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Picturing Destruction: Burtynsky and Misrach’s Environmental Photography

Published March 10, 2020

Written by Gabrielle Abbosh


Rising Water, MoFA’s current exhibition, presents the impacts that major storms have had on the contributing artists and their communities. These artists’ works exhibit the ways in which they and their communities have responded in the aftermath of these storms. The ability to respond to one’s environment has been a source of power not just for the artists in this exhibition but for the contemporary photographer Edward Burtynsky.

His work shows how humans affect the environment and the consequences of that relationship through monumental photos capturing the beauty in the midst of ecological destruction. He travels around the world to document a variety of ecosystems, countries, and cultures to show how widespread our impacts are felt. Burtynsky focuses on capturing the aesthetic qualities of the environments he shoots, which is achieved by using state-of-the-art technology. Ladders, cranes, airplanes, satellites, and geographical imaging technology are some of the methods he uses to create photos that can cover a huge expanse of land. Nonetheless, his photos are incredibly detailed with stunning visuals and dazzling graphics. His 2017 work Lithium Mines #1, Salt Flats, Atacama Desert, Chile consists of multiple images depicting miles of a vast desert stitched together using satellite imaging. The blue-green lithium pools are a stark contrast from the brown earth that they are built on, as if they are radiating off the surface. Burtynsky’s goal with his work is to not just document the beautiful aesthetics found in nature, but it is also to persuade the viewer that we must change the way we relate with the environment in order to prevent further ecological destruction. His caption to this photo explains that because our world has a dependence on lithium, the environment must be altered to accommodate that need. Burtynsky’s photos reveal the harmful truths behind his alluring imagery to make viewers aware of the cost of humanity’s actions.

Richard Misrach, one of the artists in the Rising Water exhibition, also photographs the ways in which humans have made their impact on the environment. His series Petrochemical America, which documents the 150 miles between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, takes a more localized approach than Burtynsky’s. This area is often characterized as “Cancer Alley” due to the abundance of chemical plants that cause cancer outbreaks. Capturing how human interference through industrial corporations has transformed the physical landscape, his photos in turn reflect the ways in which humans have been affected by this petrochemical environment. Misrach’s photos display mechanical structures imposed on a Louisiana landscape and the byproducts of industry on the daily lives of those who live there. These photos reflect how a nation’s dependency on oil can cause the health and environmental concerns that have been ravaging “Cancer Alley” for years. The conventions Misrach uses allow him to create a sense of intimacy that shows these concerns on an individual community and allow the viewer to empathize as if it was their own community. This emotional quality that is evident in Petrochemical America is an important element presented in his series displayed in the Rising Water exhibition—Destroy This Memory.

Destroy This Memory is documentation of the human experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Houses, cars, and signs were tagged with graffiti from those who the storm impacted. These messages represent a spectrum of emotions that the residents of this community felt to their core during the physical storm and from its residual effects. The messages range from the humorous and ironic—a front yard filled with debris and trash with sign that says “yard sale”— to hopeless, with the phrase “broken dreams” fixed upon a destroyed home. There are the phone numbers of those who fled spray painted on houses and cars so that their families could contact them. Even messages of hope are present amidst the wreckage of the storm—“keep the faith, we will rebuild.” Through these graffitied messages, viewers can see an intimate and personal representation of how Hurricane Katrina impacted this community.

In all of these artists’ work, loss is represented in the ways humans have affected the environment or because of the ways the environment has affected humans. Both of these discourses reflect the complex relationship between nature and humanity. In the work of both Burtynsky and Misrach, we are filled with these feelings of loss in the aftermath of both local and global environmental destruction. Misrach’s photos in Rising Water remind us that among the loss we can be filled with hopes that we will be able to once again rebuild the environments around us.








Gabrielle Abbosh is a senior Art History major and Religion minor graduating from Florida State University in May 2020. She is the treasurer of the Undergraduate Art History Association and an intern at the FSU MoFA. Gabrielle’s main research interests are in contemporary photography and the intersection of technology and nature, as well as the representations of identity in art.