The pandemic-era restrictions on travel and social interactions have prompted everyone to adapt, not least photographers, who can’t work from home as easily as some. After all, to take pictures, you need subjects, and the living room has its limits.
Thankfully, parks and forests have made the cut for essential service, and we are still allowed to visit the great outdoors. No doubt this new condition is converting many to nature photography who would otherwise point their lenses elsewhere. Following Orson Welles’s dictum that “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation,” it may be said that exploring one’s local bio-region makes for a livelier creative constraint than hibernating at home.
Just ask Edward Burtynsky. Finding himself in lockdown this past spring, Canada’s celebrated documentarian of human nature and “our collective stranglehold on the natural world” has turned his focus again to the real thing, pure and simple. Taken during walks near his home on the Bruce Peninsula in Grey County, Ontario, this latest series of photos have been collected in a new book titled Natural Order, released by Steidl in February 2021.
In this series, humans and their devastating earthworks have left the frame, as have any foregrounded subjects. Following his love of pattern and abstraction, Burtynsky’s compositions operate like highly-textured colour-field paintings, all drizzled over with shoots, branches and tendrils — Rothko meets Pollock. Which is a way of saying that they look like nature as we are accustomed to finding it: not dramatically staged but abundantly detailed and filled right up to bursting with growth and more growth.
Natural Order offers an affirmation that may help us through the rest of this long winter. Burtynsky shot all these photos in the earliest days of spring, when the chill still lingers but young buds and shoots are starting to appear. The images reverberate with the Earth’s mantra of seasonal change. This too shall pass, and the next thing, and the thing after that, until we come back around again, and on and on. It’s called Life, and it’s nice to see.