Anthropocene: Understanding our human-shaped world with Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky began his career taking pictures of the natural world.

“I was doing photography of landscapes with a large format camera.” He was taking images of these pristine places, “looking for really complex forms in the spring and fall when the leaves are down. I shot a lot of that. This was training me to really see into chaotic environments and find order in the chaos.”

After a couple of years of this, however, he started to feel that, no matter how good he got at taking these images, “this moment had passed.”

That’s when he found a new subject.

“In one of my adventures I stumbled on some coal mines in Pennsylvania. I had taken the wrong route and ended up there. I started taking pictures of what I saw because the whole area was totally transformed by the mining. As far as I could see in every direction, it was mile after mile of this surreal landscape.

“When I got back from that trip the natural landscape was not as interesting as the man-altered landscape.”

He thought to himself, “this feels more of my time. It feels more relevant and meaningful to who we are and what I understand is happening to the world. Population growth was headed to 10 billion. Human activity was going to be greater and greater.”

His new subject, he felt, was just going to expand.

Edward Burtynsky: Salt Pan #21, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India, 2016. Courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Burtynsky thought that if he kept making these images over 30 or 40 years, “the aggregate of all those things will be greater than an individual photograph, Everything I’m doing would become this visual testament to the hubris and the skill of human technology and growth.”

What he saw in 1983 was  a life’s work.

He is still on that journey. The latest milestone is like the most ambitious projects to which he has ever been connected.

It’s called Anthropocene and as an example of human artistic endeavour it is groundbreaking.

A version of the show opens at the National Gallery on Friday. The exhibition explores humanity’s impact on the planet through large-scale photographs by Burtynsky, film installations by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier and augmented reality installations that can be seen on a mobile phone. A screening of the film will take place Friday evening, but it is sold out.

“It is probably the most ambitious thing that I have certainly attempted, the same for Jennifer and Nick,” Burtynsky said.

The feature length documentary by the three artists was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. The film will open in theatres in Toronto on Sept. 28 and elsewhere on Oct. 5.

At the same time, another version of Anthropocene will open at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Edward Burtynsky. Photo: Birgit Kleber

All these moving parts are focussed on making the word Anthropocene better known and also to make people more aware of the reality of what humanity is doing to our world.

The project began in conversations between Baichwal and Burtynsky after an earlier joint project called Watermark was finishing its very successful run in movie theatres and festivals.

“Jennifer and I were at the tail end of the touring of the Watermark movie in Washington D.C. and we agreed it was very interesting to do that and  then we wondered if there was something else we could do.

“Jennifer said, ‘What if we do a film based on the Anthropocene and we try to evangelize the word to get people to know what the word is about. It seemed like a big idea,” he said, “but at the same time, we are living in this time. This name isn’t science fiction.”

Anthropcene refers to the impact humans are having on the planet. It defines a new epoch in the history of the planet. People change the courses of rivers, amend coastlines and knock down mountains.

Burtynsky has a harsh comparison to what humans are doing. “How about viruses because viruses tend to kill their host.”

He knows his numbers.

“We have adulterated 70 per cent of ice free land on the planet through farming and deforestation (and other activities). Southern Ontario now has less than one per cent of its ancient forest left.

“In the first Matrix movie there is a speech about why the sentient machines are trying to get rid of humans. That is because they are seen as a virus. AI comes along and says the problem with the planet is these guys. Once AI has all the information we will be gone.”

Artists either search for new meaning in form or seek new ways to generate meaning or do something that is meaningful, he said.

“I want to make marks that are meaningful to me and hopefully to the world. My mark-making happens to be with lenses and photography and it’s to try raise consciousness around the fact that we are a species today that is now having a greater impact on the planet that all natural systems combined. This is happening in my lifetime.”

Burtynksy has been interested in this kind of statement since he was a kid  in St. Catharines.

The southern Ontario city is home to automobile factories including a forge plant. He was able to see inside those plants as a child. The sound of them rang through the community.

It was an “eye-opener to realize these were the kinds of places needed to make the cars we were driving.”

He witnessed molten metal and other industrial processes. “Guys were wearing aluminum suits and flipping these red hot ingots. I got this impression of these worlds that exist to make the things we take for granted.”

He would work in the plants to put himself through college. He worked in mines in northern Ontario. and all these experiences would help guide his artistic impulses.

At the start, when Burtynsky was taking images of man-made landscapes, no one was talking about the environment, he said.

“What I was interested in was going back to when I was seven and capturing these worlds where we create. We all partake. It’s not like anyone is off the hook on this. But we are totally disconnected from those landscapes.”

The original impetus was to try to reconnect people to these landscapes.

“We need to understand them. They are part of us. These worlds exist as a direct result of what we do. These are intentional landscapes; they are business as usual landscapes. We have to think about them differently and not leave them for dead but understand that they are part of who we are. We only have our selves to blame. They are human landscapes and if they are a problem, we need to address that problem.”

Burtynsky’s photographs are striking … beautiful in fact. But he prefers another descriptor.

“I am trying make visually compelling images. I prefer that as opposed to beautiful. Beautiful is culturally specific. I am trying to get engagement through the work and so composition, colour and texture are the tools any artist gets to use.

“When you look at something it involves a sense of wonder and wonder is largely under rated in a world of images. I don’t know how many images we all see in a day. To come up with an image where people stop and really start to consider is not easy to do in a world full of images.”

And he hopes his images will start a conversation about what we are doing.

“Are we going to stop? I’m not that naive … not unless a massive pandemic comes along and takes away half of us.

Work on Anthropocene began in 2014, he said. The crew visited 46 locations in 20 countries for the film.

Burtynsky’s handiwork is there in the film in camera shots and drone work. And he was an active participant in the planning sessions. At the end Baichawal and de Pencier turned 300 hours of film into an hour and a half.

And they are deploying technology, via augmented reality, to further extend the reach of the exhibition’s message.

Using technology for Anthropocene is, in a way, a metaphor for how humans will get out of the conundrum we are creating.

“I don’t think we will be able to exit this problem without technology. Technology got us here and it’s the only way. We all can’t go back to the land. That’s not going to work.

The Anthropocene project was pitched to the National Gallery and they got on board right away, Burtynsky said, with the idea of a simultaneous exhibition.

There are different photographs and different videos in both galleries.

Reaction to the film has been very positive. Reviews in the Toronto media have been favourable and it got a standing ovation at the TIFF screening.

“That was a nail biter. If there is a day of anxiety it is the opening screening of the film. You work four years and you are left thinking ‘Oh God, I hope people like it’.”

So far so good.

Anthropocene is at the National Gallery of Canada until Feb. 24, 2019.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.