Tracing the Human Footprint

Photographer Edward Burtynsky captures the visual impacts of an age defined by humans.

In the late 1960s, a teenage Edward Burtynsky began discovering the rhythms of nature during family fishing trips to Ontario’s Haliburton Highlands. On glistening lakes surrounded by birch and pine, Burtynsky cast his lures for muskies, a pike common in the Great Lakes region, but he returned home with something more substantial.

“That experience of wilderness left an enduring mark that still informs my response to landscape,” Burtynsky, now a world-renowned photographer, writes in his latest book Anthropocene.

As a photographer, however, it isn’t just the wilderness that captures his eye. After those fishing trips, he would return to his hometown of St. Catharines, Ontario, a town near Niagara Falls where, at the time, General Motors factories employed most of the area’s population. That tension — between a wild landscape and one controlled and manufactured — defines the core of Burtynsky’s work.

In 2018, Burtynsky launched The Anthropocene Project, an ambitious, multimedia collaboration with filmmakers Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal that has resulted in a documentary, a traveling exhibit, large-scale murals, and 360-degree virtual reality short films. Many of Burtynsky’s images in the series showcase his technical skills: He captured Russian potash mines by lighting the tunnels frame-by-frame and stitching them together in a compressed display of psychedelic swirls. When bush planes weren’t available for a bird’s-eye view, he turned to drones or a 40-foot, air-pressured monopod.

The resulting body of work clearly delivers the project’s message. As Burtynsky writes: “Our planetary system is affected by a magnitude of force as powerful as any naturally occurring global catastrophe, but one caused solely by the activity of a single species: us.”

Burtynsky’s photographs of oil streaks, clearcuts, strip mines, dumps, and more offer the material evidence of the Anthropocene’s immaterial consequences: dispossession, inequality, extinction, climate change. Among the “large-scale systems that leave lasting marks,” Burtynsky includes factory skylines, monoculture farms, artificial islands, and sprawling suburbs.

See more of Burtynsky’s work at: edwardburtynsky.com.

There’s a conflicted beauty in Burtynsky’s depiction of the Anthropocene. Tailings swirl like watercolors; lithium brine deposits resemble the color and geometry of a Picasso creation. Perhaps the inherent environmental warning in The Anthropocene Project is lost when there’s an aesthetic quality to these landscape-scale scars. Or perhaps this paradox sits close to a realization: that even the marble in Roman sculptures or the Taj Mahal — heights of human achievement — can be traced back to a slash in a mountainside.

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