With a Series of New Projects, Photographer Edward Burtynsky Aims to Capture How Humans Have Altered the Earth’s Landscape

The Canadian artist collaborated with filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier for a multidisciplinary project exploring the Anthropocene.

Edward Burtynsky, Greenhouses 2, El Ejido, Southern Spain (2010). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

The time span of geologic eras is hard to grasp. The proposed term for our present epoch, the “Anthropocene,” connotes the newest chapter of the history of the world as defined by the impact of humans. That’s thousands—or even tens of thousands—of years, depending on your definition. Yet despite this scope, the word is imbued with a sense of urgency, as if we’re on the brink of a turning point—or worse, a conclusion.

Anthropocene,” the newest exhibition from Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, on view now at Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco, captures this paradox well. A product of five years of work—and a lot of travel—the show brings together large-scale photographs of man-made landscapes, from Lithium Minds in Chile to Marble Quarries in Italy to Phosphor tailing ponds in Florida.

Edward Burtynsky, Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande 1 (2016). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

In signature Burtynsky fashion, the photos are grand in both subject matter and format—a gesture that captures the complexity of these areas and the sheer amount of time over which they’ve been shaped. Many are shot aerially, capturing hundreds of miles of land or sea. In their printed form, they span between four and seven feet in width.

Shot from a great distance, it’s easy to see the abstract beauty of Burtynsky’s subjects—swirling landforms carved out in the name of the industry, perhaps, or fleets of solar panels vying for real estate on a hillside. Yet spend enough time with the photos—explore their immense detail—and you’ll quickly see how inorganic and, indeed, portentous, these subjects are.

Edward Burtynsky, Salt Pan 21, Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India (2016). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

This is Burtynsky’s seventh exhibition at Robert Koch since the gallery roster in the late ’90s. It’s one facet of The Anthropocene Project, the artist’s multidisciplinary venture exploring what he calls the “complex and indelible human signature on the Earth.” Originally intended to be a photographic essay, the project has grown immensely in five years, so much so that much of the work was made with a pair of close collaborators, Canadian filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier.

The Koch show coincides with other major exhibitions which premiered simultaneously at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada this September. Burtynsky’s new book, Anthropocene, came out on Steidl this fall—his sixth title with the publisher—as did the new documentary film he created with Baichwal and de Pencier, ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch.

The third in a trilogy of films from the Canadian artist (following Manufactured Landscapes in 2006 and Watermark in 2013, both of which we made with Baichwal), ANTHROPOCENE documents the research of the Anthropocene Working Group, an international cohort of scientists proposing the end of the Holocene Epoch and the birth of the Anthropocene.

See more photographs from the exhibition at Robert Koch below.

Edward Burtynsky, Uralkali Potash Mine 6, Berezniki, Russia (2017). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky. Uralkali Potash Mine 2 (2017). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky, Morenci Mine 1, Clifton, Arizona, USA (2012).
Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky, Phosphor Tailings 4 (2012). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

Edward Burtynsky, Lithium Mines 1, Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Chile (2017). Courtesy of Robert Koch Gallery. © Edward Burtynsky.

Anthropocene,” is on view through December 29, 2018, at Robert Koch Gallery.

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