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Book of the Week: Selected by Karen Jenkins

Book Of The Week Anthropocene Photographs and text by Edward Burtynsky Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Anthropocene is a multidisciplinary body of work which serves as both a visceral expression of humanity's incursions on the planet and an urgent cry to acknowledge humankind's responsibility.
Anthropocene. By Edward Burtynsky.
Photographs and text by Edward Burtynsky

Steidl, Gottingen, Germany, 2018.
224 pp., 104 illustrations, 11¼x14¼".

Edward Burtynsky is working harder than ever to reveal (his carefully chosen word) landscapes the world over—marked, scarred, and irrevocably transformed by human activity. For his latest project, Anthropocene, he has partnered with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier to create a publication, traveling exhibition, feature-length film, and an interactive website.

Tyrone Mine #3 Silver City, New Mexico, USA, 2012
In the service of these multi-disciplinary efforts are the latest and greatest technologies and tools. Having first adopted digital photography in 2006, Burtynsky now employs a 40-foot pneumatic monopod, drones and airplanes, and satellite imagining to achieve the dizzying comprehensiveness of his photographs. When his vision strains against the typical constraints of clarity and print size, he digitally stitches together images on a massive, mural-size scale.

The project title itself is epic in its scope and implication. Anthropocene refers to this period of time beginning in the mid-twentieth century, when our impact on the Earth was deemed more than an aberrational blip, but rather a dire and lasting intrusion. And still, Burtynsky’s photographs overflow these parameters, in stripped layers of ancient rock and depleted fossil fuels, as well as in ominous signs of future peril.

Dandora Landfill #3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016
Short runs of images arranged in sections such as urbanization, agriculture, and energy are paired with detailed texts that contextualize the visual evidence offered in Burtynsky’s views. Equal to the challenge of digesting all that’s contained in each large color plate (this is a big, heavy book), is the concentration required to simply keep one’s eyes on track while reading these densely impactful texts stretching across long pages.

Saw Mills #3, Log Booms, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016
A thorough analysis of deforestation around the world, and its ripple effects on biodiversity and human habitation, for example, primes us for the comparably information-packed photographs to follow. Images such as Saw Mills #3, Log Booms, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016 and Log Booms #1, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2016 depict the downstream aftermath of burgeoning timber operations. Splintered and fractured log groupings appear on a staggering scale, and flip from macro to micro in my perception. Suddenly, diseased cells manifest against thick, opaque grounds, eerily elegant on matte black and cloudy green.

Uralkali Potash Mine #2, Berezniki, Russia, 2017
Images in the Extraction section, such as Uralkali Potash Mine #2, Berezniki, Russia, 2017 hum with a deep interiority, with Earth’s gouged out subterranean spaces mimicking a vividly colored scene inside a troubled mind. The analogy the book offers to a fossil-like form is apt, but not as a benign and static artifact. These hypnotic spirals threaten to suck you in, echoing the reality of those giant sinkholes which have endangered the local Russian community.

Rock of Ages #15 Active Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont
I’ve always been drawn to Burtynsky’s work through a sense of my own responsibility not to turn a blind eye to the unprecedented environmental crises of our time. And surely, this work at first seems a close second to seeing the evidence “with my own eyes.” But, does revelation lead to action? And is this word, revelation, even a just label of Burtynsky’s work? He writes, “We feel that by describing the problem vividly, by being revelatory and not accusatory, we can help spur a broader conversation about viable solutions.” His collaborators, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, echo this sentiment, adding that their (and our) shared culpability disallows a position of separation or superiority relative to the other, the perpetrator. And yet, I would argue that such a reservation of judgment precisely indicates a point of remove, between artists and the problem at hand. And, furthermore, that it is possible, and important here, to be both revelatory and accusatory (as the publications’ essayists seem to be given liberty to be).

Log Booms #1, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2016
In particular, poems by Margaret Atwood (no stranger to going dark, in dark days) inserted throughout Anthropocene do just that. In “Fatal Light Awareness,” she writes of a bird meeting its death flying into an illuminated window pane: “your light is the birds’ last darkness,” and further, “We are a dying symphony—No bird knows this, but us—we know, what our night magic does.” A certain stunned paralysis is commonplace in the face of nearly incomprehensible peril. May we all find ways to zoom back in, and each one, do what we must.

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Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.