The Art of Nature: Edward Burtynsky’s “Natural Order”

The following text is excerpted from a longer conversation with Edward Burtynsky recorded on May 11, 2022. The accompanying images are from “Natural Order,” a series of 33 photographs taken in late winter and early spring 2020. The series is available in a book of the same name published by Steidl Verlag in 2020. All photographs © Edward Burtynsky. Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.

I had a new 150 megapixel camera, a Phase 150, which I’d only had for six months. I had moved away from the Hasselblad digital camera that I had used for 15 years. I was running into some problems with the optical quality and I tried this Phase One and I liked it better. I was ready to go on a shoot in Africa and we were coming back from New York and there was nobody in the plane. All of a sudden, my busy calendar was an open runway. From packed to zero. I had just married three months earlier so Julia and I decamped to our country place in Grey County, Ontario. In the 35 years that I’d had the property, I had never spent more than two or three weeks there. So I was there with this incredible new camera and I realized I better start learning how to use it. I had begun photographing landscape in that region in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and was going back to basics and to my roots. In 1981 I did Landscape Study #4, and that convinced me to start shooting in colour in 4 x 5. Then I move forward 40 years. It was springtime and I love the quarter tones of spring, the really muted greys, the red of the dogwood. There was a literal tapestry of twigs. I came up with a couple of interesting images and then I used a technique called “focus stacking” that wasn’t possible beforehand. The density of the tapestry-like brush made me think of Jackson Pollock and abstract expressionism. The first drips that he put on the canvas would have sharp edges, as did the very last ones. It would have the same crispness across the whole field. I could set up my camera and go in there, divide up the depth of field and get five images from the very back to the very front. Then I’d take those five images and drop them into the latest software that looks at the sharpest of the different images and redraws the whole image so that it’s sharp from the very back to the very front. This is focus stacking. I was thinking along the lines of compression and about making these really complex, dense images. The other thought going through my mind related to the existential place in which we find ourselves. Looking at nature and how its patterns and forms are the very things that are the fabric of our own bodies. Our neuro systems, our vascular systems and our nervous systems are all branches. They’re all complex, interwoven branches of supply chains that send life to our extremities, like the branches and the bushes do to the leaves. I was looking at nature almost as if I were looking at the structures of our inner body. Also, it’s hard not to think that we humans are doing a real number on the planet, on our own species and on all other living species. We are living with an existential threat that is now a near and present danger. All we have to do is turn on our TV and the evidence pours in through images of floods and fires, of receding ice caps and glaciers, of all the things that are happening as a result of climate change. But I also realized that what I was looking at is the fabric of life from which new life might spring. In some way it will continue to be a part of the planet deep, deep into the future. It will endure; whatever happens to our species, that structure—the trees, the brushes and the grasses—has endurance. Even after a nuclear war, even if climate change happens, our planet will still be rich with this form. ❚

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