Anthropocene: Edward Burtynsky’s Damning Series on Mankind

The ground of the surface coal mine seems to have piled up to form a red-brownish wave. The sun is barely breaking through the sky, shining on the freshly torn up earth. Some slight green spots on the right edge and heavy industrial machinery in the far background round the scene off.

Coal Mine #1 is a photo in Edward Burtynsky’s Anthropocene series. The Canadian photographer is known and respected for his depictions of industrial landscapes all over the world. Anthropocene is his fourteenth photographic series, with some of those works being exhibited in Galerie Springer in Berlin.

Born in St. Catherines, Ontario, Burtynsky has been exposed to industrial scenes from an early age on, living close to the General Motors plant. He began to inspect those structures and their impact to the surroundings closely.

In the 1980s his first photographic series Mines, Railcuts and Homesteads was published, paving the way for his next award-winning works in photography, as well as in film.

The newest series’ title describes the current geological era that we live in. It roughly translates to human epoch, suggesting that in our current time, human involvement has been significantly altering the processes of nature. The word was coined by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen at the turn of the millennium.

The themes in Anthropocene are undoubtedly destruction and the roots and consequences of consumption. To track and capture those issues, Burtynsky set out to explore mines, landfills and infrastructure all over the world. He described his choice of subjects as “rich in detail and scale”.

Phosphor Tailings Pond #4 is one example of this series where scale plays a crucial role. Only through the machinery on the ground is the viewer able to get a rough idea of the tailing’s extent, looking straight down at the scene from high above.

Lithium Mines #2 does it similarly. This photograph taken in Chile puts the mine into place with plains, smaller hills and a mountain range in the background. By aligning the mines parallel to the horizon, he enlarges the subject to the highest degree.
Regarding the colours, the mines stick out entirely. Another element of his photos becomes fully apparent: the contrast between nature and human involvement. The Chilean mines provide that contrast impressively. With the brown-ish mountains and plains in the background, the mines resemble indoor swimming pools. They look fake. They are bright, lucid and they especially look out of place, almost like a disease to nature.

Despite the negative theme and subjects, Burtynsky’s photographs are mesmerising. Looking at Uralkali Potash Mine #4 or Phosphor Tailings Pond #4 and their striped patterns might be the closest we get to see another planet’s landscape on Earth. Patterns like these, as well as symmetry, are a common sight in Anthropocene. It is these aspects that make the photos visually appealing, in otherwise disturbing depictions.

It is a series of photographs that should evoke shock and rage – but instead fascinates. It is an almost morbid aesthetic interest that draws the viewer to Burtynsky.
Especially his emphasis on mines is telling of the underlying message of the series. They are places seen only by workers, yet human life is impossible without their daily output. Human dependence on those resources, and their concern for the planet’s destruction that consequently ensues, form an “uneasy contradiction”, according to Burtynsky himself. The photos serve as “metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence”.

The approach in displaying the beauty of the dangerous is not free from criticism. One could argue that environmental destruction by humans should not be seen as beautiful at all, or rather that the beauty of untouched landscape be highlighted instead.
In spite of that, Anthropocene can go down as one of the most influential exhibitions in the age of a newly emerged environmental consciousness. It attempts to create a dialogue between attraction and distaste. The photographs’ beauty buries itself into our minds, in a deeply unsettling way.

Edward Burtynsky: Anthropocene – New Photographs. 12.02.2019 – 18.04.2019

Galerie Springer, Fasanenstraße 13, 10623 Berlin, Germany

A selection of the photographs can be viewed here