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Edward Burtynsky (Canada)

For more than thirty years, I have created images about the various man-made transformations that civilization has imposed upon in nature. My work bears witness to the scale and speed of our impacton nature. At first I felt a sense of wonder. But the cumulative effect of looking at the amount of wasteland we are leaving eventually stirred other emotions, even as it invoked its own sense of wonder.

In the course of the evolution of my work, I became anxiously aware of the consequences our actions are having upon the world. As a husband and father, as an entrepreneur and provider, as someone with a deep gratitude for his birthright in a peaceful and bountiful nation, I feel an urgency to make people aware of the important things at stake. What we give to the future are the choices we make today.*


When I first started photographing industry, it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to. If the human experience can be considered a manifestation of dreams and desires, then mines can be thought of as the source for the raw material of that experience. On one level of understanding, that mineral-rich ore is what we use to manufacture the objects of our collective desire: the automobiles we drive, televisions we watch, jets that fly us around the globe, and houses that provide us with shelter and comfort, along with an endless stream of gadgets and goods.

What this civilization and its progress leave in their wake may be the opened and emptied Earth, but in performing these incursions, we also participate in the unwitting creation of gigantic monuments to our way of life. These mined landscapes tell us about the scale of human need and the lasting results of that ambition.


I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible and a source of dread of its ongoing endangerment of our habitat. In 1997, I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me then that all the vast human-altered landscapes I had pursued for over twenty years had been made possible by the discovery of oil and by the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine. Over the next twelve years, I researched and photographed the largest oil fields I could find. I went on to make images of refineries, freeway interchanges, automobile plants, and the scrap industry that resulted from the recycling of cars.

In no way can a single photographer encompass the influence and extended landscape of what we call oil. My images can be seen only as notations by one artist contemplating the world made possible through this massive energy force and documenting the cumulative effects of industrial evolution.


I began thinking about this formidable country as a subject for photography around the time the official announcement was made to begin construction on the Three Gorges Dam project. The voyages to China and images I made during those years were as much about my personal need to understand the ecological events unfolding on our planet as they were about the powerful force China was bringing to bear on how the world does business.

I no longer see my world as delineated by countries with borders or by language, but as a group of 6.5 billion humans living off a single, finite planet.


I began to think about water as a subject for my work in 2007 while on a production tour photographing gold mines in Australia—the first continent in this era to begin drying up. Stories about farmers leaving as their land turned to desert were everywhere in the news. While there, I met a photojournalist who recounted an incident he had experienced in a bar in Adelaide. He ordered a beer and a glass of water, finished his beer, paid the bill, and was about to leave when the bartender stopped him and instructed him to finish his glass of water. Suddenly water took on a new meaning for me. I realized that water, unlike oil, is not optional. Without it we perish.

In 2008 my research started in earnest. I wanted to find ways to make compelling photographs about the human systems employed to redirect and control water. I soon realized that views from ground level could not show the enormous scale of activity. I had to get up high, into the air, to see it from a bird’s-eye perspective.

As the Water project began, I categorized the images under distress, control, agriculture, aquaculture, waterfront, and finally source. Distress included landscapes where water has disappeared, such as the Colorado River Delta, which has not seen a drop of water from that river in over forty years and is now a desert, or Owens Lake, which saw its water diverted to Los Angeles in 1913 and is now a toxic, dry lake bed. Agriculture represents, by far, the largest human activity upon the planet. Approximately seventy percent of all fresh water under our control is dedicated to cropland. Next I went to China and Spain to see the process of farming fish and seafood. The Aquaculture images offer a glimpse into a quickly growing and increasingly important food source. Waterfront looks at the way we shape land to create manufactured waterfront properties. It speaks to me about the human need and desire to be near water—even if that nearness is artificial.

Source comes from my journey to those places where a critical stage in the hydrological cycle takes place: in the mountains that contain glaciers and pure fresh snow. I went to northern British Columbia and Iceland to capture these images. They are the first landscapes in over thirty years I have taken that focus specifically on pristine wilderness, instead of the imposition of human systems upon the Earth.

Over the past five years, I have learned a few things about water. When it is disrupted from its natural course, there are always winners and losers. The moment water cannot find its own way back to the ocean or into the ground, we are changing the landscape. When a stream or river is diverted, all life downstream is affected and remains altered until the water returns. Insects, plants, frogs, salamanders, and countless other creatures—including people— have paid an enormous price because of our voracious appetite for water and what we do to the Earth while getting at it.

Human ingenuity and the development of industries have allowed us to control the Earth’s water in ways that were unimaginable even just a century ago. While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding, and very thirsty, civilization, we are reshaping the Earth in colossal ways. In this new and powerful role over the planet, we are also capable of engineering our own demise.

My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about all that is essential to our survival, something we often take for granted— until it’s gone.

Edward Burtynsky

* This text includes edited excerpts from four artist statements by Edward Burtynsky on Mines, Oil, China and Water, and from his curatorial interview with Wendy Watriss in December 2015.


Edward Burtynsky is one of Canada’s most respected photographers.His remarkable photographs of industrialized landscapes ar eincluded in the collections of over sixty museums around the world,including the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York;Tate Modern, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.;Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid;and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Included in exhibitions across Canada, the United States, Europe, and Asia, his work has been featured in Water (2013), New Orleans Museum of Art and Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans; Oil (2009), Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Manufactured Landscapes (2003), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

An active lecturer on photographic art, Burtynsky recently spoke at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; and a TED conference. His images have appeared in numerous periodicals including Art in America, Smithsonian magazine, Harper’s, National Geographic, and The New York Times.

Burtynsky has received the Rencontres d’Arles Outreach Award, a fellowship from the Flying Elephants Foundation, and a Roloff Beny Foundation Photography Book Award. In 2006 he was awarded the title Officer of the Order of Canada, and he is the recipient of six honorary doctorate degrees.

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