gutkind, Our World from the Air, Garden City (NY), Doubleday and Co. and the British Institute of Sociology, 1952, p. vi, cited in Anthropocene, (AGO and National Gallery of Canada, 2018), p. 20.

(5) See www.drawdown.org