May 15, 2015
If ants had cameras—as well as helicopters, drones and hydraulic lifts—they might make photographs that look a lot like Edward Burtynsky’s sublime pictures of the marks humans have made on our planet.
These include massive dams, mines, wells and farms, alongside quarries, irrigation systems and flood control plains. At Von Lintel Gallery, the Canadian photographer, who has traveled the globe to make his stunning images, invites visitors to see humanity as a species—not as unique individuals who stand out from the crowd, but as indistinguishable, and very small, components of a much larger whole—like ants in a colony.
That’s a fascinating perspective, partly because it flies in the face of the way we usually look at art—as an embodiment of the singular genius of singular geniuses—and partly because it gets us to look at the big picture: our global economy in which some fundamental resources—like water, air and food—may not be able to sustain the rate at which humans have been reproducing. What that means for life as we know it is the subject of Burtynsky’s panoramic landscapes.
Beauty and ugliness, nature and industry, exist cheek-by-jowl in his crystal-clear pictures. Some are hellish, their glistening lakes of radioactive oil bleeding from the Earth like a toxic wound that won’t heal. Others are gorgeous, their snow-capped peaks and steep ravines so breathtakingly vast that they make human beings seem inconsequential.
Most are both. A drone’s-eye view of a dam under construction on the Yangtze River presents an entirely manmade landscape that looks utterly alien, like a concrete spaceship so far out in the galaxy that it’s impossible to tell up from down, left from right, right from wrong. Shot from helicopters, two views of terraced mountainsides, where Chinese farmers grow rice, show what daily labor adds up to when it’s done over centuries.
Above all else, Burtynsky’s pictures are humbling. Sober and sensible, they make it clear just how little individuals can do on our own while suggesting that as a group we have a lot to learn from ants.
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