A Visual Exploration of Landscape and Human Existance

Organized by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection and curated by Chris Finn, Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change is comprised of a selection of thirty photographic images from several of Edward Burtynsky's series including landscape works from the early 1980s to more recent images chosen from his Mining photographs, as well as Railcuts, Homesteads, Tailings, Oil, and others. Edward Burtynsky describes his work in this way:

"Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.
These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire - a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times."
We think that the dilemma that Burtynsky feels is a societal construct. Is the world suffering for our success? Not according to the US Environmental Protection Agency which has tracked a dramatic increase in air quality from the 1970's as outlined in the chart below. The White House based US Council on Environmental Quality for decades has recorded improving water quality with a change from 36% to 86% of streams usable for fishing and swimming since 1972 in the US. At the same time fish stock sustainability indexes calculated by the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates a 60% INCREASE! Why so glum Burtynsky? We all need to read the good news here where the improving environmental conditions using virtually all metrics are cataloged.

Improving air since 1990! Source US EPA

Improving air since 1990! Source US EPA

This good news is in fact in no small part due to metal mines like the ones photographed in this very collection. Mines utilise very little land, overall but large deposits like the Sudbury nickel mine have provided nickel for batteries used in Prius hybrid cars and platinum for catalytic convertors that have have contributed to the dramatic reduction of air pollution and smog. Similarly the copper mines photographed may have provided the wiring for the same hybrid and electric cars, wind turbines and other devices that have also helped reduce air and water pollution. And these sustainable metals are available into the vast future as they can be recycled when these items reach their useful life.

And why for goodness sake cannot beauty, whether it be in landscape or art, be in the eye of the beholder? We have been programmed to think that human activity is "impactful" and represents an exogenous incursion into the natural realm that we do not belong to. Rubbish we scream! We humans evolved from nature and our activities are natural. It is a matter of taste whether you see a mine as beautiful or destructive. In our own series of images we challenge the viewer to explore their motives to interpreting mines to be "ugly scars". We think it is a religion-like fervour that brings on such contempt not unlike that of racist that has been inculcated to view racial differences with revulsion. 

We must conclude on a positive note. We laud Mr. Burtynsky for his efforts and are deeply affected by the beautiful and unique imagery he has majestically captured. We feel connected with our environment in a new way. The earth has spawned our species to do great things which we perhaps even now cannot appreciate. For now it is enough that we turn rock into energy transmitting and storing devices. What a marvel of nature we are! Mr. Burtynsky has captured our monuments to natures progress well.