The Photographer Capturing the Earth's Scars

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114 Salinas #2, Cadiz, Spain, 2013
Salinas #2, Cádiz, Spain, 2013© Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery, London/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

"My work has never been about pitting heroes against villains. It’s about awareness." As his new retrospective exhibition launches, AnOther sits down with image-maker Edward Burtynsky

Canadian Edward Burtynsky is the photographer to know for those of us who refrain from visiting the places that fuel our modern lifestyles – mines, quarries or shipyards and oil rigs, or vast and remote agricultural landscapes. From aeroplanes and helicopters, Burtynsky gives us full and detailed views of the spaces we otherwise only peer at momentarily through aeroplane windows. 

This autumn Burtynsky brings us an unprecented treat in the form of two exhibitions at Flowers Gallery, London, which he hopes will encourage us to appreciate his work’s formal quality as much as its subject matter. With Salt Pans, Burtynsky presents new aerial images of the Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, western India, where, like their ancient predecessors, 100,000 workers evaporate off the salty floodwaters of the nearby Arabian Sea to create strange planes of white. Due to declining groundwater levels and market prices, however, these geometries will likely soon disappear. In order to create the series Essential Elements, Burtynsky and his curator William Ewing spent more than three years searching through the photographer’s rich archive to pair materials, some previously unpublished, by conceptual and aesthetic links rather than subject; rusty orange iron is juxtaposed with orange autumn leaves, and sliced up farming valleys with railway cuttings. We spoke to Burtynsky about these new projects, his thoughts on environmental changes, and the problem with Instagram.


On salt pans as subjects…
"This area in Gujarat has always intrigued me, both for its aesthetic — the neutral taupe background with these unnatural lines running through it and the abstraction of the rectangles and colours of the salt pans — and for how it so succinctly follows the theme of my work. The salt pans are a representation of man’s extraction from the natural environment."

On the meaning of Essential Elements
"This is something that I’ve said about my working process. When I am looking at a new subject I use the frame to isolate what I believe are the essential elements of that industry or scene and compose the image based on these. Of course, it’s also a double entendre, as a lot of my work reflects extractive industries and elements found on the periodic table — like phosphorus — that are quite literally essential to our survival as a species." 

On his feelings about environmental change…
"I’m not sure my feelings have changed, so much as they have grown alongside the importance of this reality. In the past decade it has become quite clear that we are in an over-reach situation, and we are dangerously moving the planet into an unstable state. I hope that my work helps viewers to understand the scale of the problem and the need to manage the extraction of resources, and protect species and their habitats."

On individual companies…
"My work has never been about pitting heroes against villains. It’s about awareness. I see these landscapes as an inevitable outcome of trying to sustain a population of 7.5 billion people. If it isn't company A it would be company B. Of course there is best-in-class and worst-in-class, but this work isn't about exploring these issues. It is about showing us where the elements that we use daily in our lives come from and the impact that using them has on the landscape. The enormity and scale of the taking is what I am trying to show."

On the problem with Instagram…
"While I appreciate the many benefits of consuming photography online – Instagram for instance – I actually do believe that new online ways of consuming photography are restrictive. For my work, not only does the viewer need to spend time with it, time that is not often afforded with the fast pace and short attention requisites of social media platforms, but he or she also needs to be present in front of it, preferably in large format." 

Salt Pans and Essential Elements will be on display at Flowers Gallery, London, from 16 September - 29 October, 2016. Salt Pans will be published in September by Steidl. Edward Burtynsky: Essential Elements, edited and curated by William A. Ewing, will be published on 15 September 2016 by Thames & Hudson.