“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end,” wrote the novelist W.G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn. From the window of a plane above an urban sprawl, we witness among geometries of rooftops, factories, and highways “infinite networks of complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine.”
Photographing such complex, large-scale networks from the air has been the career-spanning pursuit of the Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky. For more than three decades, his work has focused on the impact of human activity on the environment from a God’s-eye view, prompting us to think about our species, our purpose, and our end.
With a host of photobooks and three documentary films under his belt, Burtynsky has recorded all of the earth’s continents (except Antarctica) from bridges, hydraulic poles, drones, helicopters, planes, and other elevated vantages. His aerial gaze — usually at an oblique angle to the terrain — abstracts humanity into a sweeping tableaux of manufactured landscapes impinging on nature. There are no individuals in Burtynsky’s hyperreal panoramas of oil refineries, landfills, polluted rivers, transportation networks, mining pits, and densely populated cities. His subject matter is civilization itself and the infernal encounters between human activity and the planet.
Burtynsky’s Anthropocene Project is his latest multi-disciplinary undertaking. Its scale is as immense as its theme: two museum exhibits in Canada; two gallery shows in New York City; a large-format photobook titled Anthropocene; and a documentary film made in collaboration with directors Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier.
Weighing more than six pounds and spanning over two feet in length, Anthropocene (Steidl) contains over 100 images, environmental poetry by Margaret Atwood, and an essay by two leading climate change scientists. The photographs are braided with facts about the Anthropocene — a proposed new geological epoch during which planetary conditions are shaped directly by human activity, resulting in global warming, species extinction, sea level rise, and pollution. (The Anthropocene will leave a permanent fossil record of atomic waste, microplastics, concrete and other markers in the stratigraphy of our planet.)
The book is a journey across 20 countries that explores humanity’s devastating effects on nature, from technofossils and urbanization to deforestation, resource depletion and biodiversity loss. Each image reveals, to use Walter Benjamin’s term, the “optical unconscious” of our era: concrete seawalls and mammoth river dams of China, floating city slums of Nigeria, Chile’s lithium and copper mines, log booms in Canada, hyperscale greenhouses of Spain, marble quarries of Italy, nuclear power stations and petrochemical plants in the U.S. and global mega-cities.
Occasionally, Burtynsky’s camera ducks underground to take viewers into the dark labyrinths of Russia’s potash mines and Nevada’s nuclear waste repositories. The book’s furthest image of our planet is taken from a satellite. Its closest one is an underwater photograph of a coral reef wall in Indonesia.
Manhattan’s Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery has dedicated its entire two-room space to 12 of Burtynsky’s photographs from the series. The smallest print is a 64×48 inch mural. The largest takes up a full wall.
Burtynsky often stitches multiple high-resolution shots of the same subject into a single colossal print. The effect is uncanny, and no reproduction can do it justice. From a distance, the gallery-goer stands before abstracted painterly geometries. The scale and height of the object are unclear at first — a square mile of phosphor-polluted landscape looks like lichen crusting a rock. But walk closer to the print and the effect is the opposite of approaching a painting: a database-like density of new details reveals itself in layers as if you were zooming in on a 3D Google Earth image or free-falling into the vista from the sky.
In “Tetrapods #1, Dongying, China,” hundreds of tetrapods — multi-ton, four-legged structures used for shoreline protection — form rippling arcs of concrete arranged in a domino pattern. As you come near, you can almost enter the image and see each miniscule patch of color among the hair-sharp, shadowed debris.
The hypnotic three-dimensionality of Burtynsky’s work is even more tangible in “Cararra Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2,” a four-by-eight-foot mural at Howard Greenberg. A blood-orange excavator guts the landscape inside Tuscany’s carved-out marble mountain. From a few inches away, I saw a wheelbarrow near the green ladder that’s leaning against an angular expense of marble. You can’t spot it in a reproduction because it’s tiny. On the print, I could make out a band of rust on the wheelbarrow’s top, a dark bag inside it, and two patches of dirt on its gray tire.
These immense image composites are not about “decisive moments” — split-seconds when the universe arranges itself into a perfect shot. The “now” of each photograph is not about the captured instant, since humankind’s destructive activity never pauses. Instead, it’s about intuiting the future from our present gaze: the landscape’s inevitable demise promised by our inaction.
Burtynsky’s photographs are glimpses into the vastness of industrial and technological systems of global capitalism that elicit both awe and unease; they can feel like encounters with the postmodern sublime. The Anthropocene Project — with its encyclopedic reach and factual rigor — transmutes the unsettling, otherworldly appeal of his aesthetic into ecological conscience and a grave call for change.
Works from Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene Project are on view at Howard Greenberg Gallery (41 East 57th Street, Suite 1406, Midtown, Manhattan) and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery (505 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).