Essential Elements


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Curated and edited by William A. Ewing, Essential Elements is a retrospective of Canadian-born Edward Burtynsky’s (b. 1955) forty-year career as a photographer. Showcasing one hundred and forty images from Burtynsky’s extensive archives alongside previously unseen work, Essential Elements is the most rounded collection of Burtynsky’s works to date.

Widely regarded a modern master of landscape photography, Burtynsky is also a passionate environmentalist – using his position in society to reveal the dire effect that human industry is having on our planet. Having travelled the world for the last forty years, documenting the detrimental impact we as a species are having on this planet, he has several pearls of wisdom to impart and Essential Elements is the amalgamation of his best visual and verbal insights. As he explains in the book, “we come from nature. If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves”. However, Burtynsky insists that he is only making sure everyone knows what is happening to our world, stating, “I’m not saying who’s right or wrong. I’m just saying we’re doing this, and here’s evidence.”

Highway #2, Intersection 105 & 110
Los Angeles, California
2003

Colossal in scale and surreal in appearance, Burtynsky’s imagery shows a dehumanised view of the planet by taking industrial scenes out context and into carefully composed frames, allowing us to view the landscapes, both natural and man-made, from an objective point of view, revealing a bigger picture, as it were. As Burtynsky explains, “I try to flatten the space so that the elements in the image have an equal weighting – there is no predominant object”, which results in these evocative yet confusing images that are sometimes hard to recognise as our world. Finding the precarious balance between beautiful and informative images, Burtynsky says that his images “search for dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear”, of which there is a perfect illustration seen in the cover image, a photograph detailing the Silver Lake Operations in Australia. At first we see an attractive, almost geometric landscape, but once you learn that the ground is contaminated with plants genetically modified to phytoremediate, which is the reason the ground looks so warped, one has indeed bridged a gap between repulsion and attraction.

Silver Lake Operations #16, Lake Lefroy
Western Australia
2007
Silver Lake Operations #1, Lake Lefroy
Western Australia
2007

Standing as “metaphors for the dilemma of modern existence”, each page of Essential Elements is a microcosmic insight into the world we are leaving increasingly depleted. The scope of his work is vast, including images from Texas, Western Australia, Iceland, India, China, Canada and beyond, leaving no misunderstanding that the problems of the world are isolated to any one nation or even continent. We see, essentially, the landscape as man has reshaped it. Burtynsky’s imagery is confoundingly beautiful, but this is what makes it so effective in raising awareness of environmental damage . Regardless, Essential Elements may just well be the definitive collection of his works.


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