Exhibition: Anthropocene - AGO

Walking around the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) it is hard not to be guilty of a little envy being present amongst the impressive work of Edward Burtynksy. Who has for some photographers and aspirants, a dream job. Not only as a successful photographic artist, but as the founder of Toronto Image Works, a darkroom (now also digital print lab) which ensures the technical standards of his own prints are met along with those who wish to achieve the same. Like several other high end photographers he receives criticism aestheticising climate change and for commercial print sales of social issues, it cannot be said however that Burtynsky doesn’t reinvest into the medium that has brought him success.

And so onto his third collaboration with filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, Anthropocene. Which “continues the trio’s large-scale visual exploration of environmental change and degradation, but in the context of scientific research showing that we have moved into a new geological epoch defined by human activity.” (Ritchie, 2018).

The exhibition takes on a similar theme of ecological tension to Aquatopia, but this is undoubtedly much more immersive. Everything about the space screams size. From the subject to the installation and variety of multi-media. Augmented reality is introduced to the space, along with an interactive application that activates as the phone or tablet recognises the photograph in front of you. Although this remains a white cube, the floorspace, broken down into rows and columns offers a free-flow of viewing angles much more intuitively than a linear scan of a perimeter wall. It is technically and visibly impressive on every level.

That is much of what to me makes Burtynksy’s work so visually arresting. His photographs are often at the intersection point between the subject and what it is affecting. In principle a simple notion but there is a sophistication to how he does it. Beyond aesthetics though, he along with Baichwal and de Pencier know their subject well and are self aware of what they are exploring. Baichwal is quoted on one wall as saying the project “…is a culmination of all the conversations we ever had about art’s capacity to provoke change, as well as the merits and drawbacks of doing this experientially: to not preach, harangue or blame, but to witness, and in that witnessing, try to shift consciousness.” Each piece is captioned with a technical account of where and when, but also what. What it is, and what it contributes to our lives along with the environment. Whether it is the production of palm oil or the biodiversity of coral reefs; this is the most valuable thing for me about this and their other work. They show the ecologies and causalities of consumption that we don’t see; production and waste.

The are a few larger composite images in the series. This being new to Burtynsky’s work coinciding with his conversion to digital. One particular piece, of a coral reef taken at night is especially absorbing as I along with other viewers felt compelled to find our own snaps within the large mural.


Another notable contribution to Burtynsky’s portfolio is the satellite-composite image of Buraydah, Saudi Arabia. This for me is an interesting departure for him, although the aesthetic is recognisable to his previous work. I wonder though, what was the motivation to do this? Was it simply accessibility or is there a greater technical acceptance of composite work in the institutions of art. Burtynsky is admittedly not the first photographer to do so in a contemporary context. Thomas Ruff for example has been working with ’found photography’ and NASA images since the early 2000’s.

Burtynsky has long since dispensed with working in film. I also wonder here if the critical opinion is more forgiving due to his reputation. Not that he or his collaborators are working in pixel poverty. For Watermark (2013) introduced Baichwal and de Pencier to RED cameras and Burtynsky had already transitioned to digital Hasselblad.

I think this is important for two reasons; the enormity of what the exhibitions are discussing need scale in presentation to offer a physical impact. What is most striking about attending the show is how imposing the images are in the space. The moving image installations are on 4K screens proportionately similar to the large format prints which for me gives them a sense of equality that has evolved in the trio’s collaborations. Secondly, these are the mediums of our age. It would be particularly jarring to capture this in film for merely artisan connoisseurship. That would be undermining the integrity of the project whose goal must surely be to get the message across.

Which ultimately I think it does. Industrial landscapes have been the subject of exploration for all three together for more than a decade, and for Burtynsky upwards of thirty years. The collective input makes the message accessible across a variety of media. It informs and impresses without moralising or placing a guilt trip on the viewer. The self-awareness of the production includes sharing the carbon footprint they contribute in making the work.


AGO (no date) Available at: https://ago.ca (Accessed on 11.10.18)

Burtynsky, E (no date) Available at: https://www.edwardburtynsky.com (Accessed on 11.10.18)

Ritchie, K (2018) ‘Anthropocene reveals the scale of Earth's existential crisis’ In: Now Toronto [online] At: https://nowtoronto.com/culture/art-and-design/anthropocene-burtynsky-baichwal-ago/ (Accessed on 12.10.18)

Ritchie, K (2018) ‘Review: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is both meditative and urgent’ In: Now Toronto [online] At: https://nowtoronto.com/movies/reviews/anthropocene-the-human-epoch-burtynsky/ (Accessed on 12.10.18)

The Anthropocene (no date) Available at: https://theanthropocene.org (Accessed on 11.10.18)

The Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018) Directed by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier [Documentary Film] Canada: Mongrel Media.