Ever since man cleared forests to make way for agriculture, the effect on our planet has been massive. The impact on our landscape grew rapidly after the industrial revolution. Today, the industrial production of fertilisers required to keep the crops growing quickly has affected it even more. With this in mind, and as part of his multidisciplinary Anthropocene Project, Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky has a new London show at Flowers Gallery, entitled The Human Signature. It focuses particularly on how our reliance on fertiliser and the minerals we mine to create it and to sustain our modern way of life, are impacting upon our landscapes.
Burtynsky is world-renowned for his particular type of high-form aerial landscape photography. His work appears in prestigious galleries and collections throughout the world. He is multi-award winning; he holds six honorary doctorates and, earlier this year, was honoured as Master of Photography at Photo London.
Burtynsky’s work is special in many ways. His landscapes are those of our time and pose profound questions about our modern way of life and what we do to maintain it. Each photograph has a strong narrative and contains extraordinary detail captured from long distances aided by cameras up to 100 megapixel capability. He has been able to gain access to places that are often remote and dangerous. What’s more, Burtynsky has a fine artistic eye that can render the scars, patterns, shapes and colours of the human-altered terrain in a very painterly way.
Take the shot of copper mining in Arizona, for example. The jagged shapes of the rock contrast with the flowing, pink mass around them in a way resembles an abstract artwork. The pink material is what is known in the mining industry as wet tailings, the waste material left after the mineral has been extracted. It’s then pulverised and mixed with water. There’s a lot of it, since only 5% of the mined rock contains ore. “This highly-mineralised re-flowing of what was rock reminds me of the beginning of the earth’s surface, like primordial ooze,” remarks Burtynsky as we survey his works.
You can see the roads surrounding the mine workings and the trees on the rocky outcrops. What makes it seem even more painterly is that some of the detail even looks like brushstrokes. Burtynsky admits to being influenced by modernist and Abstract Expressionist painting.
Again, the shot of a bulldozer creating the mounds of phosphates near Lakeland in Florida is eye-catching. To me, the scene resembles a symbolic claw scraping and scouring the earth. There’s a dynamism to the lines and a wonderful balance to the shot created by the green, polluted water. It’s just close enough to create a sense of intimacy. There’s an element of luck too in that he has managed to catch three crocodiles basking on the shore. The story here is that the concentration of nitrates, the bi-product of the mining process, has sucked the oxygen out of the water and led to the growth of algae. That, in turn, has killed off the fish.
The effect of fertilisers has had a terrible effect on huge areas of the world, especially in the United States. The Mississippi delta, for example, has a 100km radius that has turned into a virtual dead zone having had all the chemicals from middle American farming washed down to it. Burtynsky highlights in the show examples from the Niger delta where oil pollution both from legal oil extraction and from illegal operators who steal oil by siphoning oil from the pipelines has devastated the landscape. Mountains of plastic waste in Kenya is also featured.
Burtynsky was alerted to the extraordinary aspect of potash mining in Siberia from a magazine article. The remarkable fossil-like whorls you see above are created by a grinding machine. The redness is the vein that is followed and mined, with the rocks falling on to a conveyor belt that delivers it to trucks which bring it to the surface. The tunnels are 1,000 feet underground and stretch, in the whole area, for an eye-watering distance of 10,000 kilometres. Once again, the intensity of colour and the unusual shapes make for an appealing and beguiling image.
There’s no sense of devastation in the Siberian mines. Nor is there in the scene of the Carrara marble quarry that you can see in the top shot. After all, this is where the Romans quarried the marble for the Pantheon and from which Michelangelo carved the statue of David. Its monumental importance to art is reflected in the photograph’s monumental size. It’s a mural, in the sharpest of detail, measuring more than six metres long and comprising 122 exposures.
Pengah Wall above, is a result of Burtynsky’s first major underwater project on a coral reef untouched by human intervention. In that respect, it stands as a counter-point to the man-altered works. The picture, composited from 160 high-resolution images, captures a rich biodiversity. “When I first saw these corals I was taken by the hundreds of different life forces and systems and species all fighting in very close proximity, each finding their own foothold in a way under water and I might be looking at something that has taken hundreds of thousands of years to find a balance, this kind of insane intensity of diversity of life.” The richness of detail and colour, enabled with the use of flash, has a feeling of Jackson Pollock about it.
The Human Signature is another example of Ed Burtynsky presenting often disturbing images of our landscapes into our consciousness in the kind of visible vocabulary that he has developed over time. He manages to bring an aesthetic quality to even the bleakest scenarios while resisting polemic. “I’m bringing these places without passing judgment that allows us to consider them and contemplate them and maybe even digest them as ours and not to reject them. We shouldn’t reject the wasteland because they’re as much a human landscape as our cities. But we can’t have our lives and our cities without creating these kind of wastelands.”
The Human Signature is showing at Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1S 3LZ until 24 November 2018.
All photos © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Metivier Gallery, Toronto.