Edward Burtynsky with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier: Anthropocene (Steidl, 2018)

I have here on my table the latest book by the Toronto based photographer Edward Burtynsky. The scale of the book is impressive – three kilos, 36 by 29 centimetres and 236 pages. But it’s not just the book’s size that is impressive; the theme is vast as well. It was while viewing the wondrous photographs on the walls of the Flowers Gallery in London that I decided that I needed to familiarize myself better with his current Anthropocene project and the book with the same name.

This is not the first time I have explored Burtynsky’s work. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing him in the spring 2011 in Stockholm, just before the opening the exhibition Burtynsky: Oil in Fotografiska. I wrote two articles about him, one to go together with the oil exhibition and other one describing his large-scale project concentrating on water that he was working on at the time.

Edward Burtynsky is one of Canada’s most significant contemporary photographers. He has won multiple prestigious awards for his work and is known for his large colour photos of man-made landscapes. His projects are deep studies of the subjects, usually lasting several years. He has shown the scars and wounds that man has cut on the earth and completed vast projects on oil and water, the liquids that fuel and sustain our everyday life. His diverse body of work includes mines and quarries – which have followed him from early projects to this latest one – salt pans and ship breaking yards, railcuts and container ports, homesteads, consumerism, recycling and so on. Anthropocene is his thirteenth book and is part of a larger project.

Anthropocene_Final Cover_2K small
© The Anthropocene Project Limited

What is Anthropocene?

To get a better understanding of the subject, I had first to understand the basics: where the Anthropocene is located in Geologic Time Scale, what does it mean in the first place. I remember in childhood learning of the Cambrian, Silurian, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic periods…  Then there are epochs, which are shorter than periods.

So there are epochs inside periods, and the current epoch is the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period. But where does the Anthropocene come into this discussion of geochronology? Some experts say that we have already moved into the Anthropocene epoch, but the term is not yet officially approved by the bodies that are in charge of defining the time scale of our planet. There is no exact definition of a start to the Anthropocene but the middle of the 20th century has gained most support.

In short, the Anthropocene means significant human impact on the planet, in a negative way. It’s about pollution, climate change issues and the mass extinction of flora and fauna – according to biologists’ suspects we’re living at the moment through the sixth major mass extinction – caused by human activities and so on. If you want to know about the Anthropocene, Welcome to the Anthropocene is a perfect site to study.

The website titled The Anthropocene Project is the one that belongs to this vast multidisciplinary body of work by Edward Burtynsky. Besides Burtynsky, the other two team members in the project are documentary filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier who have worked with Burtynsky in two of his earlier projects as well. A film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch that was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018 is the last part of the trilogy made by the team, the two previous films being Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013).

Geologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Colin Waters from the Anthropocene Working Group wrote an essay about the Anthropocene giving a scientific point of view to the use of the term itself. This discusses formalizing it within the Geological Time Scale, and about the potential stratigraphic markers that could define the base of the Anthropocene and help to locate the boundary between it and the Holocene. They say in the essay that technofossils (see for example: https://quharrison.com/technofossils-technosphere/) are a characteristic of the Anthropocene, and the second collection of the images in the book is therefore about technofossils. The pictures in this section are of cement, aluminium and of the Dandora landfill site in Nairobi where people are sorting scrap to sell it to the recycling plants. The mounds on the site are composed mainly of plastic bags.

Art historian Suzaan Boettger locates Edward Burtynsky in an art world, and among environmentalist photographers. She also ponders why an artist, why a photographer like Burtynsky is needed to show what’s happening on this planet. This is what she writes:

Because artists remind us that the new normal is not natural, and their art works in ways that go deeper than the cognitive – to the affective. Art’s productive ambiguity – operating even in photography’s ostensible ‘realism’ – draws us in, to engage and visually and imaginatively look below the surface to its latent evocations.

Besides these the book features essays from each member of the team and new work from poet and author Margaret Atwood.

Basque Coast #3, UNESCO Geopark, Zumaia, Spain, 2015. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

The book starts with three images taken in UNESCO Geopark in Zumaia in Spain, where the Geologic Time Scale can be seen with our own eyes through layers of sedimentary rock, flysch. Among those three pictures there is – at first sight – one not so typical Burtynsky image: two people on the beach. And yet, it’s a very meaningful photo, it is the score of the theme of the whole book. Behind the couple you see flysch, in which you can see over 60 million years of the history of our planet including the mass extinctions that happened due to natural causes: asteroid or carbon-induced global temperature rise. Today we have entered the time where humankind is the cause of the extinction of the species of flora and fauna and other forms of life. Mass extinction is one of the markers of the Anthropocene.

The last two sections are called ‘Biodiversity’ and ‘Extinction’. Besides all those images where humankind is doing harm to the nature and his environment Burtynsky wanted to show “some of the wondrous ecosystems that are endangered, the beauty and biodiversity that we are at risk of losing”. He photographed in the redwood forests in British Columbia and shot a coral wall at Komodo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But, like reminding us that these beautiful spots are under threat, the last collection of images consists of images of ivory tusk piles. In 2016 the government of Kenya destroyed 105 tons of tusks and 1,35 tons of rhino horn confiscated from poachers and thus preventing them going to the markets. The book includes – similar to the museum shows of the project – augmented reality (AR) enhancements. One of these images is of the last male Northern White Rhinoceros called Sudan, who died last year.

Anthropocene is not a book on a single topic as were the books about quarries, water, oil, salt pans; it is not concentrated on a definite theme. No, this book is about the entirety, it draws together the previous projects, explores new areas and puts them together to tell the big story (hence the inclusion of previously unpublished photographs from earlier photo projects).

Phosphorus Mining
Phosphor Tailings Pond #4, Near Lakeland, Florida 2012. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

His book about oil was published in 2009. But even though he covered the theme at a time from various aspects from pumping the liquid to our automobile culture, the theme was not completed. He has produced new material, one being oil bunkering in Nigeria, in Niger Delta area. It’s about oil theft from major oil pipelines, tapping into an oil pipeline and transporting the oil elsewhere to sell it as such or to be refined locally. The result is crude oil leaks (and toxic by-products) into forests and waterways. Large areas of forests are cut down because of the oil bunkering activities and that has paved way for further forest logging.

High vantage point shooting

If you just browse the book quickly, you will certainly notice one thing: most of the images are shot from a high vantage point. The first significant body of work where the aerial perspective was in use was the project about Australian mines in 2007. But Burtynsky has always tried to find elevated platforms for his tripod, like bridges or roofs. Later, in order to capture a wider view, he rented different kind of man-lifts. Eventually he started using drones, airplanes and helicopters. He has harnessed the modern technology to produce large images with lots of sharp details.

The high vantage point shots allow a much better perspective of the vast scale of human activity; urbanization, mining and quarrying, agriculture and so on. They put the subjects into context of the larger area which wouldn’t otherwise be possible from ground level shooting. The scale of forest clearcutting in Borneo to reclaim land for palm oil plantations or in British Columbia in Canada, or log booms or rafts (again) in British Columbia or of Nigerian sawmills can be seen only from air. In Water he showed us abstract, paint like images of pivot irrigation in the States, this time he has taken it to a new level showing a shot of around 163 square kilometres of pivot irrigation area in Saudi Arabia captured from a satellite.

Carrara Marble Quarries, Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London and Metivier Gallery, Toronto online version
Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2, Carrara, Italy 2016. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Burtynsky’s images are not always what you think they are. Sometimes you have to spend a minute or two in front of the image to understand its scale. The scale of huge mines, marble quarries or a fracking field can only be understood if there is something to give the viewer a visual reference about the dimensions; a road, a building, a vehicle. For example the Chuquicamata Copper Mine in Chile is 4,5 kilometres long, 3,5 kilometres wide and the pit is about one kilometre deep. Understanding the scale would be difficult without the buildings and machinery that are barely visible in the picture.


Aerial photography also allows the opportunity for visually interesting compositions. Burtynsky creates art that is both aesthetically pleasing and has a deeper meaning. His art can be very abstract, close to abstract paintings with all its graphic forms and patterns, straight lines and circles. Sometimes the work can be so abstract that it’s hard to say what’s there in the image, something I experienced in the Flowers Gallery exhibition while trying to understand the beautiful images taken in Uralkali Potash Mines in Russia. The images taken under the Berezniki town are like psychedelic liquid light shows or portraits of unidentified deep-sea creatures. The coloured layers from an ancient sea floor are revealed by tunnelling machines when mining potash.

Uralkali Potash Mine #3, Berezniki, Russia 2017, Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London and Metivier Gallery, Toronto, online
Uralkali Potash Mine #3, Berezniki, Russia 2017. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

Not surprisingly, Burtynsky found the work of the New Topographics group on man-made landscape interesting in the early days as a young photographer even though most of the New Topographics members worked in black and white.

Burtynsky told me in the 2011 interview that he liked the New Topographics’ way to challenge the conventional way to photograph the landscape. They showed that the photograph can be the critique with their cool and detached, intellectual black and white, small pictures. Burtynsky liked the idea, but he found that there was another way that he could engage: the use of colours. Colour became important to him and he started making big colour prints as early as in 1983–84. His teacher was of the opinion that large format colour photography was a commercial medium, used for advertising perfume and cars, but not for serious fine art photography which should be black and white.

“But I didn’t believe, I didn’t buy into that idea, I thought it depends on how you use it”, Burtynsky said and continued that at that time he was feeling that he was kind of pioneering. The Bechers came and spoke in his school in the early 80s and Burtynsky found it interesting because of their mining project as he was also photographing mining. But he did it differently – as he put it, he wanted his images to be less kind of cool, he wanted colour, he wanted them to be more “hot”. “I wanted to provoke emotional reactions to. I thought with colour comes emotions.”

He has sometimes been criticized for not being louder, or for showing destruction of the environment in too beautiful a light. There can be beauty in places where you don’t look for it. And when you notice it, you are puzzled, because you don’t know if it’s allowed to consider as beautiful.

So, should I feel guilty when standing in front of an image of the Hamback open-cast brown coal mine in Germany and watching the giant Baggar bucket wheel excavator rising in the background like a man-eating monster and liking it a) because it is a great photograph in aesthetic sense with perfect composition and lighting, and b) because I am interested in industrial stuff as such? Should I have a bad conscience, because I like the image because of these reasons? Shouldn’t I be horrified? No, I don’t think so. I do understand the negative sides of these kinds of activities. I might question the use of coal or lignite as energy sources, but it has also led me to study things like clean coal, and carbon capture and storage.

Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany 2015 (c) Edward Burtynsky online
Coal Mine #1, North Rhine,Westphalia, Germany 2015. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

To an extent, Burtynsky leaves the interpretation to the viewer. He believes that art can raise awareness and educate us to question things and make questions, even if it does not directly influence the decision-makers.

In the book Essential Elements that was released in 2016 he says:

…, I don’t see myself as a reporter or as a documentary photographer, in the classic sense of the word. I see myself more as someone who is exploring ideas and trying to find images that somehow will be recognizable within the arc of a body of work produced over thirty years. The signature of the work is one in which both information and abstraction are delivered while referencing art as visual conduits to ideas. My goal is to create something that is more interpretive. Whether you’re on the corporate side of the agenda or whether you’re on the environmental side of the agenda, the work can be used as a point of departure. It’s not an indictment of anybody or anyone.

But as he prefers himself to be seen as an “advocate for sustainable development”, it is obvious what he stands for, what he is worried about and what he wants to say with his images and projects.

The world is not black and white. There are no straight answers. There are always several sides, several layers and also several turns or junctions to choose from to reach the goal. Burtynsky’s images are a critique of civilization, as noted in the oil book, as well as our globe-destroying consumer habits. This current Anthoropocene book is just that – a critique of our consumption-based civilization without preaching.

In Anthropocene Burtynsky shows us wonderful images and gives us facts in shorter texts that are presented with the images. (It is a good decision to place the texts with the images rather than in the end of the book as this is a really big book.)

This is an important book, and the whole project is much more than just a photographic and film project. It tries to explain and show us what kind of destination we are rushing towards… an evident catastrophe, I dare say, unless something is done and soon.

The Anthropocene exhibition is now in Sweden. It was opened on 26 February 2021 in Tekniska Museet in Stockholm. It’s on display there until 31 August 2021. More information here.

(Before Stockholm it has been on display in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa until 24 February 2019 and Paul Kuhn Gallery in Calgary until 9 March 2019. The exhibition was then seen in Galerie Springer in Berlin in the spring 2019 and later in the MAST Foundation in Bologna until 5 January 2020.)

Uralkali Potash Mine #6, Berezniki, Russia 2017, Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London and Metivier Gallery, Toronto, smaller
Uralkali Potash Mine #6, Berezniki, Russia 2017. Photograph: Edward Burtynsky/courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/ Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

If you don’t find the book in your local bookshop you can order it straight from Steidl. Price is € 95.00 (free shipping).

The book Anthropocene by Edward Burtynsky with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier (ISBN 978-3-95829-489-9) is also available via Amazon.

Please visit also Edward Burtynsky’s website, where you can see a good collection of his work.

Text © Katriina Etholén

Thank you to Andrew Marland for helping with the grammar.

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