Secret Histories | Photographer Edward Burtynsky Reveals the “Essential Elements” Destroying Earth
Photo: Salinas #2, Cádiz, Spain, 2013
We have entered the Anthopocene Era, marked by the turning point when human activities began to make a significant global impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Many place the starting point with the Industrial Revolution, when mass production became the norm, and the machine rose to prominence as evidence of humankind’s ability to dominate nature—without thought or concern to the long term.
We’ve been riding this train for two centuries, quick to ignore evidence to the contrary, lest it cause us any intellectual or physical discomfort. The human impact on the planet is marginalized or excused while the changes to climate are carefully swept under the rug. The increase in extinctions and the decline in biodiversity go unremarked.
As Alduous Huxley observed in Vanity Fair in 1928, “”The colossal material expansion of recent years is destined, in all probability, to be a temporary and transient phenomenon. We are rich because we are living on our capital. The coal, the oil, the phosphates which we are so recklessly using can never be replaced. When the supplies are exhausted, men will have to do without…. It will be felt as a superlative catastrophe.”
His words fell on deaf ears then, just as the warnings do now. It’s difficult for people to conceive of the impact of their demands when they are so far removed from the supply chain. We have become so closely enmeshed and profoundly dependent the last thing we want to imagine is weaning ourselves off; we only hope that like the ostrich with its head in the sand, that we won’t be here on earth to pay for what we have taken from it.
But not all have willed themselves into pragmatic ignorance. Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky (b. 1955) has dedicated his career to creating a body of work that documents the ravages of the land under the guide of industrialization. He has achieved global recognition for his large-scale photographs that capture the destruction of the earth over the past four decades.
Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements by William A. Ewing (Thames & Hudson) is the first comprehensive monograph of his life’s work, taking us around the world in 148 photographs. Organized into five free-flowing sections, the book is drawn from 18 projects including Mines, Railcuts, Quarries, Oil, Saltworks, Shipbreaking, China, and Water interspersed with each other to spectacular effect. The photographs are beautiful, heartbreakingly so, for they function as the most severe warnings of a terrible future.
To coincide with the publication of the book, selections from Essential Elements will be on view from November 3 – December 23, 2016, at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery and from November 4 – December 31, 2016, at Howard Greenberg Gallery, both in New York.
In Essential Elements, Burtysnky reveals the scale of devastation in poignant, poetic photographs that remind us of our complicity in the scheme. So behold are we to industrialization that we are loathe to deal with what we have wrought, inclined to throw our hands up and adopt and all or nothing posture. This false duality only ensures the inevitable, though it does not remove our responsibility at all. If anything it becomes further evidence that we can—because we must.
Burtynsky writes, “When consequence comes home to roost, it doesn’t respect religion or politics. It hits us all equally, the rich and the poor. I don’t think it’s a political question. It’s more of a human moral, ethical question. With the knowledge that we have today of what the human impact is, what are we going to do about it?”
The problem is clear; the solutions are not. But we cannot ignore the facts lest we get got. Though many possess a death wish, the more possess the will to live—not only for themselves but for their children, their children’s children, and for the generations yet to be named. Essential Elements makes the argument that Mother Earth deserves our protection—from ourselves. These photographs need not be the beginning of the end: they could be the end of something we never wanted to begin, should we be inspired to prioritize the earth’s needs over our convenience.
All photos: © Edward Burtynsky 2016. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London / Metivier Gallery, Toronto
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.