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The Elegant Quandary of Industrial Sprawl: Edward Burtynsky’s Aerial Photography

Using a helicopter and a digital Hasselblad camera, renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky shows a side of global industrialization rarely seen by the public. His aerial photos capture the hushed tones of industrial landscapes without sacrificing their artistic precision or powerful underlying messages.

Like prepackaged foodstuffs in the isle of a grocery store, most consumers don’t often ponder the sources and resources used to create their commodities. Alternatively, Burtynsky’s macroscopic views expose the birthplaces and deathbeds of our modern conveniences. Things like stepwells, tailings, and shipbreaking are not in the household vocabulary, but they are some of the many industrial processes that provide useful materials while permanently altering the land.

While Burtynsky himself is in search of sustainable alternatives, he doesn’t intend for his images to be pushy: he purposefully avoids restricting his audience to environmental activists. Like any photograph, his images are open to interpretation through the relative eyes of the observer. Burtynsky thus views his work more like a Rorschach test: “Humans can really reveal themselves through what they choose to see as the most important or meaningful detail in an image.”

But it isn’t that simple. His goal isn’t to reduce his viewers in a dichotomic categorization as either an opportunistic entrepreneur or an environmental activist. The intrinsic substance of his photos exposes a deeper conflict between the common human desire to be comfortable and how it can deteriorate the planet. How can we balance the environment’s best interest with our own? Moreover, is it even possible to live in luxury without harming the Earth and its inhabitants? “We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living,” Burtynsky acknowledges, “yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success.”

His fifth book Burtynsky – Water came out this September with over 100 photos focusing on the story of water as it filters through human interaction. To learn more about Burtynsky and those harnessing his work for environmental awareness, check out his intensive interviews with APE and Smithsonian.

Keara Wright

Aspiring creative author and astrophysicist, with degrees in Physics, Mathematics, and Psychology.

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