Photography and conservation of the landscape Essay

The current geological state of the planet is now defined as Anthropocene. Humans have altered more than 50% of the earths land, damming rivers, creating new cities, clearing forests. We are consuming the worlds resources, altering the planet rapidly. Right now, one species alone is driving these changes and what’s worse is that we know we are doing it. Humans have gone from being participants in the earth, to a dominant feature. We are currently living in a permanently changed world. A world that is Man-Altered.

Andreas Gursky’s position within Landscape traditions could be said to be a bridge between the objective, detached eye of the ‘New Topographics’ and the elevated, aerial photographs of Edward Burtynsky. The start of the Global Phenomenon.

Andreas Gursky is a German photographer. He is recognised for his large format landscape and architecture photographs. Within Gursky’s work he often employs an elevated point of view. Gursky focuses on large man-made spaces such as high-rises. There is a sense anonymity to the subject, amplified by the almost abstract nature of his composition and scale. Gursky’s work shows a large-scale engagement with globalisation, photographing the natural and the built up landscape. Generally, within his photographs humans seem to be insignificant, his photographs are defined by architecture and the sense of scale dwarfs the subject. Gursky's style takes quite an objective and deadpan perspective. Having studied along side Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gursky’s was impacted by their methodical and scientific approach to documentation and composition.

Unlike many documentary photographers Gursky always keeps a distance between the camera and the subject. Each of his works are rich in detail and high in resolution, by creating this distance, he enables the viewer to study the subject forming their own opinions.

The theme of a man altered landscape or a ruined landscape runs through many photographer’s work including Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Richard Misrach, Andreas Gusrsky and also Edward Burtynsky.

Discussed previously, the ‘New Topogrpahics’ whose name was given due to the objective and almost scientific approach they took in documenting the landscape. Burtynsky takes a similar stance, focusing on visual elements such as composition, lighting, colour and texture, technique. Much like Robert Adams, Burtynsky avoids defining his work with moral or political implications.

Photographs that take a primarily aesthetic stance in capturing the subject allow viewers to respond differently to formal qualities of work then perhaps with images that are classified more as ‘activist’. The beauty and technical elements of the photograph allow us to appreciate and respond to complex emotional subject matter through aesthetic influence.

As photographers have developed an interested in the documentary and the aesthetic aspects of photography, it has prompted them to capture something beautiful within even the most scarred landscapes. Is is argued that for effective environmentalist or climate change communication, photographs ought to engage the viewer positively, without resigning the viewer to withdraw from the subject with predetermined opinions of inevitability.

The question arises; do photographers such as Burtynsky offer a photographic perspective that allows viewers to engage and connect with the causes and consequences of humans altered environments? An also, do these works initiate or influence environmental change?

Burtynsky’s work explores the scars inflicted by human activities on what was once untouched landscape. In this current climate there appears to no longer be unpolluted water or original untouched forests.

Initially viewing these photographs viewers are enthralled, fascinated, mesmerised by the subject, yet through reading the titles and captions we develop a sense of understanding and context, we become sickened and perhaps appalled by the contradictions embedded in modern existence. So at the same time as bringing the viewer a profounder appreciation of particular issues the photographs may also compel more individuals to take action.

Edward Burtynsky was born in 1955, Ontario, Canada. Picking up a camera at the age of 11, he began his early work recording traces of human activity such as old Styrofoam cups left of tables, pathways trodden into the ground and human intrusion into the natural landscape [Fig.]. From the beginning Burtynsky was interested in the balance that exists between humans and the environment.

Burtynsky mostly used Large-Format Camera’s to gain high focused, detailed images like that of the nineteenth century photographers who inspired him. Such as Ansel Adams [Fig.], Edward Weston [Fig.], Eadweard Muybridge [Fig.] and Carleton Watkins [Fig.]. Burtynsky stated “I remember seeing my first Carleton Watkins prints at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in the early eighties. They were remarkable with an aliveness in the images that is hard to find in contemporary work” (46, manufactured landscapes). Unlike Ansel Adams, who never depicted human activity or people in his photographs, Burtynsky continuously references anthropological activity in some way, sometimes in subtler ways, with only the title of the piece revealing how man has disfigured the landscape.

Centring his work around the devastating effects man has had on the earth and its ecosystems. His subject includes marble quarries, mountains of used car tyres, mining, oil refining, deforestation, ship cutting, scrap piles. Burtynsky takes high-vantage points over the landscape, using Drones, Helicopters, Aircrafts, Elevated platforms and even the natural topography of the land. This elevated viewpoint was a turning point in the approach to landscape photography. It offers a devastating sense of scale, highlighting the extent and reach of the scars inflicted by human activity on the surface of the earth.

Looking at the work of Burtynsky it is evident that the role of the landscape photographer has moved from one of promoting the beauty of the world, to protecting the beauty of the world while illustrating the the damage caused.

Many current photographers specialising in landscape and environmental photography, are actively involved in campaigning for conservation and preservation of the landscape/environment. They work alongside numerous organisations united with common goals. This can lead others on a similar trajectory encouraging them to adopt these same values or concerns, further promoting and prioritising the value of the environment.

Within photography there is a position of education, a role that can promote the value of the natural landscape. Photographers are key to in raising awareness of the current geological decline. By producing work that highlights current global issues and stimulates conversation, photographers can play a role in encouraging a local, or even global consciousness and importance of the environment, not just for the present needs but also for that of future generations.

How to cite this essay: