Edward Burtynsky: Anthropocene @Howard Greenberg and Bryce Wolkowitz

JTF (just the facts): A two venue exhibit, as follows:

Howard Greenberg Gallery (November 14, 2018 through January 5, 2019) (here): A total of 12 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against light grey walls in the main gallery space and the book alcove. All of the works are pigment inkjet prints, made between 2012 and 2017. Physical sizes are either 39×52 inches (in editions of 9), 48×64 inches (in editions of 6), or 48×96 inches (also in editions of 6). (Installation shots below.)

Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery (November 15, 2018 through December 22, 2018) (here): A total of 13 color photographs (11 single images and 1 diptych), framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the entry and main gallery spaces. All of the works are pigment inkjet prints, made between 2012 and 2018. Physical sizes are either 48×64, 40×96, or 59×78 inches (each in editions of 6, including the diptych which is two 48×64 panels), or 120×215 inches (in an edition of 1). (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work has recently been published by Steidl (here). (Cover shot below.)

A website for the project can be found here, which encompasses the film, the book, the museum shows in Canada, and other material.

Comments/Context: If we are trying to draw a definitional distinction between all of the photography that is made of nature and the much smaller subset that we might call “environmental” photography, one possible separator is the notion of intent. While photographs of nature are made for all kinds of reasons, most notably to capture the wonders of the natural world, environmental photographs are generally made with a more activist underpinning – they want to to show us nature, and then catalyse us to act in one way or another. In short, they teach, but they also want us to respond.

The earliest photographs that we might reasonably call environmental were those made in the middle of the 19th century by Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Timothy O’Sullivan, and others in the American West. Some of these images were made on expeditions paid for by the US government while others were simply the result of intrepid entrepreneurship and artmaking, but in both cases, the intent was to show the population (largely on the East coast) what undiscovered natural treasures lay out West. These pictures, and the grandiose views they contained, were instrumental in teaching us what our expanding country looked like.

Ansel Adams took up the same charge in the middle of the 20th century, but with a different kind of urgency. His majestic images of the craggy cliffs of Yosemite Valley in California and other now-iconic American wilderness areas amplified their inherent beauty, and in doing so, made a impassioned plea for their preservation. His works helped fund the Sierra Club (founded by John Muir in the 1890s), and the publication of photobooks of his images encouraged conservation efforts and active programs to protect certain areas as National Parks. Eliot Porter continued this work in the 1960s, with his intimate color images of the delicacy of nature.

But by the 1970s, the effects of increased population and suburbanization in the West, along with continued misuse and mismanagement of natural resources, led to a widespread acknowledgement that we had reached a state of environmental crisis, and many of the photographs made during this period deliberately left grandiose beauty behind and adopted a harsher, more realistic view of the world we were so actively building. Robert Adams’ images of tract housing developments in Colorado, and later of ravaged clear cut forests in the Northwest, told a much different story than the soaring harmonies of Yosemite; the sublime tonalites and expert craftsmanship of his images didn’t hide the intense outrage we were meant to feel. These were pictures that were a new call to action, forcing us to see the ugliness, human arrogance, and wasteful environmental disregard that were seemingly everywhere, if we only chose to pay attention.

As the realities of climate change and global warming have become increasingly clear, many contemporary photographers interested in the land have essentially returned to aesthetic concepts found in the work of Ansel Adams, trying to make beautiful pictures of a natural world increasingly in peril, in the hopes that we will see these tragedies and make haste to protect what is left. Disappearing icebergs and melting glaciers have been a favorite subject (for Olaf Otto Becker and many others), and Sebastião Salgado recently traveled to the far reaches of the globe to document not only vanishing natural treasures, but the wildlife and indigenous peoples that are being destroyed in the process. As the climate conditions worsen and the consequences of our failures accelerate, our current batch of environmental photographers seem to be choosing even more operatic, and in some cases exaggerated, aesthetics to try to capture what we are losing, trying to wake us up from our numbing sleep of inaction.

All of this discussion is meant as backdrop and artistic context for Edward Burtynsky’s expansive new project Anthropocene. (“Anthropocene” is a proposed name for our current geological epoch, where human activity is acknowledged as the predominant driver of climate change.) Burtynsky’s ambitious effort includes roughly five years of new imagery, and has taken shape as two museum shows in Canada, two concurrent gallery shows in New York, a lavish monograph published by Steidl, and a documentary film, and has been supported along the way by climate scientists and award-winning filmmakers. And given Burtynsky’s approach to image making (where helicopters, small planes, and drones often provide a bird’s eye view and large crews hoist his camera up on towering cranes), this is one of the most sprawling photographic efforts attempted in recent memory, and comes wrapped up with all the trappings of a major event.

Across his career, Burtynsky has engaged with various narrow slices of the man-altered environment, so this is by no means Burtynsky’s first foray into the subject of man’s complex relationship with his surroundings. Massive Chinese factories, shipbreaking in Bangladesh, and the grasping arms of the global oil industry set his initial trajectory, and were later followed by a more deliberate turn toward environmental landscapes, where quarries, toxic runoffs, salt pans, and water resources have become his consistent subject. The neutral monumentality of industrial scale was a primary aesthetic driver early on, and that search for the bigness of large scale systems has continued, especially as he has taken to the air to see broad patterns in and on the land, from the feathering tendrils of an expanding river delta to the perfectly round circles of agricultural irrigation that echo the design of a circuit board.

Anthropocene expands this artistic arc, reaching even wider to try to encompass the breadth of human impact on the environment. Communicating the severity of man’s influence on climate to the world at large is indeed a worthy goal, and Burtynsky deserves credit for trying to use these new pictures to open up more discussion and dialogue. When thinking about how hard it is to communicate clearly on this astonishingly urgent and complicated topic, I am loathe to criticize anyone who is making a good faith effort to get us all talking. But Burtynsky has made a crucial error in artistic judgment in many of these pictures, and my reaction to them as I walked through the two galleries was an increasing simmer of frustration, and not in the way you might expect.

Wide views of a densely teeming coral reef in Indonesia, a lush mossy forest in British Columbia, and a UNESCO-protected geological site in Spain are non-controversial pictures. Burtynsky has effectively gone back to the Ansel Adams (or National Geographic) playbook and visually celebrated the pristine beauty of these natural wonders, albeit with the help of 21st century digital technology. These kinds of pictures are engagingly decorative, and unfortunately benignly forgettable, mostly because they are all surface. We see all the amazing intricacies of the coral reef (and there are many in Burtynsky’s wall-filling panorama), without being forced to think too hard about what might be poisoning them or cooking them to death. We can consume these photographs like empty calories.

Two other photographs document early attempts at innovative technological solutions to global warming, like huge solar farms (that drastically change our energy mix away from fossil fuels) and anti-erosion concrete tetrapods (that combat too much sea level rise). I wish there had been many more of these kinds of images, as these projects are rooted in a sense of we-can-do-it optimism and creative action, even when Burtynsky reduces them to visual exercises in surface pattern. They are the path forward, rather than the path back.

But most of the images in these two shows depict examples from an exhaustive list of the environmental traumas inflicted on nature by man, and this is where Burtynsky becomes seriously misguided. He’s made his recent images in coal and potash mines, near the salt flats and runoff ponds of lithium and phosphorus excavation operations, and in marble quarries, and then added in pictures capturing logging efforts and other industrial agriculture to create a taxonomy of the ways humans are actively despoiling the Earth. Fair enough. Given these kinds of subjects, we might assume Burtynsky might be headed for the Robert Adams-style of bracing environmental photography, where ugliness becomes incisive and thought-provoking. We might hope that he would challenge us with some harsh failings, or make us turn away in shame and disgust at what we have collectively wrought, or simply expose us to grave truths we had overlooked.

But no. Burtynsky blithely sugarcoats these silent offences against the planet. His omniscient viewpoint turns environmental affronts into harmless geometries, the consistent beauty of his images draining away any sense of emotion or outrage we might normally be expected to feel. The horrors he depicts have been intentionally underplayed, each made lovely by his artistic neutering. Seduced by evenhandedness, he has taken no stand. To be fair, this was also true of much of his earlier work, but in this new project, he seems to have aimed for a much higher level of alarm ringing, so his artistic dispassion seems all the more misplaced.

Burtynsky’s image of a coal plant in Germany captures the glow of the afternoon sun as it cuts across the perfectly straight roads carved out of the sandy soil, the composition turned into alternating horizontal striations. It’s gorgeous. And if I was the CEO of a coal mining company, trying against all odds to make my enterprise seem less than dirty and environmentally obsolete, I’d buy the largest print Burtynsky would make and put it in my entry foyer – showing all my visitors just how pretty (and non-controversial) coal mining really is.

The same can be said for Burtynsky’s image of a phosphor tailings pond in Florida. From the air, the paths made by earthmovers pushing piles of grey slag look like the idle games of a toy in a sandbox. It’s so much fun we might forget to notice the sickly green pond on the right, its toxicity nowhere near natural.

This pattern of reversing our logically negative observations and reactions, of taking something grim and making it light and airy, occurs again and again in these two gallery shows. Down in the depths of the Earth, in potash mining images from Russia, the tunnels cut through the rock in psychedelic twists of red and grey, the drills leaving perfect circular forms etched in the walls – and it’s hard not to be mesmerized by the crazy swirls. The same might be said of the images of lithium mine salt flats in Chile, the operation (as seen from the air) becoming a neat array of colored boxes, like the gradations of Pantone swatches. The marble quarries of Carrara in Italy turn the shorn flat planes of rock into rigid tiers, and logging operations on the waterways of Canada transform the log booms into bulbous circles of floating toothpicks. In Burtynsky’s hands, seemingly any environmental transgression can be reimagined as something distractingly attractive. If we didn’t know better, we might plausibly assume he was on the payroll of the polluters and the climate change deniers.

Burtynsky’s image of a dense stack of elephant tusks crossed the line for me, moving from the vaguely artistically misguided to the borderline offensive. He’s made the massive pile of harvested ivory (in Kenya) warm and inviting, the silky vertical curves becoming an intricate study of layered texture. As I stood before this image, I fumed, astonished that the results of the bloody poaching trade could be made to look so seductively innocuous. I could only shake my head at the tone deafness of this beautifully manipulative image. It will be perfect for a big game hunter’s wall, not an environmentalist’s.

In thinking about what has gone wrong here, the age-old Icarus parable seems oddly appropriate – in trying to pull off something monumental and important, Burtynsky has made a grave error in judgement. By belittling the serious realities of climate change and environmental desecration, and turning them into fodder for his geometric abstractions and compositional complexity, Burtynsky has undermined his own potential authority. Had he taken a stand, he might have encouraged us to gather our voices and stand up together to fight for the health of our planet. But by emotionally neutralizing some of his best evidence, he’s effectively tried to stand in the middle, making overly pretty pictures of subjects that should rile us up.

I certainly understand that photographs of the land that make our eyes bleed or make us quake with fright at our collective stupidity might not be best sellers, but they undeniably hold the moral high ground over the kind of artistic whitewashing to be found in Anthropocene. Human-driven climate transformation (and its many component parts and causes) is dangerous and scary, and to make it look otherwise, especially in the name of bland grandiose picture making, edges toward damaging hypocrisy. In virtually every photograph, Burtynsky could have chosen to make a more hard-hitting or challenging composition and he didn’t – to say he didn’t know better is to discount the magnitude and seriousness of his effort.

Collector’s POV: The prints in these shows are priced based on size. The 39×52 prints are $22000, the 48×64 prints are $30000, the 40×96, 48×96, and 59×78 prints are $50000, the 48×64 diptych is $54500, and the 120×215 print is $120000. Burtynsky’s prints have become more reliably available in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices at auction ranging between roughly $5000 and $100000.

Send this article to a friend

Read more about: Edward Burtynsky, Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, Howard Greenberg Gallery, Steidl

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Lindokuhle Sobekwa, I carry Her photo with Me

Lindokuhle Sobekwa, I carry Her photo with Me

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by MACK Books (here). Spiral-bound hardcover, 18 x 22 cm, 80 pages, with 40 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by Neelika Jayawardane ... Read on.

Sign up for our weekly email newsletter