I personally met the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky when he visited Milan for the opening of his exhibition Acqua Shock in September 2015. It was a fortuitous series of events. At the time, I was collaborating with the Centro Culturale di Milano, a cultural association which had contacted Burtynsky for an interview. A few days before the set date, their translator fell ill and they started looking frantically for a substitute. Since they knew that I was getting ready to study abroad, they asked me to welcome the artist and conduct the interview, which would focus on the role of the environment and the damages caused by humans in his oeuvre. If you are interested, you can listen to his answers here.
Edward Burtynsky, Rice Terraces #2
The interview was a peculiar experience. I had already visited Acqua Shock and I was impressed by the broad aerial views used by Burtynsky to capture the effect of human agency on the landscape. Using drones, he creates map-like compositions covered with intricate patterns. The colours are particularly striking and add an uncomfortably pleasant aesthetic effect to scenes of environmental degradation, which are turned into bright tableaus. In the interview, the artist explains his interest in the depiction of human interventions on the environment as a new way to depict nature. While he says that we are now used to the naturalistic representation of the world through documentaries, photographs, and so on, visual culture still misses the extent of the human impact.
The effect of Burtynsky’s pictures reminds me of the Romantic sublime, that is to say, the sense of immensity that strikes the viewer while standing before nature. Interestingly, in Burtynsky’s works, humans have the upper hand, as they shape nature according to their needs, often inflicting deep wounds which the artist highlights through his vast landscapes. Yet, when the viewer is confronted with these images of degradation and destruction, the sense of aesthetic pleasure is mixed with an uncanny feeling of individual powerlessness in front of the changes that humanity has been causing as a social organism. This ambiguity sets Burtynsky apart from traditional forms of environmentalist activism and presents him as an independent voice in the debate for the preservation of our planet.
In the interview, Burtynsky associates the phenomenon of globalisation to various forms of cultural impoverishment such as the disappearance of languages, traditions, and cultural habits. The monolithic look of his works and the solemn light they cast on man-made interventions convey a sense of power which is intimately related to the methods of Capitalist economy and society. As the little houses which can be sometimes spotted in his pieces, the individual agency appears to be pushed to the sides, dwarfed, while the environment shows the deep scars of the human action. The impact of Burtynsky’s creations lies in their monumentality, conveying a deep sense of pathos which one would not expect from documentary photography.
Burtynsky’s oeuvre casts a new light on the theme of environmentalism, presenting a narrative which does not only aim at shocking the viewer but rather incorporates an unexpected sense of beauty in the portrayal of our planet’s scars. The final product is surprising and defies the conventions of documentary photography, providing a fresh point of view on a topic of great contemporary relevance.