Artist Edward Burtynsky knows Al Gore, but not because he's in politics.
The two men are bonded by a common passion: the environment. In his slide shows, Gore often uses Burtynsky's aerial photographs documenting humans' impact on the Earth.
"For almost 40 years my story has been that we, as humans, are a dominant species of the planet and nature is suffering as the result of our expansion," said Burtynsky. "My work is about the loss of nature and a lament of that loss."
Last week, the Canadian artist dropped into Minneapolis' Weinstein Hammons Gallery to open his new exhibition "Anthropocene," 17 large-scale photos of our changing planet that will make your jaw drop.
An aerial shot of the Niger River delta in Nigeria shows green ooze seeping into and drifting through blackened lands — a portrait of illegal oil "bunkering" that has destroyed most of the animal life in this formerly lush landscape.
Blue, yellow, green and orange rectangular pools of lithium mines are framed by mountains in the Chilean desert.
Humans rummage through hills of plastic in Kenya's Dandora Landfill while a shaggy dog looks on from atop one of the trash mountains.
A tractor draws lines into the silver-colored substances in a tailings pond near Lakeland, Fla., that contains leftovers from phosphate mining.
These images are visually irresistible, capturing astounding depth and scale.
"I try to find large-scale interventions or industrial systems," Burtynsky said. "I am always wanting to have that kind of image that shows how we are dwarfed in our own worlds."
The artist has in mind "the Kantian notion of the sublime" — a sort of greatness beyond calculation. He also imagines the work of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner: "Ships caught in the wind."
Understanding the current epoch
The places Burtynsky chose to document are not random, nor are they photojournalistically driven. He views them as more scientific in nature.
To pick his subjects, he worked within several categories of ways in which humans are shaping the planet, such as terraforming (climate change), anthroturbation (tunneling) and technofossils (plastics and alloys that nature does not produce).
Together, these are meant to define what some scientists have labeled the Anthropocene epoch. Calling themselves the Anthropocene Working Group, they argue that we have left the Holocene epoch, which started 11,700 years ago as the last ice age's glaciers receded. Now humans have become the single most defining force on Earth.
Burtynsky sees his photographs as a way to raise awareness.
"We are now overpowering nature," he said. "But as we can see from the storms and things that are happening, nature is going to have the final say. In the meantime, nature is being pushed back significantly by our accelerated population growth and the technological revolution."
For the Anthropocene project, he reckons that he and his team of Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal shot upward of 20,000 images. Only 100 to 115 were selected for print, to be included in gallery shows like this one, or the handsome photo book "Anthropocene," just published last month. There also is a documentary film, not yet available in the United States.
The project is currently traveling internationally, with two museum exhibitions in Canada now.
Childhood in a factory town
The artist was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, a General Motors town near Niagara Falls, to Ukrainian immigrant parents. His dad worked at the auto plant, and as a child Burtynsky watched as workers poured molten metal, turning liquid into car parts.
He first picked up a camera at 11, when his father purchased a darkroom kit and cameras from a widow for about $25. Burtynsky was offered a job at the plant but decided to pursue a life in art, enrolling at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute in Ontario.
His previous projects have focused on individual parts of humans' effect on the environment — water, oil, salt pans, mines, quarries.
He traces it all back to his college years.
"One of my first assignments was to go out and photograph evidence of man," he said. "I really liked the assignment. It allowed me to say, 'I know I am implicated in all these landscapes — I am driving a car and using gas, and oil, and oil derivatives; I am using the roads; I am getting on jets; I am not a vegetarian; I am Eastern European and come by it honestly.' But that assignment allowed me to take the role of, 'I am an alien from another planet and I have to bring back evidence.' "
Pausing, he looked around the gallery at all the evidence he had collected, then grinned. "I think I am still doing that assignment."