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The Eerie Beauty of Landscapes Devastated by Industry

Edward Burtynsky documents the environmental effects of oil extraction through striking landscape photography.
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Photos copyright Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Galerie Ropke, Koln / Galerie Springer, Berlin
Photo from Edward Burtynsky's "Water Series," the Colorado River Delta.

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s work speaks for nature that has been exploited by human industry and consumption. Taking photos from cranes, planes, and helicopters, often above areas that are not otherwise accessible, Burtynsky captures a wide view of devastation: oil wells dotted across a vast plain, railroads slicing through forest, polluted streams curving across landscape, abandoned mines where layers and layers have been stripped from the Earth.

Photos copyright Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Galerie Ropke, Koln / Galerie Springer, Berlin
Photo from Burtynsky's "Tailings Series" of nickel tailings from ore processing near Sudbury, Ontario.

Powerful in their depiction of scale and at the same time aesthetically beautiful in ​​pattern, form, and color, Burtynsky’s photos arouse conflicting emotions. They show the ingenuity of human industry, but evoke despair at its destructive consequence. Both art and photojournalism, they tell an underreported story: Our impact on the planet is huge, and more than we may understand, devastating.

Check out this TED Talk where Burtynsky talks about what inspired him to create an oil landscapes photography series:


Christine St. Pierre wrote this article for The Power of Story, the Summer 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Christine is a YES editorial intern.

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