Taken from two different projects, it is quite uncanny how they share shade, shape and enormous scale. Essential Elements is full of such pairings of Edward Burtynsky’s controversial landscapes, which work as rhyming couplets to a greater, comprehensive whole. Masterfully arranged by William A Ewing, curator and writer on photography, the book is the first attempted combination of Burtynsky’s award-winning projects on oil, water, industry and nature. ‘If we think of his entire oeuvre as a well ordered deck of cards,’ says Ewing, ‘what happens when we give it a rigorous reshuffle?’
What results are provocative renderings of his work: the tessellations of oil pumpjacks are beside ribbons of rice terraces. A blurred truckers’ festival is next to the circuit-board symmetry of a refinery. Individually, his photographs expose the huge reach of industry in ways that are both aesthetically appealing and environmentally terrifying. ‘My goal is to create something that is not too didactic or polemic,’ says Burtynsky, ‘in fact it’s more of a humanist thing – that we, as humans are doing this. I’m not saying who’s right or wrong. I’m just saying, we’re doing this, and here’s the evidence.’ Essential Elements, through pairings that conflict, compliment or inform each other, seems to ask – is this beautiful?
This review was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.