Behind the award-winning Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky, is a picture of the sleek, golden Houston skyline. Beside that, is a photograph of a rough, russet-coloured hole in the ground from the Silverlake gold mining operations in Lake Lefroy, Western Australia. The photographs were taken 20 years and 10,000 miles apart but were coupled together for their aesthetic similarity – as well as the photographer’s idea that all quarries are inverted skyscrapers. ‘You don't get a city without digging,’ he says. ‘It is very simple conceptually.’
Simple though it may be, explanations of any kind are not provided beside the photographs, allowing them to stay unbiased and focused on the subject alone. It’s just as well, when the subjects are the controversial shapes of industry, such as mines, oil sands extraction, rusting oil tankers, railways and dams. Some, such as ‘Dam #6’ from the Three Gorges Dam Project on China’s Yangtze River are equal parts terrifying and terrific – so visually arresting that they could be used for environmental and commercial campaigns alike. Speaking about his work in 2013, Burtunsky said ‘whether you’re on the corporate side of the agenda or you’re on the environmental side of the agenda, the work can be used as a point of departure.’ No wonder then, he is often called the photographer of the industrial sublime.
For a photographer that usually works through specific projects, ‘Essential Elements’ is a break from form. The exhibition is informed by the book ‘Essential Elements’ by art curator William A Ewing, published by Thames & Hudson. Ewing extracted pieces from Burtynsky's major projects such as ‘Oil’, ‘Water’, ‘China’ and ‘Australian Minescapes’ in order to find common themes bridging his five-decade career. The book contains around 150 photographs, more than half of which have never been seen before.
In the lower gallery is Burtynsky’s latest series, Salt Pans, which shows the delicate colours created by the comparatively harsh process of salt making. ‘At first I was struck by how similar these light colours look to watercolour palettes,’ he says, getting up close to the photograph, ‘and then I noticed that you can see these layers of shapes where pans have been left to go fallow and fade.’ They are from the salt pans in the Little Rann of Kutch in India, where 100,000 workers extract around a million tonnes of salt every year. ‘This had a more hopeful mood than my usual projects,’ says Burtynksy, ‘because these workers are having a minimal impact on the landscape and have been creating these remarkable patterns for 400 years.’ Diminishing water tables, however, threaten to dry up the industry altogether.
For all of their human aspects, none of the images have any people close enough to, say, make out facial features. In part, this is because his photographs are taken from so far away – both Essential Elements and Salt Pans follow Burtynsky's evolving mission of standing far enough back to find the art in his landscapes, adding tall tripods, helicopters and drones to his arsenal. ‘The height removes the individual and shows human activity as a collective, it’s about how we as a species extract resources on a large scale, with varying impacts,’ he says. ‘There are plenty of people in the photographs if you take the time to look for them.’
Sure enough, tiny figures can be seen here and there, as matchsticks scraping the salt pans, or blurred figures parking bikes under shipyard hulls, like a Where’s Wally of industrial proportions. The people in his photographs communicate the sense of scale, the enormous scale, of most of his subjects.