What in the World

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What in the World


John Carvalho


Photographs bear witness. Minimally, they record or collect evidence. Bearing witness is not, however, reducible to showing that this was there then. Bearing witness has an affective dimension. What led a photographer to select this and not that to capture on a light sensitive medium? What was he or she feeling? How was the photographer embodied when he or she trained their lens on the scene to be photographed? How is the photographer’s embodiment culturally situated relative to that scene, and how does his or her embodiment bear on what he or she hopes to witness and for others to witness? This essay explores what Edward Burtynsky embodies and hopes to capture with the photographs collected for The Anthropocene Project. It argues that Burtynsky’s photographs embody and bear witness to a melancholia, a lost sense of unspoiled Nature felt in the presence of his photographs. It contends that this affect motivates audiences to mitigate the impact of human industry on the environment more effectively than ethical arguments about the responsibility of human industry to police its actions. The irony is that unspoiled Nature is a myth generated alongside the industry once mobilized to harvest its riches and now exposed in Burtynsky’s photographs as spoiling it.

Key Words
aesthetic engagement, Anthropocene, Lewis Baltz, Edward Burtynsky, landscape photography, melancholia, nature, New Topographics


1. Introduction

Recently, a symposium was organized on the theme, “Inhabiting the End(s) of the World.”[1] The papers presented mostly took liberties with the senses of inhabiting and ends. As a late entry to fill a last-minute vacancy, I took the theme literally and as a chance to comment on the photography by Edward Burtynsky included in the exhibit, “Into the Anthropocene,” on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario from September to December 2018. I took my title, the one used here, from an expression my Portuguese grandmother used, to respond with astonishment or exasperation to some event in her more or less immediate environs: “O que no mundo,” in Portuguese, but it was always expressed in English. “What in the World” is an oath we might swear in polite company these days, in response to the ways human beings are inhabiting the world, as documented by Burtynsky’s photographs, to what ends it remains to be seen.

What I have to say here, expanding significantly on that presentation, situates Burtynsky’s large-scale landscape photography for The Anthropocene Project, of which “Into the Anthropocene” was a part. It comments on the way those photographs capture the inscription modern human industry is leaving on the natural world to replace the signature of God that Renaissance scholars sought to find in the order of things. It contrasts those photographs with photographs of the residue of civilizing human existence mounted five decades earlier as part of the group exhibition, “New Topographics.” It considers the myth of an unspoiled, natural environment eschewed by the New Topographic artists that nonetheless lends aesthetic power to their landscapes. And, it concludes that the aesthetics of Burtynsky’s artworks induce an unresolvable sense of loss, a melancholia for that unspoiled natural environment we have never experienced.[2] The aim of the essay is to advance the claim that an affective, aesthetic response to these artworks and those associated with them more effectively engages audiences with the urgency of mitigating the human, industrial devastation of the natural world than ethical arguments that arrogantly suppose that the humans most responsible for environmental catastrophes can be those who alleviate the disastrous consequences of this human malfeasance.

2. The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is estimated to be only 60 or 70 years old in the 4.6-billion-year life of the planet. It is an unofficial unit of geological time that attempts to capture the imprint of a very specific human activity, the activity resulting in changes to the climate that threaten life on earth. If the designation holds, it will be the latest proposed epoch of the Cenozoic era, which commenced 66 million years ago after the great extinction that closed the Mesozoic era – itself commencing 252 million years ago after the great extinction that ended the Paleozoic era. Cenozoic means “new or recent life” and refers to the era in which plants and animals were formed largely the way we find them today. One lesson from this geology is that there have been massive extinctions in the past. Perhaps evidence of the devastating environmental effects The Anthropocene Project attempts to trace will prove to mark one more era coming to an end.

Some date the Anthropocene back to the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, roughly from the beginning of the nineteenth century. With machinic production fired by fossil fuels replacing handmade manufacturing, the earth’s strata would have been altered (by mining for these fuels) and geological indicators could have been left (in the waste produced and buried) to mark an epochal shift. Others trace the shift to the dispersion of radioactive debris from the deployments of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons tests in the 1940s and 1950s. The term was only coined forty years ago, but for the past sixty years we have been experiencing what is called the “great acceleration,” in the form of increased carbon emissions, global warming, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, extinction, and natural resource extraction that are all making a distinct mark on the environment.[3] Still, there is no scientific consensus that we are living in a new epoch. Officially, we still live in the Holocene epoch that commenced 11,700 years ago with the end of the Ice Age.

Not waiting for scientific certification, The Anthropocene Project is a “multi-disciplinary body of work combining fine art photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research to investigate human influence on the state, dynamic, and future of the Earth.”[4] Led by Edward Burtynsky, in collaboration with Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, The Anthropocene Project aims to document this human influence for the purposes of launching a comprehensive educational program that will contribute to our understanding of the unwitting and outsized influence of human activity on a planet where we are relatively recent visitors (with human settlements from just 200,000 years ago found in southeast Africa and human fossils from 360,000 years ago recently found in today’s Morocco).[5]

The Anthropocene Project was first exhibited at the Art Gallery of Ontario from September to December 2018. It included large-scale photographs and an immersive virtual experience that allowed visitors to animate 3D video tableaux, inserting them into the scenes photographed. The experience was uncanny and unsettling. Visitors were given the sense that, by virtue of being human, they were a part of the human activity exposed by the artists. At the same time, there was ever the sense that these photographs were set in a gallery, that visitors were drawn to them, at least initially, as they might be to any object exhibited in such a space, and the objects on view were, by turns, both beautiful and sublime and presented as objects for aesthetic engagement.

It’s hard to know where to start with this work. One photograph [IMAGE 1] bears witness to coal extraction in Gillette, Wyoming. The print on display at the gallery was 60 x 75 inches. As mounted, it was taller and wider than the outstretched arms of most viewers. The enormity of the print mirrored the enormity of what it witnesses. Only the merest indication of a horizon lines the top of the photograph, which is otherwise taken up entirely with an environment inscribed with the marks of a particularly human industry. What was once a mountain is patterned with indications of a mechanical and methodical carving away at the earth, framed with signs of access roads, and showing a processing plant in the distance, leaving no ambiguity about the human interventions that have marked this site. As with  Burtynsky’s other photographic works, the photograph is taken from an elevated point of view, which flattens the scene into what appears to be, at first glance, a pleasing abstraction.[6] It is beautiful, perhaps sublime, until we learn what the scene represents.

Image 1: Edward Burtynsky, Coal Mining, Near Gillette, Wyoming (2015). © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.


Still, in the U. S. and around the world today – Burtynsky includes in this exhibit an equally imposing photograph of mining in Westphalia, Germany – most electricity, including the electricity we use to power alternative-fuel vehicles, is produced by burning coal. The enormity of what Burtynsky’s photographs capture is not limited to the size of the sites but extends to the magnitude of what the fossil fuel industry entails and the lobby advocating for it is attempting to protect. The fossil fuel industry is massive and includes mining coal and drilling for oil across vast stretches of the otherwise natural environment worldwide. The value of a place and of the culture occupying that place is often pegged to the availability of these resources. The lobby advocating for fossil fuels is protecting an ideology, the idea that we cannot live without such fuels, but they are also protecting the financial loss that would be suffered by retiring the equipment used to extract these fuels, including the fuels needed to run that equipment, by retiring the labor power and, more, the vast corporate division that administers these operations. Putting aside Burtynsky’s claims about the political neutrality of his photographs, can we any longer view these photographs as artworks and regard them aesthetically once we know what they represent? And what do they represent?

The content of the photographs of the sites in Wyoming and Westphalia ostensibly represents coal mining – the extraction, by markedly human acts, of a mineral used to fuel distinctly human industries – but the representation is not informative. It shows us that coal extraction has taken place and roughly how the extraction was accomplished, but it does not tell us how much was extracted over what period of time at what cost for what reward. The representation is also stylized. It is, as just noted, flattened and abstracted. Moreover, the photograph is presented as an artwork on the wall of a gallery and in the pages of a book. Does knowing what we are looking at discount our aesthetic regard of Burtynsky’s photographs? I believe it does not. Rather, as Noël Carroll has suggested in another context, knowing what we are looking at is crucial for regarding Burtynsky’s photographs aesthetically.[7] It is because we know we are looking at the site of coal extraction that we see the regularity of the markings on the mountain, read the serpentine lines on the perimeter as service roads, interpret the buildings in the distance as a plant processing the raw materials extracted from the earth, and see this complexity as part of a unified whole.

In spite of the evident politics of his works, our response to Burtynsky’s photographs is manifestly affective. We do not have the sense that we are viewing a scientific documentation of environmental devastation. Although they are exceptionally detailed in the views they present, they are not edifying. Instead, they traffic in a recognizable style that goes back to Burtynsky’s early use of large-format field cameras, with 4 x 5-inch sheet film, to photograph the “pristine landscapes” of his native Canada.[8] In those photographs, too, he often positioned his camera at high elevations, later going on to capture the same effect by shooting images from helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, and drones. This arial photographic perspective places viewers at a distance that allows them to appreciate the complexity and intensity of the phenomenon captured in the image, but it achieves the opposite of the aesthetic distance advocated by eighteenth-century aesthetic theory and those who follow it.[9] Burtynsky’s photographs instead allow viewers a certain intimacy with a phenomenon they would not otherwise achieve on their own. This intimacy affords the affect felt in the face of these large-scale images of phenomena shown from a distance.

And that affect is both cumulative and conflicted. It is cumulative because, while felt in the appreciation of a single image, the affect becomes powerfully palpable in the appreciation of a large number of these large-scale photographs dedicated to the same theme. It is conflicted because the feeling of pleasure in the judging of these images to be beautiful competes with an equally compelling feeling of displeasure or distress in the recognition of what the images represent. In the first place, I want to argue that this uneasiness or distress is an aesthetic response to Burtynsky’s artworks. In the second place, I want to propose that the affect afforded in this aesthetic response is melancholia, an unreconcilable mourning for the loss of a pristine earth we have never experienced. What landscape photography traditionally captures is nature in its unspoiled splendor, but what Burtynsky’s photograph show us is nature brutally ravaged by human intervention. Burtynsky’s photographs have us longing for a nature that is, in fact, the mythic basis for precisely the industry the photographs show humans using to leave their mark on the natural environment. Burtynsky’s photographs afford us a melancholia for a lost object we have never possessed, and this melancholia is the basis for the activism Burtynsky is mounting with The Anthropocene Project.[10]

3. The Order of Things

Renaissance scholars thought it unthinkable that God would create a natural world that would leave its inhabitants incapable of understanding its inner truths. In “The Prose of the World,” Michel Foucault recounts how, up to the end of the sixteenth century, scholars divined a rich web of resemblances to discern knowledge about their world.[11] Drawing on the semblances of convenience, emulation, analogy, and sympathy, these scholars believed they could extend what they knew to what tested the limits of their knowledge about the world. In the first place, it was thought that one thing adjacent or sufficiently close to another could communicate properties to that other thing. Convenience denoted the placement of things in such proximity to one another that the apparent similitudes afforded by their mere proximity gave rise to more profound, if obscure, relationships between them. Body and soul, for example, are said to be doubly “convenient.” “The soul had to be made dense, heavy, and terrestrial for God to place it in the very heart of matter. But through this propinquity, the soul receives the movements of the body and assimilates itself to that body, while the body,” for its part, “is altered and corrupted by the passions of the soul.”[12] An otherwise trivial “convenience” of two substances, in the double sense of proximity and opportunity, reveals the profound truth that body and soul depend on and challenge one another profoundly.

In the second place, emulation denoted a form of convenience liberated from the law of place, able to function at a distance and without moving. With emulation, resemblances can communicate across the universe, making connections without a need for contact. The human face, for example, emulates the sky, for just as the human intellect is an imperfect reflection of God’s wisdom, so the limited brightness of the eyes on that face “are a reflection of the vast illuminations spread across the sky by sun and moon,” the mouth emulates the morning star, Venus, “since it gives passage to kisses and words of love,” and “the nose provides an image in miniature of Jove’s scepter and Mercury’s staff.”[13] Emulation gave Renaissance sages a way of enhancing their knowledge about the human face by drawing to it resemblances from a vast firmament that was not at all adjacent, but that held, in a starry array, significances that deepened the meaning of that human visage.

Analogy is a semblance that combines convenience and emulation. Like the latter, it posits similitudes across vast distances and across categories, bringing together the large and the small. Like the former, it bonds ever more firmly what is adjacent and joined. The similitudes it posits are not visible, but more subtle. They can extend from a single point to an endless number of relations. “For example, the relation of the stars to the sky in which they shine may also be found between plants and the earth, between living things and the globe they inhabit, between minerals such as diamonds and the rocks in which they are buried, between sense organs and the face they animate, between skin moles and the body of which they are the secret marks.”[14] Analogies are also supple and fungible. The analogy between plants and animals, for example, according to which plants are animals with their heads rooted in the ground, can be inverted to describe the belly of the beast as the roots from which the veinous branches flourish in the heart and the head like the branches and the head of a flower.

This reversibility of analogy reaches its nadir with human being, that being which by analogy provides the measure of all things. Its upright posture forms a connection between heaven and earth, but it also provides the fulcrum on which turns everything that is such-wise connected, so that its flesh is like cultivated land, its bones like rock, its veins like the rivers that irrigate the earth, its bladder the sea, and its principal organs like metals hidden in the shafts of mines.[15] Semblances formed by analogy were important for making known what was apparently impervious by attributing qualities that tamed the unfamiliar, reducing it to a species of the same.

Finally, there are the sympathies and antipathies. These powerful similitudes, by turns, draw everything together and set them apart. They work in tandem. “The identity of things, the fact that they can resemble others and be drawn to them, though without being swallowed up or losing their singularity – this is what is assured by the constant counterbalancing of sympathy and antipathy.”[16] Sympathy draws what is apparently unlike together, with a force that renders them the same. Sunflowers are so-called because their yellow disks track the path of the sun as it elevates along the azimuth. Fire passes into smoke because it loses its sympathy with the dry earth and attracts the sympathy of the humid atmosphere into which it rises. The antipathies assure that things do not assimilate completely. In concert with the sympathies, they bring about all the forms of resemblances by ceaselessly bringing things together and holding them apart. By means of this interplay, the identities of those things held to be convenient or to emulate or to be analogous to one another is maintained.

However, this system is not yet closed. We are given a world of similitudes but no guide for drawing one resemblance rather than another, and we are not yet given any insight into where to locate the sites of these resemblances. In regarding the human face, for example, how do we know to separate the sense organs rather than treat them as a whole, or how to separate the eyes from the brow that furrows and lines the forehead above them? The invisible web of similitudes that reveals the hidden depths of a world of things would be lost on us without some visible trace that drew that profound web out of its hiding, and in fact Renaissance scholars saw the world of things as bristling with blazons, hieroglyphs, so many signs, a murmur of words that only needed to be deciphered.[17]

The shell of a walnut, for example, is said to be inscribed with the sign of its powers for treating ailments of the skull, while the fruit of the nut, by virtue of its resemblance to the human brain, is inscribed with the sign of its powers for treating internal head ailments. These signs, Renaissance scholars posited, were the signature of God written on the natural environment to aid those human beings who could decipher its language to grasp the profound meaning of nature. On this view, the natural environment is analogous to scripture, where the word of God divines, for those who know how to read it, the profound meaning of human life. Renaissance scholars discovered the order of things in the signature of God, the prose of the world, written across the natural world.

In the Classical Age, also known as the Enlightenment, Foucault states that those divine signs were erased and replaced by ideas in the heads of those who sought to represent the world. In the Classical Age, knowing was representing, and clear and distinct ideas gave that world an order that did not depend on an external, eternal scribe. Language was reduced to communicating such ideas thought to be clearer and more distinct if they had no physical or historical properties. Scholars attributed the source of their ideas to the natural light of Reason manifest in Nature and did not worry that they had no means of measuring the adequacy of their representations. The mind was thought to be of a piece with the Nature its ideas represented.

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, there was a worry, and to respond to it late eighteenth-century science invented “man,” what we now call human being. This human being differed from those who read Nature like a book or who represented it with ideas in their heads. This “man” was conceived as actively constituting Nature with its representations that were deemed adequate to the things they represented, because those things were just what the human intellect conceived them to be. Nature was once again a book, but the author this time was human being itself, who saw only itself in Nature and inscribed itself in Nature in the form of ideas and industry. While nineteenth-century science inscribed the natural world and the human beings inhabiting it with representations, nineteenth-century industry inscribed the natural world with factories and the conveyances that linked factories to one another and to the natural resources that fueled them, thus replacing the signature of God with the scrawl of human being. Burtynsky’s photographs for The Anthropocene Project bear witness to what this scrawl has become.

4. Landscapes

This witness is nothing new for Burtynsky. As noted above, Burtynsky has turned his camera’s lens on nature and the environment throughout his oeuvre, with a critical eye on landscapes, for the past twenty years or more. In 2001 and 2003, Burtynsky published limited edition books of photographs, titled Residual Landscapes: Studies of Industrial Transfiguration and Before the Flood. The first, introduced and with an interview by Michael Torosian, bore witness to how landscapes were changed in the pursuit of progress. The second documented “the environmental, humanitarian and historical ramifications” of the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River in China, another pursuit of progress, this time at the expense of the people displaced from their native lands. Both books were published by Burtynsky Studios. Residual Landscapes includes twenty-four photographs in just 200 editions. Before the Flood contains thirty-two pages in 100 numbered copies. In the descriptions for both books, the aesthetic qualities are emphasized. Of the first, it is said, “The brilliance of the original prints has been preserved in the sumptuous portfolio of four-colour stochastic reproductions, printed on Utopia Premium ivory paper, and varnished. The edition has been quarter bound, by hand, in black Canapetta book cloth with burgundy Bugra paper over boards. The book measures 7 3/8 x 9 inches.” The second, whose dimensions are 15.5 x 13.25 inches, is said to include one 11 x 14-inch giclée print. Descriptions of the content of the photographs make it clear that Burtynsky conceives and presents his books as artworks and as containing artworks.

Also in 2003, Burtynsky published Manufactures Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky, with Yale University Press, which is known for its high-quality reproduction of images. The book, published in conjunction with the first retrospective of Burtynsky’s work, measures 13 x 11 inches and contains sixty-four large-scale color prints and three essays by curators/critics again described as “documenting the effect of industrialization on the environment” and “recommended for academic libraries and large art photo collections.”[18] Henceforth, Burtynsky published Quarries (2007), Oil (2009), Water (2013), Salt Pans (2016), Anthropocene (2018), and Natural Order (2020) with Steidl, the German photobook publisher known for its high-quality, in-house printing. (The publishing house was founded by the artist Gerhard Steidl.) Throughout his career, it is fair to say, Burtynsky viewed and presented his photographs as artworks, and we would do well to regard them as such.

We do not need to be reminded that these are not typical coffee-table books to be flipped through absentmindedly. Books of photography have presented social commentary going back to the 1930s in the United States alone. Walker Evans captured photographs of Americans suffering from economic hardship. Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photographs represented the plight of women working the fields in California, with the aim of helping them in some way. Arthur Rothstein, who photographed the toll taken by the dustbowl in Oklahoma [IMAGE 2] wrote, “The aim [of photography] is to move people to action, to change or prevent a situation because it may be wrong or damaging, or to support or encourage one because it is beneficial.”[19] This tradition lives on in the photographic work of Cindy Sherman and Duane Michals, who have used their photographs to critically comment on the position of women and gay men, respectively, in a world that marginalizes the voices of non-normative people.

Image 2: Arthur Rothstein, The Dust Storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma (1936).
Library of Congress.


In the aforementioned works, for example, those produced for the Farm Security Association, the commentary is quiet. In part, this quiet is the result of the marginalized position of photography in a visual artworld dominated by painting and the movies. In part, it is the result of the modest scale, until recently, of photographic prints. In part, again, the quiet results from the subject of these photographic works. Mostly portraits, these photographs taken from the 1930s to the present day focus on the individual or groups of individuals. If they are disturbing, as the photographs of Diane Arbus or Nan Goldin certainly may be, the disturbance is private, an event emerging in the viewer’s confrontation with an 8 x 10-inch glossy print.

Traditional landscape photography aimed not so much at social commentary as at a view of the majesty of nature meant to humble the viewer but also to present a goal the viewer could aspire to achieve. Landscape photography takes us to places we have never been and shows us familiar places in ways we have not seen them before. They are humbling, because the grandeur they capture suggests that we are smaller in comparison, but they also inspire us to visit those grand sites, if only in our imagination, and connect us with the larger natural environment. Landscape photography draws from landscape painting and shares with those paintings a sense of nature unsullied by human intervention. The painter could choose to leave traces of the human world out of his or her compositions. The photographer who wishes to achieve the same effect must direct his or her view selectively and crop or scrub what was captured to eliminate the imprint of human being that, ever increasingly, is found in even the most remote places.

Landscape as a genre of painting emerged in mid-seventeenth century, at the dawn of what Foucault called the Classical Age. Painters in that period made representations of Nature. Just as scientists turned from observations of the resemblances in the natural world to a natural world represented by ideas in their head, painters made representations on canvas of the ideas of nature they conceived in their mind’s eye. They made representations of representations. What they depicted on their canvases was an image of the image as an idea of Nature conceived as an indefinitely extended expanse of the earth, sky, and sea, of inland waterways, mountains and valleys, of plants and animals expressed now in a selection of that expanse intended to stand in for or represent the natural world as a whole. In some respects, this is an extension of the representational style of painting that gave us illustrations of scripture or the ancient myths. In other respects, it is an extension of the science of the times that made selected samples of nature stand in for or represent a species or a natural kind.

Landscape painting did not just show a mountain range or the waves crashing on the shore, but all of Nature embodied in that representation. It was guided, then, by the idea of Nature as the absolute container in which all life was bound. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century painters inserted human subjects in their landscapes in the form of bourgeois individuals recreating in parks or perambulating on city streets, sometimes including the means that transported them from the city to the rural environs stretching beyond the urban centers. The idea was to populate the natural environment with those human beings for whom it was “nature,” those with the leisure to enjoy a concept deployed to designate, again, the boundless container that sustained their lives. But this “nature” was precisely a concept, an idea conceived by humans to represent what nature was to them. The nature/culture distinction is an artifact of culture. There was never a natural environment unsullied by human intervention. Foucault posits that Diego Velázquez included “man” in his representation of Las Meninas virtually, in the person of the unseen viewer, to signal the immanent collapse of the Classical Age. I am arguing that Burtynsky inserts human being into his landscapes virtually, in the signs of human industry, to signal the collapse of the machinic stage of modernity and the onset of the Anthropocene.

5. New Topographics

In the 1960s and 1970s, landscape photographers turned their attention to the human interventions that were transforming the natural environment in the period after World War II, roughly coincident with the date posited for the onset of the Anthropocene. The work of these artists was brought together for an exhibition in 1975, curated by William Jenkins for the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, titled New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. The exhibit did not just document a new development in the “progress” human civilization was making in the postwar period. It indicted the claim that there ever was a world free from human intervention and countered it with the assertion that the myth of an unsullied nature was the foundation for the human industry that had arrived at a stage in its development, especially in the United States, that was, perhaps, irreversible.

Such is the argument in an essay by Wolfgang Scheppe included with the collection of photographs by Lewis Baltz, titled Candlestick Point.[20] Baltz’s works were featured in the Eastman House’s New Topographics show. Contextualizing Baltz’s photography, Scheppe notes that landscape, the first genuinely bourgeois genre, was both a result and a means of socialization. He quotes de Tocqueville, who wrote, “When scepticism had depopulated heaven. And the progress of equality had reduced each individual to smaller and better known proportions, the poets, not yet aware of what they could substitute for the great themes which were departing together with the aristocracy, turned their eyes to inanimate nature.”[21] In the visual arts, this poetic eye turned to representations of real estate, property, and the production of the maps used to justify and document territorial claims.[22] The success of the Dutch landscape painters is attributed to a burgeoning culture industry of which it was a part. With the development of industry and the establishing of communication and trade routes facilitating the exploitation of natural resources, landscape painting showed an idyllic realm, increasingly romanticized, that covered over a nascent capitalist reality.[23] As a reaction to the nature-controlling utilitarianism of the Classical Age, Romanticism held out the sublimity of the landscape as an idea of reason that transcends the sensuous form of nature and appeals instead to a moral sense of human well-being.[24]

This Romanticism achieved new heights in the American landscape tradition that represented manifest destiny, “the right allegedly bestowed upon the nation by Providence” to populate and possess the whole continent. Its paintings condensed “the Bible, the school textbook, the Constitution, the legal code and the land register” in “monumental vistas of a Garden of Eden imagined in the American West.”[25] Thus [IMAGE 3], the myth of a pristine, ahistorical, primal Nature was invoked as a discovery of the American pioneer. An opposition of “rugged, forbidding, awe-inspiring rocky heights and quaint valleys is taken up in the dualism of the twilight of shadowy forests, dark clouds, black mountain massifs and shimmering reflections, stereotypically formed in central waterfalls, mirrored light on the surface of lakes and breaks in the clouds suddenly giving way to radiant beams from above.”[26] This idea is imagined and represented as the truth of Nature, when in fact it is conceived by humans to satisfy a sense of themselves belonging to something greater standing in for the idea of a heavenly beyond.

Image 3: Frederick Edwin Church, Autumn (1875). Oil on Canvas.
©Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.


Conventional or “straight” photography, paradigmatically exhibited in the works of Anselm Adams, could only continue to imagine Nature so conceived. Conceptual photography, exemplified by the works of Lewis Baltz, sought to break from a photographic tradition that made images for the sake of making images in order to make photography the means for creating ideas. Scheppe calls it an epistemic break. We can see conceptual photography moving from capturing the photographer’s preconceived ideas of a subject and presenting them as its truth to the photographer using the camera as a medium for expressing truths independent from a subject. Conceptual photography inaugurates a shift from the Classical to the Modern age in the art of photography. According to Scheppe, Baltz is not a photographer, “but a theoretically, politically and historically-minded intellectual who used photography as a socially established method for his fundamentally conceptual artistic practice.”[27] And he used this art practice to render visible what was invisible in subjects deemed taboo or of no interest to the social order.

6. Oil

Burtynsky says he was influenced by the New Topographics artists and the work of Baltz in particular, but we don’t have to take the artist’s word for it. Catherine Zuromskis critically connects the artists in an essay on the aesthetics of “peak oil.”[28] Peak oil describes the stage in the development of the cultural and environmental landscape made possible in the United States by the availability of inexpensive petroleum. Oil, refined as gasoline, powered the automobile industry, the construction of the interstate highway system, and the development of suburban residences from which workers in urban centers and industrial parks would commute in automobiles traversing those highways. This peak and the ascendency of the U. S. economy crested in the face of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, which limited supply, increased the price at the pump, and retooled the suburban American dream.

Zuromskis argues that the New Topographics artists give us a vision of a postwar American landscape that captures “an unresolved tension about the changing backdrop to American life and the cultural effects of petromodernity at precisely the moment when the crisis of peak oil first emerges in the United States.”[29] What she says about Baltz, however, suggests that this tension is resolved in his work. Deploying a “cool affect and clean formalistic style,” she writes, Baltz’s works highlight “the utter plainness, monotony and isolation” of suburban American sprawl.[30] Capturing primarily commercial spaces shorn of references to the human body, “Baltz offers a landscape utterly unfit for and disinterested in human habitation.”[31] Citing as an example, [IMAGE 4] South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine (1974), Zuromskis points to the flat geometric display of windows reflecting before it a landscape including trees, power lines, and automobiles, but not the photographer whose human presence is blocked by a concrete pillar in the center of the photograph. In Baltz’s work, peak oil had rendered American culture lifeless.

Image 4: Lewis Baltz, South Wall, Mazda Motors, 2121 East Main Street, Irvine (1974). Permission to reproduce this image withheld by the Estate of Lewis Baltz. It can be seen following this link https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/80.472.40/.

Citing his Oil (2009), Zuromskis describes Burtynsky as documenting “the ecological nightmare of oil production and consumption in the postmillennial…moment” and notes, as we have above, that “the aestheticization of his subjects complicates understandings of this photography as an activist or journalistic project.”[32] Commenting on Oil Fields #19 (diptych) (2003) [IMAGE 5], exhibited as two 60 x 75-inch prints, Zuromskis writes, “Burtynsky’s elevated point of view tilts the ground up toward the viewer, transforming the landscape into an abstract pattern, a stunning effect that both captures the grand scale of this drilling operation and removes the viewer from it by distancing any sense of human scale….The effect,” she continues, “is dramatic and resolutely aesthetic, indeed, sublime.”[33] This description matches our account of Burtynsky’s photographs of coal extraction for Anthropocene (2018). She writes that Burtynsky “takes a very real social and environmental problem and makes it lyrical, even beautiful.”[34] But where Zuromskis sees these aesthetics as evidence of Burtynsky’s refusal to make his work political, I want to say it is precisely through these aesthetics that Burtynsky’s works become political and that they become political by affording a melancholia for a lost natural environment we can only conceive but never experience. Where Zuromskis thinks Burtynsky’s photographs evidence “a failure to reimagine Western culture and prosperity any other way,” I want to reimagine that failure as an affect that has practical political import.

Image 5: Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #19 (diptych), Belridge, California (2003). © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.


7. Melancholia

Baltz’s photographs are conceived and executed to make a statement about the flattening effect of petromodernity – the reduction of modern life to the asphalt that connects but also separates – to the clusters of filling stations and strip malls that fuel consumption for its own sake, to the endless developments of track homes accessorized with front lawns, backyard furniture, and a driveway to park a gas-guzzling machine, but their affectlessness, key to the concept they hope to achieve, keeps us from being moved by them. Baltz’s photographs bear silent witness to the detritus of postwar American life and argue for an ethical reconsideration of the human malfeasance that produced it. Burtynsky’s photographs are noisy by contrast. They bear witness to the active scarring of an environment by human industry. Where Baltz’s photographs make us think, Burtynsky’s make us feel. Where Zuromskis is struck by the aesthetic qualities that break through the evidence of environmental disaster documented in Burtynsky’s photographs, I see the aesthetic qualities as a lure that draws us into the ecological nightmare and makes us feel the loss of something we are loathe to let go.

We mourn the loss of someone or something we love. Following Sigmund Freud, having invested so much of ourselves in that someone or thing (our youth, say, or our country), we experience a loss of ourselves at the same time as we lose them.[35] We no longer see ourselves in the world in the life of that other we loved, and we are loathe to acknowledge that loss. Only piecemeal, over time, and due to the steady confirmation of the fact that the object of our love is no longer present in the world, do we withdraw our investments back into ourselves and regain a sense of wholeness allowing us to make new investments of affection and see ourselves in the world again. The puzzle is that in the face of the plain fact that the loved one is lost, we are reluctant to withdraw our affections and take this grieving process as part of the normal course of life.

The work of mourning, the effort to withdraw our affections and regain the wholeness of ourselves, is done at a largely conscious level. We and others around us know we are grieving, and the measure of our grief can be taken and compared with the grief of others. Melancholia differs, Freud writes, by being largely unconscious. It is afforded by a loss “of a more ideal kind.”[36] The melancholic may know who has been lost but not what has been lost in losing her or him. The loved one has died, but what died with the loved one is something the melancholic cannot consciously grasp, and so the work of withdrawing his or her affections takes place at an unconscious level, veiled from the melancholic and those who would want to help. In the case of Burtynsky’s photographs, what has been lost in the natural environment is of this ideal type. We experience the loss of something, but we are not exactly sure what it is we have lost. In part, this is because what we have lost is captured in a concept that has nothing to do with the actual environment itself. In part, it is because in that concept Nature itself is idealized for us.

The melancholy we feel in the presence of Burtynsky’s photographs of the Anthropocene does not lead to the diminution of our self-regard or the loss of our ego that Freud describes. We do not lose sleep, refuse nourishment, or give up our will to live, but we do feel something of the moral remorse characteristic of the clinically melancholic patient and a helplessness in the face of our loss.[37] We also feel an impulse to do something to overcome that helplessness, to compensate for the moral shortcomings of humanity, and to replenish the loss we feel in the face of these photographs. Because we are not patients on an analyst’s couch but part of a discerning audience for artworks, we feel compelled to share, at a minimum, the sense that something should be done to reimagine or actively rewrite the human signature industry is inscribing on the earth.

8. Conclusion

Reimagining could lead to critical analyses of the consequences of that industry and proposals for achieving its ends by other means. Rewriting could take the form of active interventions to mitigate the damage done in the name of progress. Burtynsky’s photographs do not themselves imagine alternatives or take action to change the scenes they document, but they move us to do so by invoking a sense of Nature once conceived as a buffer against the utilitarian fervor of industry. Going back to de Tocqueville, in the face of a skepticism about an afterlife and a reduction of human life to its democratic sameness, Burtynsky’s photographs bear witness to the determination of human beings to inscribe inanimate nature with the signs of its progress and prosperity. They cause audiences to feel, at the same time, how much human progress does not define that prosperity, and with that feeling, that affect, they press the practical, political importance of remaking human flourishing in concert with a natural environment that is the real and not ideal support for life on the planet.

For several decades, first inspired by the uncomely blight of litter, environmentalists made the case for respecting the earth and the plants and animals inhabiting it.[38] They supposed rational arguments alone could compel people to adopt a non-anthropocentric attitude toward life on the planet.[39] As it turns out, however, the idea that the earth is a resource for primarily human lives is exalted by the technological accomplishments fueling just those industries charged with ravishing the environment. Flummoxed by the ineffectiveness of their campaign, environmentalists flooded those unmoved by their arguments with moral approbation intended to shame them, at least, into doing what is right. This strategy also failed, though, when it was effectively co-opted by industries declaring, without warrant, that they were best equipped to mitigate the harms they inflicted on the environment and to profit both by a burnished image of their contribution to environmental health and on their bottom line.

Burtynsky’s photographs do not enter that fray. Rather than marshaling arguments or laying blame, they afford us an affect that invokes the image of unspoiled nature as the ideal that troubles our appreciation of them. They bear stunning witness to environmental devastation at the same time as they make us feel the idea of pristine nature as an unrecoverable ideal. They connect us to the loss of what the poets posited as a stand-in for divine providence, at a time when the manifest destiny of human industry threatened to instrumentalize our existence. With that threat now realized, Burtynsky’s photographs for The Anthropocene Project invoke a melancholic longing for what might have been, if only in the imagination of artists and audiences advancing the idea of a more-than-human flourishing on the planet we call home.


John M. Carvalho

John M. Carvalho, Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and Associate Editor of Contemporary Aesthetics, is the author of Thinking with Images: An Enactivist Aesthetics and of several dozen essays published in journals or anthologies on the history of ancient Greek philosophy, twentieth-century French philosophy, and aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of music and motion pictures. He is currently writing a book with the working title, Realism and Enactivism in Motion Pictures.

Published June 13, 2023.

Cite this article: John Carvalho, “What in the World,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] International Symposium for Phenomenology, Perugia, Italy, 4 – 8 July 2022. I would like to thank the seminar participants who commented on the paper I gave there and, especially, the artist Tuulia Susiaho.

[2] New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins, George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography, Rochester, NY (October 1975 – February 1976).

[3] Katie Pavid, “What is the Anthropocene and why does it matter?” Anthropocene, National History Museum, London https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-the-anthropocene.html.

[4] Edward Burtynsky, The Anthropocene Project, https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/projects/the-anthropocene-project.

[5] David Richter, et al. “The age of the hominin fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, and the origins of the Middle Stone Age”. Nature 546 (8 June 2017): 293–296 and Ian Mcdougall, F. H. Brown, J. G. Fleagle. “Stratigraphic placement and age of modern humans from Kibish, Ethiopia.” Nature. 433 (2005): 733-736.

[6] See Manufactured Landscapes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), Oil (Göttingen: Steidl, 2009), Water (Göttingen: Steidl, 2013), Salt Pans (Göttingen: Steidl, 2016).

[7] Noël Carroll, “Four Concepts of Aesthetic Experience” in Beyond Aesthetics: Philosophical Essays (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2001), 45.

[8] Patricia Ballamingie, Xiaobei Chen, Eric Henry, Diana Nemiroff, “Edward Burtynsky’s China Photographs-A Multidisciplinary Reading.” Environments. 37 (2009) via ResearchGate.

[9] See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetic of Administration to the Critique of Institutions,” October 55 (Winter 1990): 105-143.

[10] It may be tempting to suppose this feeling of uneasiness is the sublime, but it is afforded by a sense of loss and not an overfullness. The feeling is an unreconcilable mourning for the loss of an unspoiled natural environment.

[11] Michel Foucault, “The Prose of the World,” in The Order of Things, trans. Alain Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1970), 17-45.

[12] Foucault, 18.

[13] Foucault, 19.

[14] Foucault, 21.

[15] Foucault, 22.

[16] Foucault, 24-25.

[17] Foucault, 26 – 27.

[18] Sheila Devaney, University of Georgia, for the press.

[19] Arthur Rothstein, Documentary Photography (Boston: Focal Press, 1986), 33. See “Photography and the Great Depression,” https://lis471.wordpress.com/.

[20] Wolfgang Scheppe, “Lewis Baltz and the Garden of False Reality” in Lewis Baltz, Candlestick Point (Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2011), 82 – 107.

[21] Alexis de Tocqueville, “Of Some of the Sources for Poetry Among the Democratic Nations” (Chapter XVII), Democracy in America, vol. 2 (Cambridge, MA: Sever and Francis, 1864), cited by Scheppe, 86.

[22] Scheppe, 87.

[23] Scheppe, 88.

[24] Scheppe, 88 – 89.

[25] Scheppe, 90, citing John L. O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” United States Magazine and Democratic Review, July – August 1845, 5.

[26] Scheppe, 91.

[27] Scheppe, 93.

[28] See: https://vimeo.com/262066213?login=true#, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTsV2VZX5PE&t=998s (at 5:50) and Catherine Zuromskis, “Petroaesthetics and Landscape Photography: New Topographics, Edward Burtynsky, and the Culture of Peak Oil,” in Oil Culture, Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), 289-308. I am indebted to Tuulia Susiaho for these references.

[29] Zuromskis, 292.

[30] Zuromskis, 293 and 296.

[31] Zuromskis, 297.

[32] Zuromskis, 292.

[33] Zuromskis, 302.

[34] Zuromskis, 303.

[35] Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in On the History of the Psychoanalytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey, vol. XIV (1914-1916), 243-258.

[36] Freud, 245.

[37] Freud, 246.

[38] The first Earth Day, 22 April 1970, targeted the policing of trash strewn along highways and local wooded areas.

[39] See Freya Matthews, “Why has environmental ethics failed to achieve a moral reorientation of the West?” Australian Broadcasting Corporation: Religion & Ethics, www.abc.net.au, posted 17 June 2019, accessed 21 September 2022.