The Earth looks like an alien planet in these stunning aerial photos

These extraordinary aerial images, taken over a period of decades, show how modern society has transformed the planet, with industry leaving strangely beautiful marks that give some areas the appearance of an alien world. Others show natural landscapes that look like abstract paintings from above.

The transfixing pictures have been taken by world-renowned Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who has spent 45 years taking photos from a god-like perspective achieved by the use of helicopters, small jets, hydraulic poles, and drones.

Now over 90 of his extraordinary images have been compiled in a lavish coffee-table book called Edward Burtynsky: Extraction/Abstraction (published by Steidl), essentially a catalogue of an exhibition at Saatchi Gallery London running until May 6 that shares the name.

The exhibition features 94 of Burtynsky’s large-format photographs, and 13 high-resolution murals – making it the largest exhibition of his work ever staged. It is also the European premiere of Burtynsky’s new multimedia piece, ‘In the Wake of Progress’, an immersive art experience further exploring the impact of human industry on the planet.

Burtynsky said: ‘I have spent over 40 years bearing witness to the ways in which modern civilisation has dramatically transformed our planet. At this time, the awareness of these issues presented by my large-format images has never felt more urgent. I am grateful to be mounting the largest exhibition of my career at Saatchi Gallery in London, UK, and I hope the exhibition experience will continue to provide inflection points for diverse conversations on these issues and move us all to a place of positive action.’

Paul Foster, Saatchi Gallery Director, said: ‘This is an exhibition that reminds us how beautiful our planet is. Burtynsky has even captured how beauty remains evident in the ways that humans have exploited its resources for our own ends. However, these images are also a wake-up call for humanity to change its ways or face a precarious and uncertain future. I cannot think of a more important exhibition that we could have presented.’ Scroll down to see MailOnline Travel’s pick of the bunch from the book’s pages, presented with descriptions from the accompanying captions. 

RICE TERRACES, WESTERN YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA, 2012: ‘This sustainable farming method has been practised in China for over a thousand years,’ the book reveals. ‘If done properly, it prevents erosion, retains moisture, and can support the biodiversity that keeps soils naturally fertile’

DESERT SPIRALS, VERNEUKPAN, NORTHERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA: ‘These whimsical patterns, reminiscent of the abstract mark-making of primaeval artists, have a practical purpose,’ reveals the book, ‘to convert desert into arable land. Also known as swales, they were ploughed in the dry season to capture water during the infrequent rainfall, trap wind-borne seeds and prevent erosion’

SALINAS, CADIZ, SPAIN: Pictured above are salt marshes near the Atlantic port city of Cadiz, with ‘briny streams of turquoise seawater running through them’. The book adds: ‘Looking like cloisonné [coloured glass] jewellery, the multicoloured ridges that secure the marsh were built long ago to create salt pans, but the small-scale craft industry has since died out’

NICKEL TAILINGS, SUDBURY, ONTARIO, CANADA, 1996: This ‘hellish picture’ was taken outside the northern Ontario city of Sudbury in central Canada, which is famous for its nickel deposits. The book reveals that the image shows what looks like molten lava, but is in fact oxidized, water-borne waste, adding: ‘It is actually an illusion of scale. We are not looking at a river, but at a small creek, just over a metre wide that can be easily jumped over’

THJORSA RIVER, SOUTHERN REGION, ICELAND: This incredible picture shows the result of currents in the Thjorsa river eroding silt into ‘wispy patterns’, with the tome adding: ‘Volcanic minerals are responsible for the surreal colours of [Iceland’s] famous lakes and rivers’

SALT PONDS, NEAR FATICK, ATLANTIC COAST, SENEGAL: This stunning picture shows a patchwork of hand-dug depressions, the result of artisanal salt harvesting. The colour variations are caused by salt-resistant microorganisms and varying rates of evaporation, the book explains

SALT PONDS, NEAR NAGLOU SAM SAM, SENEGAL: There are three photographs in the exhibition of salt harvesting in Senegal and each is formally different, attesting to different harvesting styles from region to region, the book reveals

PENGAH WALL, KOMODO NATIONAL PARK, INDONESIA, 2017: ‘Here’s what a healthy coral environment looks like,’ says the book, ‘a riot of colour teeming with life and reminiscent of a mid-century “all-over” abstraction à la Jackson Pollock. A challenging photograph to create, the subject is in a remote and dark location, at a depth of 65 feet off the coast of Indonesia and somewhat protected by its UNESCO Natural World Heritage designation. A team of 12 divers was required to accomplish this mural, which is made up of multiple images electronically stitched together. Alarmingly, this spectacular coral wall is among the declining survivors of global warming and ocean acidification. Such habitats are falling victim to rising ocean temperatures, industrial pollution, dynamite fishing, and to urban development’

SATELLITE CAPTURE, PIVOT IRRIGATION NEAR BURAYDAH, SAUDI ARABIA: The book says: ‘Pivot irrigation produces the vast stretches of green crop circles that we see when flying over arid regions such as Saudi Arabia and the American Southwest. Water is pumped up from aquifers deep underground and distributed along lengthy motorised pipes. Sprinkler and row irrigation systems are much less efficient than pivot and drip irrigation because the evaporation rate is high in arid regions. Although the practice has dramatically increased food production, it is not sustainable; “fossil water” is limited and takes centuries to replenish. Many pivot-irrigated farms elsewhere have run dry as evidenced by the fading circles in this image’

PIVOT IRRIGATION, HIGH PLAINS, TEXAS PANHANDLE, USA: Burtynsky used a ‘gyro’ to stabilise his camera to get this perfectly squared image, which was shot through a hole in the floor of a fixed-wing airplane

EROSION CONTROL, YESILHISAR, CENTRAL ANATOLIA, TURKIYE, 2022: The book says: ‘Türkiye’s landscapes are consistently at risk of topsoil erosion and desertification. Ambitious terracing programs such as this capture water and stimulate reforestation, thus successfully preventing erosive flooding’

BAY OF CADIZ, SPAIN, 2013: ‘The fantastic vermiculation [wavy lines cut into stone] of this marshland is a natural occurrence,’ the book says. ‘Nearby are old, largely abandoned salt pans that impose a more convenient geometry on the natural pattern. Like most salt marshes, this one has a rich biodiversity’

TAILINGS POND, WESSELTON DIAMOND MINE, KIMBERLEY, NORTHERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA: ‘This boldly elegant study in shades of grey is kimberlite, the waste material from diamond mining,’ the tome explains. ‘A conveyor belt, which looks here like the stem of a chrysanthemum, brings tailings to pour down in long petals into the waste pond’

URALKALI POTASH MINE, BEREZNIKI, RUSSIA: The book explains: ‘About 350 metres below the Russian city of Berezniki is a 3,000-kilometre-long tunnel system created by potash mining. The variegated rosette patterns are the bore marks of giant tunnelling machines that chew up the stratified mineral. The red colour is the sediment of ancient sea life, the effective ingredient in this powerful fertiliser’

CERRO PRIETO GEOTHERMAL STATION, SONORA, MEXICO: The books says: ‘Cerro Prieto is a volcano south of Mexicali near the Colorado River delta. Since 1973, electricity has been generated here by harnessing the heat from the molten magma beneath the Earth’s crust. Geothermal electricity is a relatively clean renewable energy. In this case, however, the steam produced by pumping water into boreholes drilled into geothermal hotspots activates turbines to generate electricity also produces hot, mineral-rich water. The artificial lakes seen here allow the minerals to settle so that the water may be recycled. In recent years, บริการรถรับจ้างขนของ the area has seen an increase in health complaints from people ingesting the briny vapours’

SALT LAKES, BIRD TRACKS, YARISLI LAKE, BURDUR PROVINCE, TURKIYE: The book explains: ‘This turquoise saline lake in southwestern Türkiye attracts about 140 different species of migratory birds, including large flocks of flamingos. They come to feed on the nutrient-rich alkaline water and leave behind the erratic filigree [delicate] patterns of their steps that we see here. These will be washed away when the weather begins to cool and the lake is replenished’

CANOLA FIELDS, LUOPING, YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA, 2011: The book says: ‘Here we see a surreal scene of storybook mountains and monochromatic monoculture, industrial farming… that leads to high yields at the cost of soil degradation, reduced biodiversity and a heavy reliance on polluting chemicals’

SUPER PIT, KALGOORLIE, WESTERN AUSTRALIA, 2007: The book says: ‘The Fimiston open pit, known locally as “Super Pit”, is a 600-metre-deep gold mine. It was the largest in Australia until it was surpassed in 2016. Nevertheless, บริการรถรับจ้างขนของ it remains a popular local tourist attraction with a lookout over the operation. Sightseers come to view these deep excavations, also known as open cast or open cut pits, to behold the exposure of millions of years of geologic time’

PIVOT IRRIGATION / SUBURB, SOUTH OF YUMA, ARIZONA, USA: ‘Looking like a diagram on parchment, this sparse suburb on the edge of Yuma shares an arid plain with neighbouring farmland,’ the book says

LITHIUM PROCESSING PLANTS, ATACAMA DESERT, CHILE, 2017: The book says: ‘Lithium can be found in rock or in ocean brine, such as in the aquifer beneath the scorching Atacama Desert, where the concentration of the ultra-light metal is particularly high. The driest non-polar place on Earth, the Salar de Atacama is challenging to reach because of the hard, razor-sharp, tire-lacerating salt crystals that cover it. Highly volatile and flammable, lithium is a hazardous material that must be handled with great care. It is transported in liquid form from here to the coast for further processing, then shipped to its surging world markets. A bi-product of the lithium extraction process is fertiliser, seen here covered in blue tarps. The reddish section is a higher-quality fertiliser’

COAL MINE, NORTH RHINE-WESTPHALIA, GERMANY: ‘This German lignite, or “brown coal” operation, is an extreme example of strip mining,’ the tome reveals. ‘In the distance, the world’s largest autonomous vehicle chews up the landscape to reveal the cheap, but dirty, fuel that keeps the powerplants of central Europe humming and its people warm in winter. Whole villages and highways have been lost to the search for low-cost coal. Last year, the government of North Rhein-Westphalia announced that it will phase out the use of coal by 2030’

CLEARCUT, PALM OIL PLANTATION, BORNEO, MALAYSIA, 2016: The book says: ‘The fabled rainforests of Borneo, the third-largest island in the world, are shrinking fast. Administratively divided between three countries – Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia – Borneo is a major producer of tropical lumber, which is clear cut and replaced with oil palm plantations. Highly versatile, palm oil is used in everything from processed foods to lipstick. Anyone in the world who regularly reads ingredient labels will know it well. Deforestation, such as we see here, is a major cause of global warming, soil degradation and species extinction’

SAW MILLS, LAGOS, NIGERIA: ‘Makoko is the informal settlement we see here at the east end of Lagos,’ says the book, ‘the largest city in Africa. A third of Makoko is built on stilts well into the city’s eponymous Lagoon, the most polluted ecosystem on the continent. Nigeria’s lowland forests are disappearing fast to illegal logging, much of which ends up in Makoko’s sawmills. The deforestation that ensues enables the expansion of agriculture to feed the industrialised and oil-rich country’s booming population’

CHUQUICAMATA COPPER MINE OVERBURDEN, CALAMA, CHILE: ‘This is the largest open-pit copper mine by volume in the world, and the second deepest,’ the book reveals. ‘Accounting for 29 per cent of the world’s copper production, Chile is the largest exporter of this extremely useful metal’

ROCK OF AGES, ACTIVE SECTION, E.L. SMITH QUARRY, BARRE, VERMONT, USA, 1992: The book says: ‘Established in 1880, Rock of Ages is the world’s largest “deep hole” granite quarry. The dimension stone mined here is known as “Barre Gray” granite for nearby Barre, Vermont. Used primarily for funerary monuments, its fine grain is also popular among sculptors’

GREENHOUSES, ALMERIA PENINSULA, SPAIN: The book says: ‘A large proportion of Europe’s off-season fruits and vegetables come from this peninsula on the Mediterranean coast of southern Spain. Formerly arid scrubland, since the 1960s it has gradually become the world’s largest concentration of greenhouses. It relies on an abundance of sunlight, a dwindling aquifer and plenty of chemicals for its remarkable yields’

POLDERS, GROOTSCHERMER, THE NETHERLANDS, 2011: Explains the book: ‘Over a quarter of the Netherlands is below sea level. Were it not for medieval engineers, 65 per cent of the country would be underwater at high tide. Polders, such as these erratically striped islands, are reclaimed marshland separated from the sea by a system of seawalls, dykes and sluices. The country’s famous windmills were erected to pump water back out to sea’

PUNTA GORDA, CHARLOTTE COUNTY, FLORIDA, USA, 2012: The books says: ‘This is a detail of Charlotte Park, a neighbourhood of Punta Gorda, Spanish for “fat point”. The neighbourhood juts out into an estuary on the west coast of Florida. The Gulf of Mexico region is famously prone to hurricanes, but this community is somewhat protected from surging storm water by a thick mangrove forest whose deep roots stabilise the coastline. Over the last century, however, this estuary has lost up to 60 percent of its vital mangrove forests to urban development. The vermicular street plan was designed to maximise water frontage for as many homes as possible’

Edward Burtynsky: Extraction/Abstraction is published by Steidl and retails at £38 or $56.87. It showcases a catalogue of Edward Burtynsky’s works, on display at Saatchi Gallery London, until May 6, 2024. Burtynsky’s photos are also on display at Flowers Gallery on Cork Street, London, in an exhibition entitled New Works


Read more:

BURTYNSKY: Extraction / Abstraction » Saatchi Gallery

Edward Burtynsky | New Works | Flowers Gallery




Edward Burtynsky | New Works | Flowers Gallery

Leave a Reply