In Burtynsky’s most recent photographs, produced across the African continent, the patterns and scars of human-altered landscapes initially appear to form an abstracted painterly language. From the graduating tonal grids of pinks and green-gold formed by the expansive salt flats in Namibia, Senegal and Botswana, to the swirling whorls formed by South Africa’s tailing ponds and mine dumps, they reference the sublime and often surreal qualities of human mark making. Taken from predominantly aerial vantage points, and presented at a large scale, the flattened frontal aspect, hyper-detail and dizzying perspective of Burtynsky’s photographic works navigate a narrow path between form and content. They function, from Burtynsky’s viewpoint, as reflecting pools of our times, seducing the eye to the surface and immersing the viewer in painterly details of line, shape and colour. Chronicling the major themes of terraforming and extraction, urbanization and deforestation, African Studies conveys the unsettling reality of sweeping resource depletion on both a human and industrial scale. From natural landscapes to artisanal mining and mechanised excavation, a series of distinct chapters culminate with China in Africa: a series depicting the interiors of newly built manufacturing plants. His project brings together the work of seven years, presenting the latest installment in Burtynsky’s lifelong oeuvre.
In this latest series, made in Turkey in 2021, Burtynsky documents the devastating but visually mesmerizing effects of erosion caused by deforestation.
During this time spent in isolation and while reflecting on this historic moment and the gravity of these events, I have taken the opportunity to once again turn my lens to the natural landscape as subject matter. The result is this new series, made during the time of year when the cycle of renewal exerts itself on the Earth. From the frigid sleep of winter to the fecund urgency of spring, these images are an affirmation of the complexity, wonder and resilience of the natural order in all things. I find myself gazing into an infinity of apparent chaos, but through that selective contemplation, an order emerges — an enduring order that remains intact regardless of our own human fate. These images are all from a place called Grey County, Ontario. They are also from a place in my mind that aspires to wrest order out of chaos and to act as a salve in these uncertain times.
– Edward Burtynsky
Burtynsky’s 'Anthropocene' explores the collective impact we as a species are having on the surface of the planet; an inspection of the human systems we've imposed onto natural landscapes. He has turned his lens on the terrible beauty of industrial interventions in nature such as mining, quarrying, manufacturing, shipping, the production of oil, and recycling. The title 'Anthropocene' refers to a proposal circulating in the scientific community to formally recognize the commencement of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – in which humans are the primary cause of permanent planetary change.
'We have reached an unprecedented moment in planetary history,’ stated Burtynsky. ‘Humans now arguably change the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined.’
For 'Anthropocene', Burtynsky travelled to every continent, with the exception of Antarctica, and visited twenty countries including Canada, Chile, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Spain and the United States. Often shooting from his signature bird’s-eye view using airplanes, helicopters and drones, his large-scale photographs are rich in detail and vast in scale, sometimes verging on the appearance of painterly abstractions. His images strike an intricate balance between a sombre reportage and a powerfully seductive aesthetic. 'Anthropocene' reflects the dilemma between society's desire for prosperity and its impact on the environment.
'I wanted to understand water: what it is, and what it leaves behind when we're gone. I wanted to understand our use and misuse of it. I wanted to trace the evidence of global thirst and threatened sources. Water is part of a pattern I've watched unfold throughout my career. I document landscapes that, whether you think of them as beautiful or monstrous, or as some strange combination of the two, are clearly not vistas of an inexhaustible, sustainable world.' – Edward Burtynsky