Master of Photography Edward Burtynsky at Photo London 2018

Computer programmes, apps, digital ways of distribution and social media are today an inherent part of contemporary art.

Approaches range from David Hockney’s iPad paintings and drawings, which he has been doing since 2008, Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, from 2014, a fake Instagram account which documented the rise and fall of an aspiring L.A. actress, to the beautifully digitally rendered singing digger in Broomberg & Chanarin’s The Bureaucracy of Angels, 2017. Many photographers have long exchanged the darkroom for the computer desk to edit their images. The increasing digitalization of the arts, including photography, is a fact, which is profoundly changing our ways of presenting and experiencing it, while challenging and expanding the boundaries and definitions of media, single artworks and art itself.

As with the introduction of any new technology, the benefit depends on its application. Two contrasting examples featured in this year’s Master of Photography display at Photo London by Edward Burtynsky, who, as of late, celebrates the digital age too. The exhibition gathered rarely seen and new photographs from Burtynsky’s ongoing project Anthropocene, a term which describes our present geological age, in which humans have a heavy influence on our planet’s appearance and systems. It included mainly aerial shots of areas where this becomes palpable, for example, saw mills in Nigeria, opencast mining in Arizona and salt pans in India.

Burtynsky also presented his first augmented reality experience, AR #1, Scrap Engine and Rims, Agbogbloshie Recycling Yards, Accra, Ghana 2017, which can be accessed with the help of an app on a phone or a tablet. Visible to the naked eye is a low platform with the abbreviations for metals from the periodical system. On screen, however, we can see three different virtual reality scenarios from the recycling yard, which for example, includes a pile of old car wheels and other scrap metal. You can walk around the objects and see them from all sides, get closer and further away, and even enter them. The rusty parts were first digitally re-built in three dimensions and then covered with a photographic skin, applying the technology which is commonly used for computer games.

The piece plays with our senses, is immediate and ephemeral at the same time, and encourages further engagement. Moreover, it aptly supports the project’s message. According to Burtynsky, the installation shall ‘place the reality of industrial waste in immediate juxtaposition to the present space of Somerset House’.[1] In fact, it forms a snide comment on a whole range of political, ethical and environmental issues, revealing the Western world’s unwillingness to deal with their own waste locally, alluding to the discrepancy between the actual and perceived availability of natural resources and brings to mind how easy it is to manipulate and instrumentalize knowledge and information in these matters.

The use of augmented reality seems less relevant in the case of Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2, Carrara, Italy, 2016. The enormous photograph, measuring 6 by 3 metres, is itself stitched together from 122 50-megapixel files.[2] Trigger points in the image, like the red digger in the centre, cause the app to show ‘film extensions’ to the artwork. In the short video starting with the digger, the camera is slowly zooming out of the scene, revealing the great extent of the quarry, showing the heavy machinery moving, and adding sound to the spectacle. The intention of the extension remains unclear, however. The magnitude of the site, and, by implication, the extent of the human intervention into the landscape is better communicated by the monumental size of the mural, and the addition of motion and noises is little enlightening. The video does not seem to enrich, elevate or twist the information already contained in the photograph but feels like a gimmicky afterthought.

To the contrary, the ‘film extensions’ diminish the impact of Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2. Burtynsky‘s works distinguish themselves by their classical, balanced compositions and carefully arranged colour schemes. Together with their large size, they convey the sublimeness and solemn sense of drama of Old Master paintings; at Photo London this was enhanced by spotlighting them in an otherwise dark space. Those qualities then stand in sharp contrast to their subjects, which record ecological crimes, overexploitation and irreversible damage to the planet – the photographs unveil their true power the moment we understand that the beautiful iridescent stream of colour in the river is in fact caused by oil spilling into the eco system. The search for the trigger point and the electronic device in front of the piece disturb the reading of the image and interrupts the symbiosis of form and content, which works so well for Burtynsky.

The Master of Photography display revealed that digital tools and virtual reality have not only entered the realm of photography but that they are here to stay, and proved that they can be employed in an innovative and fruitful manner. It also confirmed that just like with everything, sometimes, less is more.


All images © Edward Burtynsky

Katharina Guenther is a professional fine art researcher and author based in London. As an independent art historian M.A., she currently working on a PhD thesis on Francis Bacon which explores the artist’s relationship to photography.


[1] Edward Burtynsky on facebook: Seen 23 May 2018.

[2] Anny Shaw, ‚Edward Burtynsky unveils preview of Anthropocene project at Photo London‘, in: The Art Newspaper, 17 May 2018: Seen 23 May 2018.

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