Ansel Adams: Masterworks, Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change


Connections: Ansel Adams, Edward Burtynsky and the Group of Seven

by Assistant Curator Chris Finn


Visual representations of nature are constructed forms of communication originating in perceptions derived from cultural experience. Interactions between different peoples can reshape cultural views over time. The means and methods for communicating ideas regarding these changes may also be altered. Why do these changes in perception occur? Are they a response to social, economic and technological developments that have taken place within a single community or within a broader societal framework? Have these shifts in social perspective occurred through the efforts of an individual or as a result of a community of voices with a shared ideological focus that may extend across geographical borders to inform a broader audience? 


By visually representing aspects of the natural world, the artist imparts observations about cultural attitudes and practices of their period that are evident in the evolving human relationship to nature. In Canadian art from the early twentieth century, images of the North, communities and the industrialization of the land are recurring subjects and can be found in the art of members of the Group of Seven. Their work was not the only art being produced at the time that dealt with the subject of the land; however, the Group has achieved a ubiquitous Canadian presence with their particular depictions of nature, which range from interpretations of wilderness to the transformation of the land through population growth as well as portrayals of mining and other commercial activities across regions. The Group’s aesthetic program has become synonymous with signifying a ‘heroic’ Canadian character that is embedded in a constructed mythology and that represents a certain perspective on Canadian national identity.

By comparison, visual antecedents to this type of Canadian myth-making, with respect to the representation and appreciation of nature, exist in the works of American artists depicting the American experience. The landscape paintings of the Hudson River School, which emerged during the mid-nineteenth century, provided a visual framework for a mythologizing narrative that embraced a transcendent vision of the human relationship to nature and symbolically embodied an affiliation between the American spirit and idealized notions of wilderness. This form of pictorial symbolism affirmed a sense of place and contributed to building a collective memory while at the same time disseminating environmental values.


The introduction of the camera in the nineteenth century, combined with its continuing technological developments throughout the twentieth century, broadened the imaging capabilities for visually interpreting nature. The photography exhibitions Ansel Adams: Masterworks and Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape that We Change display these artists’ representations of significant places in the physical world. Their aesthetic practises embrace values concerning nature and the environment that have been shaped by their respective cultural experiences and the spirit of the times.


Ansel Adams
In twentieth-century America, photography became an important visual medium in the service of a growing environmental conservation movement that sought to persuade citizens and governments to create protected areas in order to preserve the ‘wild’. Photographs of pristine wilderness or of wilderness destroyed have been at the forefront in the array of tools that are part of an activist drive to raise concerns in support of environmental causes.

As a photographer in the 1920s, Ansel Adams was defining his aesthetic program for representing the wilderness through his visual exploration of Yosemite and the American West. Throughout the 1930s and beyond, Adams continued to refine his vision and technical understanding of the photographic medium while at the same time broadening his professional reputation.


Some of the emphasis in Adams’ early work was on the examination of the minutiae of nature — grasses, flowers, wood textures and small secluded pools within seemingly isolated, uninhabited treed areas, as well as close-ups of dominant land formations. By the 1930s, Adams embraced a ‘Modernist’ approach, which combined both formalized and abstract arrangements of landscape elements, as the basis for constructing his compositions. 


During the 1940s through to his later years, Adams continued to work with these earlier compositional motifs while also producing an extended body of rich, tonal images that depict sweeping vistas of the land overarched by broad expanses of sky, dramatic cloud forms and other natural elements. These works drew from the earlier narrative traditions of Romanticism and echo notions of ‘terror and awe’ of the ‘sublime’ in nature, a practice that also informed the paintings of the Hudson River School artists. 


During this later period, Adams’ concerns about the future of unfettered industrial development became more evident. Adams’ compelling photographs of untouched wilderness sought to engage the viewer in a near spiritual communion with nature. These images served to underscore Adams’ beliefs that the artist must assume a significant role in emphasizing society’s emotional connection to nature through his/her art in order to raise awareness and public support of the efforts to protect the environment.   


Edward Burtynsky
In Canada, the land has been the focus of varied but meaningful visual interpretations. Early indigenous peoples rendered narratives in pictographs and petroglyphs. With the arrival of Europeans, the country was painted, drawn, documented in print images and re-imagined in cartographical and topographical studies. The introduction of photography to North America offered additional methods for visual communication of the Canadian landscape and other aspects of the natural environment, not just as a scientific tool, but also as a means for creative interpretation.

For Edward Burtynsky, growing up in the latter part of the twentieth century, his interest in photography as a youth combined with other experiences from his formative years profoundly influenced the direction that his creative expression in his photographic work would later take.  

Burtynsky was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, in close proximity to the Welland canal. The canal’s history as a man-made creation and the role that it played as a transportation route for people and materials piqued Burtynsky’s curiosity about the inventiveness of societies and their ability to alter environments through technology.


With his photography, Burtynsky has focused on producing a body of large-scale images that are simultaneously an interpretation of place, from the local environs to international sites and a means to communicate the visual reality of human intervention’s transformative impact on nature.

Edward Burtynsky’s vision of the environment confronts us with comprehensive visual evidence of the core processes that sustain our consumerism. They range from images of the drilling, mining and extraction processes for minerals and oil to the industrial requirements for refining and transporting them. These materials  supply the energy that drives and sustains not only the manufacturing of goods but also the delivery systems that move the end products across the city, across the country or around the world.


Through his art, Burtynsky engages us in a dialogue regarding our relationship to nature. His images prompt us to consider our own appreciation of nature. In reflecting on this aspect of his work, Burtynsky states: [We] come from nature. …There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it. …If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.


Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change
I started thinking that maybe the new landscape of our time, the one to start to talk about is the landscape that we change — the one that we disrupt in pursuit of progress. I am trying to look at the industrial landscape as a way of defining who we are and our relationship to the planet. To show those types of images or those types of places allows the viewer to begin to comprehend the scale. [It] is a landscape, it’s a different landscape. Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes, 2005


The exhibition Edward Burtynsky: The Landscape That We Change is comprised of a selection of photographic images from several series — Mining, Railcuts, Homesteads, Tailings, Oil andothers. Burtynsky’s photographs present ‘disrupted’ landscapes that are created by the extraction of minerals and energy from the planet, the delivery systems of these materials and the resulting consumer products and their eventual disposal. 

The e-waste from obsolete computers and other electronic devices, in addition to expended tires and other goods, leads to the accumulation of detritus that has been gathered into locations that Burtynsky has termed ‘urban mines’, which can then be either harvested or recycled. Burtynksy’s photographic vision of the ‘new landscapes of our time’ continues to be realized through his decades-long examination of the landscapes that humans have changed, not only in Canada but also in the United States, Asia and other countries that have experienced directly or indirectly the impact of consumerism’s exponential growth.


Burtynsky does not seek to position his images into the realm of political polemic. They simply ‘are what they are’. His photographs engage the observer through what he refers to as a ‘duality’ in the viewing process. Burtynsky’s aesthetic interpretation of the selected site emphasizes the formal qualities of the composition by rendering the subject most often in rich colour, detail and textural qualities enhancing the viewing experience. Simultaneously, the observer is made aware of the devastation and altered state of nature that is portrayed. The tension generated by mediating this ‘dual’ response to the image is intended to provoke a thoughtful dialogue about the environment and societal attitudes.

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