The first time I saw one of Edward Burtynsky’s images, I was certain it couldn’t be true. I was in Montreal in 2005, and the work showed a thick, red river slicing through a landscape of black rock, like a wound. The river was too large to be contained by a single photographic frame. Instead, it slithered across two, forming a massive, menacing diptych that spanned around eight feet wide.
When I returned to my hotel, I was still thinking about that red river, determined to know more about what I’d seen. I quickly learned how real it was — that the title of the two photographs, Nickel Tailings #34/#35, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996, referenced the source of the color that haunted me: iron left behind from the nickel extraction process, oxidizing and dyeing the river in its vibrant hues.
Part of me still couldn’t grasp the image’s true weight. Seeing photographs from 1996 by a Canadian artist while visiting a foreign city made it easy to think of the image in isolation, as a vision of someone else’s problem. But another, less conscious part of me recognized the harsher, larger truths embedded in Nickel Tailings #34/#35 and wedged them in the back of my mind. Something about the urgency of those photographs stayed with me — something I now realize I was afraid to fully see.
Since the 1980s, Burtynsky has been documenting human impacts on the natural landscape, with a particular interest in the transformations brought by industry; indirectly he has also been photographing some of the contributing culprits of climate change. “What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event. It’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see,” President Obama told the New York Times during an interview on September 8, 2016. Burtynsky has been taking his photos for over thirty years — ideal timing for portraying this seemingly elusive process whose physical evidence may require the span of a human lifetime to capture.
In his 2005 TED Talk, My Wish: Manufactured Landscapes and Green Education, Burtynsky explained how his early practice photographing “pristine landscapes” was holding him back as an artist. He mentioned being driven to create something more than nature photos for calendars and a desire to rethink how landscapes are conceived. This led me to wonder about the truthfulness of the photographic style Burtynsky eschewed — images that appear to portray untouched landscapes. Why aren’t we more skeptical of these images whose perfection must be false to some extent, given the way human impacts have come to bore so deeply into the environment? Do seemingly flawless landscapes still look beautiful if we know they’re lying?
Yet, elements of the pristine inhabit Burtynsky’s process. He documents places that have been disrupted and transformed by humans, but the images themselves are pristine — in the assertive thickness of their colors, in the tight control of their compositions, and in the stark clarity of their details. His approach began in the 1980s with three series based in the United States and Canada: Homesteads, Railcuts, and Mines. Homesteads and Railcuts depict rural areas where houses and railroads interrupt vistas of mountains, valleys, and forests. Mines and his later Quarries series that was taken in Vermont during the early 1990s play more directly with the massive scale and razor-sharp details that define much of his later work. Layers of sublimely patterned strata fill the frames of these images, directing us to stare into the brink, but from a safe distance.
I knew that sense of distance was gone the moment I saw Burtynsky’s Shipbreaking series on the big screen in 2007. By then, the artist was documenting sites of industry around the world, a process captured in the 2006 documentary on the artist’s work, Manufactured Landscapes. The Shipbreaking photographs include images of old oil tankers being disassembled by laborers in Bangladesh — the toxic graveyards for vessels that reminded me of the ships that carry massive quantities of oil through Washington State every day. In Burtynsky’s photos, the rusting, burning shards crouch along the shoreline like metal mammoths, dwarfing the oil-covered people working between them as if they’re minor details. The visual conflict between this strangely beautiful world and the grotesque process that created it still disturbs me ten years later. When I see oil tankers drift through local waters now, my mind fills with visions of their flaming fates and clouds of chemical-filled smoke coating the lungs of people disassembling them an ocean away. While the Nickel Tailings photographs had left me unsettled, Shipbreaking pierced my consciousness so deeply, I can’t unsee the effects.
Shipbreaking was a pivotal moment for Burtynsky, too. In the Telegraph, he identified the location as one of the most powerful places he’d ever visited; “I felt as if I was stepping back in time to Dickens and the Satanic Mills,” he told Alastair Sooke in mid-2016. If pressed to explain the differences I can find in his work after that juncture, I would have to point to their increasing beauty, particularly in Water (2007–2013). In his statement for the series, the artist explains that humans are “capable of engineering our own demise” and encourages contemplation of how humanity manipulates water on a large scale. An ancient stepwell he photographed in India mirrors the shapes in Quarries but also shows luscious purple and rust-colored streaks inside the centuries-old, sculptural void that had once been filled with water. The rooftops of the Homesteads also return, but now floating and flaring in orange along elegant, man-made waterways in Naples, Florida. It’s as if Burtynsky’s colors and compositions become more aggressively stunning as the human impact on the environment worsens.
This effect only increases when the artist turns his lens to some of the most damaging human activities: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, water-draining agricultural practices, and the construction of oversized dams in China. In these images, Burtynsky abstracts oil-covered oceans, sun-dried soil, and cloud-like blasts of water into color fields and forms so overwhelming for the eye that I found myself moving as close to them as possible in an attempt to discern the details. The jade tendrils of Colorado River Delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011 — my own Colorado River, the one whose water bathed the strawberries sitting in my refrigerator — appear like cracks in the former wetland whose waters have been dammed and sediments dried into a desert. I found this image easier to look at than the Nickel Tailings, even though it shouldn’t be; I knew I was implicated in this one from the title. But I found myself looking into it deeply, and then deeper still, before wanting to look away.
This process of wanting to look and then look away reminded me of a toxic lover — the person you’re attracted to over and over again, in spite of knowing better. In the mesmerizing blues and greens of the oil spills photographed by the artist, I saw the person who draws you in with a swagger and a look so quickly that you forget to resist, that you forgo thoughts of the problems that you know you’ll find later.
After you spend time immersed in Burtynsky’s images, you take their beauty home with you. You stalk the places, the details, the processes, to figure out exactly how they were made. You eventually find the information you didn’t want to know: that you made the photographs and the damage, along with everyone else. And then, you start to understand how the damage to these landscapes — so scarred with those rich colors and alluring patterns that are so unnatural — could be forever.
Burtynsky’s latest project will look at the Anthropocene epoch, focusing on the lasting changes wrought by humans on a geologic scale through a multidisciplinary museum exhibition that includes new photographs, a book, and a feature length documentary film scheduled to be released in 2018. But, perhaps more surprisingly, some of his more recent work has also returned to the pristine. In 2012, he began photographing untouched wilderness for the first time in over three decades. This section of the Water series, called Source, includes rivers in Iceland and provincial parks in British Columbia and references water’s beginnings as glaciers and snow — elements whose roles in climate change have become so familiar we can now see them as precarious in this context. While the idea that they are truly pristine, unaffected by the rising temperatures and the weather patterns of climate change, would be naïve, not all is lost. If we try looking as long and as hard as Burtynsky’s photo-graphs teach us to look, we might have a chance to change our course before these pristine flickers disappear, too.
Photo(s) © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York
See more photographs on Edward Burtynsky's website.