Altered Topography

In November 2022, the world’s population hit 8 billion – a staggering milestone. Although the growth rate is slowing, the resources needed to support human life remain out of reach. Approximately 1.75 Earths are needed to sustain current activity. Therefore, the natural world has been morphing into something altogether different for centuries. In 2019, the United Nation’s global assessment report stated that 75% of ice-free land has been significantly changed by society, from agriculture to housing and industry. This “terrible beauty” is the subject of Edward Burtynsky’s (b. 1955) large-scale photographic works.

Between 2015-2019, the artist documented the home of 16.72% of the world’s inhabitants. African Studies at Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, records the continent’s varied terrain. Sublime oases, including Lake Bogoria, Kenya, and the red dunes of Sossusvlei, Namibia, are displayed alongside “residual landscapes.” These altered vistas appear untouched, but on closer inspection, the marks of rapid industrialisation come to the fore. Incised lines and junctures form an industrial fingerprint. Gradients of brown, green and blue mix into a heady palette, blurring the lines between nature and manufacturing. 

Burtynsky explains: “I am surveying two very distinct aspects of the landscape: that of the Earth as something intact, undisturbed yet implicitly vulnerable … and that of the Earth as opened up by the systematic extraction of resources.” The aerial portraits reveal the cost of human progression on the wilderness. Ironically, amidst the destruction, traces of splendour and wonder remain. 

Howard Greenberg | Until 22 April

Words: Saffron Ward


 1. Tea Plantations #4, Near Kericho, of Kenya, 2017. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.

2. Salt Ponds #6, Near Tikat of Banguel, Senegal, 2019. © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery.