For 30 years, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has produced monumental images of landscape: generally landscape that man has fucked up. His pictures of quarries, mines, broken-up supertankers, poisoned rivers and impersonal megalopolises have a redemptive quality: he takes the ugliness that man hollows out of the ground and then thrusts into the sky and invests it with a painterly loveliness. The ecological message is often clear, but the notion of what constitutes beauty is often not.
His new series on the salt pans in the Little Rann of Kutch, India, continues many of his themes but takes them to an abstract extreme. This is a landscape shaped and reshaped by man. As the flood waters of the Arabian Sea recede, they are caught in shallow depressions, and the salt is harvested. It’s a process that has been going on for hundreds of years, at terrible human cost, but it will end soon.
Burtynsky is clearly enthralled by these overlapping ideas of transience. His huge aerial photographs reveal a terrain gouged and striated with reworking, in the middle of which are the glistening rectangles of salt water. They look like a watercolour paintbox: there’s an obvious link between the mineral industry on the ground and the minerals of paints. But it’s not until your nose is practically touching the surface that you see human details – a tiny red tractor, a lean-to shack – and begin to understand the scale of what you’re looking at. In a departure from his earlier work (some of which is on show upstairs), though, while we marvel at the vastness of these workings, we also realise that they have no more tenure on Earth than a micron-thin photographic surface.