The drying Colorado River in the Southwestern United States and Owens Lake in California; cities built in the middle of the desert, such as Phoenix, Arizona; intensive shellfish farms in Sonora, Mexico; rivers polluted by the use of chemical fertilizers or the extraction of natural resources, such as phosphorus; the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and the enormous dams built in China: these are just some of the subjects addressed in the fifty or so images on display at the Pavillon Populaire in Montpellier, in the south of France.
Divided into seven segments — “Gulf of Mexico,” “Desolation,” “Control,” “Agriculture,” “Aquaculture,” “At the Water’s Edge,” and “Source” — the exhibition is devoted exclusively to the theme of water, one of the lines of inquiry in Edward Burtynsky’s vast, long-term project. As he explains in the exhibition catalog: “The Anthropocene project is a multidisciplinary body of work combining fine art photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research to investigate the human influence on the present state, the dynamics, and the future of the Earth.”
A master in the art of documenting the human impact on the planet and its destructive consequences for the environment, Edward Burtynsky has honed his toolkit over the past thirty years. This meant a lot of research and scouting for the most relevant locations around the world; but it has also involved considerable human and material resources. “My concern has always been to show the magnitude of our impact on the Earth. To do this, I look for and photograph large-scale systems that leave lasting traces.”
The Canadian photographer does not want to just show: he wants to demonstrate. This is why he almost systematically chooses the bird’s-eye view, which he can only obtain by stepping back and rising upward. Thus, over the last twenty years, he has put aerial photography (including shots taken from cranes and raised platforms) at the service of his personal commitment: to sound the alarm on the damage we are inflicting on the planet. He drives home the message: our future is threatened.
While the sheer beauty of the images is astonishing, Edward Burtynsky’s goal is not to invite contemplation, and even less wonder. He uses the splendor of the landscape to prompt reflection. Can one deploy beauty to convey dismay? In photography, this is not a novel question. “We could cite Eugene Smith and his Minamata series on mercury pollution in Japan,” notes Gilles Mora, artistic director of the Pavillon Populaire. We also recall, in the mid-1980s, the black-and-white images of the Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil photographed by Sebastião Salgado. The assertive aesthetics of the Brazilian photographer’s images, denouncing the exploitation of the workers, had caused controversy, particularly because it showed mostly silhouettes and very few faces.
Burtynsky, on the other hand, is photographing from above, which allows him to make his point by showing what we can’t see at the human level. His signature choice is to rely on aesthetics in order to challenge mindsets. And, while from above everything looks more beautiful, things also become clearer and self-evident. This is also why Edward Burtynsky’s work is salutary.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
Edward Burtynsky, “Troubled Waters“, Pavillon Populaire, Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle, 34000 Montpellier, France, June 23 to September 26, 2021.
Catalog, Hazan editions, 144 pp, €25.