The sublime: an exploration of contemporary landscape practice in the works of Edward Burtynsky and Ansel Adams

Charlie Allen

This theory-based research paper examines the notion of the sublime in landscape photography, including its effect on a reader. The profoundness of the sublime throughout landscape art history has attributed towards the success of numerous photographers, specifically Edward Burtynsky. The paper questions the role of Burtynsky’s sublime in the toxic, through discussions on Disaster Capitalism, the New Topographical aesthetic of 1975 and the moral implications of Burtynsky’s apolitical attitude. A contrast will be drawn from the work of Ansel Adams, who’s over glorification of the Yosemite National Park through the sublime has formed questions concerning the significance of environmentalism, conservationism, and the treasured Sierra Club. Throughout the paper, an array of criticisms against the role of the artists are discussed. Comparing Burtynsky and Adams, assists in the scrutiny and admiration developed by the implementation of the sublime in landscape photography.


The taxamonic term Landscape derives from European art history. It’s emergence in the 16th and 17th century was somewhat due to the existence of the upper class as paintings were employed as a sign of wealth since artists possessed the ability to travel to exotic destinations for audiences to observe. The 16th century artist Frans Post (1612-1680) was typical of such style, when recording landscapes in Brazil and the Netherlands an obvious compositional dominance of the sky represented the power of nature within the landscape. Dutch artists of this period, among them, Jacob Ruisdael (1628–1682), aimed to express the ideology of humanity and its relationship to nature (Blumberg 2017). Ruisdael was considered the pre-eminent landscape painter of the 16th century, generating an admiration for the landscape. Landscape paintings gathered momentum and prestige in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Bright 1985)2 and had finally ‘emerged as a respectable genre’ (Blumberg 2017: 3) where themes of romanticism were incorporated, producing some awe inspiring pieces of landscape art. The Wanderer above the Sea of Mist (1818) by Caspar David Friedrich encompassed these values; whilst gazing into the ‘boundless spaces’ (Bazarov 1981: 106)3 of the landscape painting, the reader may appreciate its mystery and beauty. Friedrich made a political and bold stance with this image against the government of that period, demonstrating the potential for an underlying message in the landscape.

Themes of romanticism and luminism were present in the mid 18th century, comprising of artists such as John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, although a rejection for this style of landscape painting by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)iv meant “landscape painting was progressing from romanticism to realism during the 19th century” (Lacina & Halas 2015: 61), especially in French paintings such as The Stonebreakers (1849). Gustave Courbet’s painting depicts the deprivation of French rural life, as rather a representation of “the action of labour, not the feelings of the individuals who perform it” (Clark 1973). The composition of these two men represent not only a “cycle of unending misery” (Lindsay 1973: 60)6 but the artistic formation of letters G.C, imply the artist’s inclusion in the painting, transpiring inimitable meanings across to the reader. “The underlying truth about painting—that it had the beholder in view from the first—could no longer be denied” (Fried 2008: 26), The Stonebreakers (1849) characterises a painter-beholder methodology as the two working men reference the artist Courbet, as the “one wielding a shafted implement bears a distant analogy to a paintbrush or palette knife, the other supporting a roundish object that might be likened to the burden of a palette” (Fried 1982: 642). Courbet’s self-representation in this image is intended as ‘a means of preserving individuality’ (Rubin 1980: 65)9 and to submit to reality. The significance of Gustave Courbet helps to understand the realism movement of the 18th century, the painting Guerrilla Warfare Civil War (1862)v by Albert Bierstadt’s also rejected the metaphysical interpretations of nature in favour of the rationalist logic of painting (Scott 2014). Albert Bierstadt, and brothers Charles and Edward experimented with stereoscopics in similar artworks, furthering the precision of painting, attributing to the realism movement.

Realism was, and still is, one of photography’s fundamental attributes. The revolutionary introduction of the daguerreotype meant artists could advance their landscape paintings futher and more precisely than before, developing strategies to overthrow the prominent notion of theatricality within their art (Fried 1980)Photography certainly became a powerful scientific instrument within the landscape, artists were able to precisely document geographical locations through the daguerreotype. Conversely, ‘our geography misses much of the meaning embedded in the human landscape, tending to reduce it to an impersonal expression of demographic and economic forces’ (Cosgrove 1989: 120)12. Daguerreotypists struggled to gain a deeper and more meaningful understanding of the culture residing in the landscape through this new medium. Thus, Thomas Easterly, an American regional photographer located in St. Louis, captured the destruction of the ancient Mississippian burial site in the series titled Big Mound (1869), a significant monument for Native Americans. Easterly’s photographic intervention stood as counter-culture; by documenting this historical and symbolic advancement it shaped the cultural meaning of the landscape (Sailor 2004)13. Through the medium of the daguerreotype, Easterly’s typological documentation of the destruction of this mound not only incorporated his photographic skill, but offered the locals a way of contemplating their own environment. The process of reading photographs such as Thomas Easterly’s Big Mound (1869) communicates a cultural presence to the reader, “landscape research, both in historical and current contexts, recognises that there are multiple ways of seeing and understanding landscapes (Baker 1992; Bender 1993, 1998; Hirsh and O’Hanlon 1995; Layton and Ucko 1999; Tilley 1994, cited in Smith 1998: 71)14 For philosopher Walter Benjamin, Eugene Atget (1856-1927) ‘was at the forefront of the new, politically conscious way of seeing’ (Greetham 1992: 11)15, altering our photographic view of modernism. The representation of Paris’ street culture within Atget’s photography became ‘a record of human values and actions imposed on the land over time” (Bright 1985: 2), documenting the streets of Paris between 1897-1927, a selection of photographs even embodied the surrealist movement (MacFarlane 2010).

After much development in the photographic field, the medium expanded to include a genre named “the topographic, which paid attention to the depiction of object, place, or event (so-called mechanical photographs that recorded scientific events, for instance)” (Armitage 1989: 430). Most noticeably after the 1975 New Topographics exhibition, the power of the photographic medium was emulated throughout the artistic world where its conventions and traditions were similar to those of academic painting (Carrabine 201818). New Topographics, created by William Jenkins, included photographers such as Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke and Nicholas Nixon, of whom formulated aesthetically stripped back photographs. Together they formulated a contemporary stance on landscape photography in the human-altered landscapes of America. New Topographics was a turning point for the American landscape, the documentation of vacant spaces, parking lots and gas stations offered an unfamiliar observation of American geography. These altered landscapes depict man and nature’s co-existence not as sublime peacefulness, but as a stare (Armitage 1989), an unconventional method of presenting the sublime within unremarkable and ordinary landscapes. This method of documentation was infrequent in America, thus occasional reviews of the exhibition consisted of confusion. ‘One visitor complained, “Look at this picture, I just... why? What is he trying to show?”’ (Britt Salvesen and Allison Nordstrom 2009: 9; cited in, Cheng 2001: 152). New Topographics seems to reject the idealistic view of the romanticised or picturesque western landscape, traditionally ‘viewed as a repository of cultural, human truths’ (Cheng 2011: 153). On the contrary, New Topographics has altered our contemporary understanding of landscapes through the influence of the post-industrial age, seeming to prepare society for a new era of landscape.


This chapter explores the notion of the sublime within contemporary landscape photography, discussing the values and contribution of the sublime towards the photographic medium. In 17th and 18th century Europe, the feeling of pleasure and pain, joy and anxiety, exaltation and depression – was christened by the name of the sublime (Lyotard 1985). The sublime is important to consider in western culture as the concept of the natural world still carries over from nineteenth century romanticism, where nature was imagined as pure, wild and healthy. This view of the landscape blinds us to its present diminished state (Chianese 2014)21, the evolving environment of the 21st century employs the sublime to engage readers through its recognised magnificent, vast and obscure aesthetic. This is evident in the works of artists such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Joshua Cooper and David Goldblatt. Of all artists influenced by the aesthetic of the sublime, William Turner is widely recognised as the most successful in capturing the effect of boundlessness, whom Burke and Kant saw as a prerequisite for the sublime in verbal and visual representation (Smith 2013).

The sublime has been discussed by numerous philosophers, consisting of Edmund Burke, Immanuel Kant, and initially Cassius Longinus, whose concept has been traced back to the early first-century. Longinus’ discussion on the sublime focuses on the writer producing language that is capable of leaving the reader in a state of sublimity, seeming to move the mind to greatness (Gowan 2011). The concept of the sublime occurs in our minds, within thought provoking and unforgettable forms of discourse (Lyotard 1985). Furthering this, Burke in ‘A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful’, quotes the sublime being ‘productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling’ (Burke 2008: 36). For Burke, however, the sublime is a matter of intensification (Lyotard 1985: 11) whereby its experience occurs when the imagination fails to grasp the magnificence of the image, labelling" would bring photographic arts more in line with ecological science a sense of fear and anxiety emulates the feeling of sublimity, creating an inability to connect with the aesthetic environment (Binney 2013, cited in Kane 2018).

The sublime in the landscape offers a visual aesthetic that is problematic to describe visually, but manufactures a ‘measure of thought pressed to its utmost limits’ (Porter 2012: 68)26. This process of constructing a magnificent yet challenging emotion in the reader, develops towards an emotional appreciation of absolute greatness, ascribed in the image (Merritt 2018). Sublimity continues to maintain an exceptional value in contemporary photography, episodes of aesthetic awe enlighten ‘the experiencing person to feel like a member of an elite that is able to encounter the sublime’ (Konecni 2011: 65). The sublime reduces the reader to question their existence, offering new ways of engaging with the world through the preliminary fear and anxiety felt. Porter (2012) argues that sublimity lies outside of the system of aesthetic values and antiquity, implying that the experience of the sublime is atypical; yet compelling to a reader.


The concept of the sublime, to a reader, may not be an attainable response to depict from an image. The toxic element formulated in the sublimity of a landscape helps viewers to comprehend the photograph (Ray 2016)29. Jennifer Peeples defines “the term “toxic sublime” as “the tensions that arise from recognizing the toxicity of a place, object or situation, while simultaneously appreciating its mystery, magnificence and ability to inspire awe” (Peeples 2011: 375). David Maisel’s, Lake Project (2015)viii articulates Peeples notion of the toxic sublime. Maisel embodies a depleted and polluted landscape that supplies 60% of LA’s water; revealing a landscape so degraded that it has become, in its own way, exquisite (Maisel 2010). An absence of reference points in The Lake Project (2015) allows a simultaneous observation of both the destroyed environment and astounding composition. Contrariwise, Maisel’s photographic activism towards environmental issues is non-existent, rather encouraging a conventional reading of this landscape. Contemporary artists who employ this method of aesthetic within their practise, Maisel among them, are often scrutinised as their art emphasises the beauty of toxicity in the environment, rather than invoking a cry of emergency (Sutton 2017: 220).

“What does it mean to love something that has the capacity to cause the ultimate catastrophe?” (Taylor 2009: 179)

Toxicity is immersed in the role of the artist insomuch as the landscape. Its classification can be deemed as exciting the ideas of pain, and danger, becoming a source of the sublime (Burke 2008). Contemporary artists such as Edward Burtynsky and Andreas Gursky who predominantly focus on environmental and human destruction, separate their art from a political and environmental standpoint. In doing so, a freedom of portraying the toxic in the sublime, without a potential backlash from an audience, is established. In dealing with environmental issues, ‘a lack of visual representation can mean a lack of social or political power as there is nothing to show, no compelling visual evidence of the extent or severity of the problem’ (Peeples 2011: 374). Specifically, Burtynsky’s reproduction of the land provides him with a platform to alter mind-sets on the environment, yet opts out of such responsibility. Burtynsky’s work on the human-altered environment offers a potential for financial income, resulting in a tension formed ‘between the desire to experience nature in its unadulterated form and the urge to exploit it for material gain’ (Scott 2014: 29). The potential tension created based on the artists’ visualisation of the toxic, can impact their profession, as we will discuss with Edward Burtynsky.



Edward Burtynsky, a successful Canadian photographer, is notorious in the photographic industry for capturing landscapes that document the devastating environmental impacts occurring across the globe. Burtynsky thrives on unsettling combinations of visceral beauty, and effects of ambiguity and dissonance (Young 2003), documenting human-altered landscapes that engage yet obscure the environment. Featuring in over 60 gallery spaces, Burtynsky’s array of large landscape photographs are known to be magnificently detailed. This prominence allows readers to observe elements of the photograph such as houses, people and machinery, serving to comprehend the scale and astounding presence of the image. ‘Initially inspired by the directive from a graduate assignment to capture the “human impact on the land”, Burtynsky (2005) captures these impacts in ways that complicate the either- or depiction of landscapes as beautiful’ (Ray 2016: 215). The assignment is certainly representative of Burtynsky as there are ethical dysfunctions in appreciating the beauty in landscapes like the Baku Oil Fields in Azerbaijan, or the Chittagong Shipbreaking Yard in Bangladesh. While the beauty of Burtynsky’s landscapes entice the viewer, it is held in tension with the potential for devastation that is brought forth through the magnitude of the sublime (Peeples 2011). Beauty in landscape photography can be essential in formulating an aesthetic that “rests the mind; as opposed to the sublime, where the mind is moved” (Kant 2007, p. 72; cited in, Peeples 2011: 379).


The emphasis of the sublime in the work of Burtynsky produces a familiar style of imagery that audiences can identify and appreciate. When searching for the sublime in locations effected by ongoing environmental disasters, better known as the toxic, the morals behind Burtynsky’s work as well as the response that may so be desired are questioned. Similar to 18th century landscape painting, most significantly John Martin (1789-1854), Burtynsky’s sublime limits what we see, as it channels our expectations into a narrow range of generalised amazement and individualized anxiety (Schuster 2013). The style and approach of Burtynsky’s environmentalist documentation of landscape, most significantly ‘the images of tire graveyards and metal scrap-piles from the late 1990s evoke more than anything the pictorial abstraction of twentieth-century avant-garde painting’ (Young 2003: 8). Willem de Kooning (1904-1997), a Dutch American abstract artist, experimented with the adaptation of his local environment in avant-garde style paintings. Landscape (1972), was an unconventional move away from strict compositional paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, representative of Burtynsky’s separation from the romanticised landscape genre pioneered by Ansel Adams.


The sublime serves as a framing device for Burtynsky’s images, the aerial perspective and intensive composition over the landscape demonstrates Burtynsky’s methods in searching for the sublime in the toxic. Photographs are framed as big as 100x150cm, allowing for readers to submerge themselves in the land through the luxury of gallery spaces. Burtynsky retains a rejection towards the view of promoting environmentalism by encompassing an apolitical stance, seeming to endorse ‘an open-ended narrative’ (Campbell 2008: 43) and opting to ‘celebrate technology and the [technological] knowledge we have gained’ (Campbell 2008: 46). Environmentalist photography can be viewed as an inferior form of contemporary art, Chris Jordan’s Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption (2003-2005) endorses proto- environmentalism and conservationism. Whilst this material educates the world on mass-consumerism, Jordan’s artistic value is diminished, Burtynsky’s separation towards such activism demonstrates his apprehension towards his valuation as an artist. The lack of human intervention within Burtynsky’s photography furthers the notion that Burtynsky is attempting to document the land for the future, an apolitical stance may alter the sublimity of Burtynsky’s landscapes. ‘In deploying a toxic sublime aesthetic, his work becomes more provocative than didactic’ (Ray 2016: 203-207), Burtynsky’s approach towards environmental activism resolves the expectation to educate the reader on ecological destruction.

Burtynsky’s distinguished reputation as a large format industrial landscape artist puts him at the forefront of environmental representation. The rejection of such activism offers large corporations a greater incentive to have their landscapes captured, providing Burtynsky’s with a surplus array of locations available for documentation. The question lies in whether this is done to benefit Burtynsky economically, by finding ‘a way to profit from environmental catastrophe’ (Schuster 2013: 210), or the reader visually, within the space of contemporary art. Exposing the destroyed environment for monetary gain, especially in the aesthetic of the sublime, forms an array of ethical issues against Burtynsky as an artist. By beautifying the ugly, he maintains the idea that images are meant “as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; searching for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear” (Schwartz 2007: 990). Nature cannot always be beautiful; applying sublimity in a destroyed environment asks the reader if they can overlook the toxic, to benefit from the sublime. The New American Pastoral: Landscape Photography in the Age of Questioning (1990) is representative of this; David T. Hanson, Richard Misrachand, and Patricia Layman Bazelon express the damage of human presence on the land by exhibiting the cultural phenomenon, that is landscape. Lewis Baltz at the 1975 New Topographics exhibition, documented the isolation of human-altered landscapes, and the separation between culture and nature, that will be discussed in its relation to Burtynsky’s landscapes, and its prominence towards the new era of landscape.


New Topographics: Photographs of a man-altered Landscape (1975), mounted at the George Eastman House, curated by William Jenkins, was a photographic style entailing a “flatness, dehumanization, and deception of scale” (Sichel 2010: 94, cited in Truscello 2012: 189) Photographing the spaces in between, the collection of artists depicted landscapes that were not recognised in America. The exhibition minimalized the inclusion of human activity, furthering the barren landscapes aesthetic, typical of artist Edward Burtynsky in many respects. Burtynsky’s work follows directly from the tradition of landscape photography associated with the (1975) New Topographics exhibition (Young 2003: 8). Through the consideration of the New Topographics, a ‘generative insight into “American” ideas of landscape and emergent intersection between critical geography and American studies’ (Cheng 2011: 153) can be formed. The artists offered up images of a new vernacular suburban culture of man-made architectural motifs (Salvesen 2010: 81, cited in Truscello 2012: 189). As New Topographics curator William Jenkins (1975) put it, the work was more ‘anthropological rather than critical’ (Kane 2018: 129; Dupeyron-Lafay 2018). Effectively foreshadowing larger development in the industrial sublime coexisting with the sense of melancholy, in 21st-Century landscape photography. Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher’s Pitheads (1974), epitomises topographical photography, being a contemplative, accurate visual record, stimulating the imagination (Heron 2018).

New Topographic photographers indisputably romanticised their subject (Dennis 2005) achieving a sublime to move an audience. Whilst New Topographics was a turning point for American landscape photography, New York Times critic Vicky Goldberg explains that it began to depict a landscape that was no longer innocent or unspoiled but forever marked by the traces of human intervention (Goldberg, 1991: 107; Peeples, 376; Baillargeon, 2005, cited in Kane 2018: 130). Burtynsky scarcely includes the human form in his imagery, similar to the utopian ambiance of New Topographics. Although, the question lies in Burtynsky’s adaptation to the sublime, when humans are evidently visible in the landscape.


Hundreds of uniformed workers convene at the cafeteria inside a textile manufacturing company in the South of China, refuelling for the long hours ahead. Manufacturing #11 (2005) by Burtynsky, exhibits this demoralizing workplace on a 40x60-inch chromogenic print, signifying the vastness of this landscape engulfed with workers. Burtynsky employs a high viewpoint on many of his photographs and Manufacturing #11 (2005) is no exception. In certain circumstances this high perspective seems to belittle the human subjects in the photograph insomuch as making them obsolete to Burtynsky, and so therefore; the reader. Within Manufacturing #11 (2005), the human intervention in the frame acts as the toxicity, and so Burtynsky counter’s this by creating a perspective in the photograph that portrays the factory and its workers, in an aesthetically romanticised light. The lonesome worker in red acts as an input for the reader into the image, a sympathetic one which allows the reader to consult the photograph with emotion, altering the sensitivity of the sublime. As human intervention is scarce in Burtynsky’s work, rejecting a proposition to capture an inevitably occurring human populated space, would infringe his concept of sincerely documenting the human-altered landscape.

The South of China is one of the endless locations Burtynsky has researched and documented, similar to the creation of landscape paintings by J.M.W Turner, Burtynsky ventured for days, if not weeks pursuing the sublime landscape. In contrast to Turner, Burtynsky is rather seeking environmental destruction in his practise as opposed to the romanticised genre of 18th century landscapes. Ethical and environmental concerns are present in Manufacturing #11 (2005), as with other photographs, although the work celebrates technology and the knowledge we’ve gained (Campbell 2008) since the late 20th century. China’s industrialization is rapidly increasing, the intensifying CO2 emissions, health risks and water pollution are detrimental to the environment. Although, due to Burtynsky’s rejection towards the conception of environmentalist activism, he unearths stories in toxic landscapes, presented in the genre of the sublime. Obtaining access into huge Chinese corporations is challenging, Burtynsky mentions to the owners of such corporations that, “You can either let me photograph it, or I’ll end up going to the second largest in the world, or third largest. But I will get my photograph somewhere. The question I end up asking is, “Do you want to be part of this story?” (Campbell 2008: 46). Companies are left assured that their corporation will remain morally intact as a consequence of the neutrality of Burtynsky. Various companies have acquired, and hung his landscapes in their board rooms (Trifonova 2018) stating their proudness of the toxicity manufactured, signifying ethical implications to Burtynsky’s practise. This corporate act, questions the idea of disaster capitalism and whether Burtynsky’s representation of toxicity Is an instrumental use of catastrophe to promote and empower a range of private, neoliberal capitalist interests. (Faas, Schuller, Maldonad 2016: 62). From an outset, Manufacturing #11 (2005) capitalises on the social phenomenon that is karōshi (death from overwork), where the atmosphere of catastrophe that engrosses a reader is resided by means of sublimity. Burtynsky tells the story of our planet that is ‘neither a condemnation nor a celebration of his subject matter’ (Ptak 2006: 14), documenting the human-altered landscapes through the eyes of one whom is unsympathetic to the Earth.

OIL FIELDS #27 (2004)

Oil Fields #27 (2004) depicts the human constructed landscape of Bakersfield, California; covering an area of 10,500 acres, this landscape is an astounding impression within the genre of the sublime. Incorporating his characteristic aerial perspective in the composition of the image, a hierarchy is established between the photographer and the land; ‘We hear him say: “that’s good, “that’s perfect,” as if he is praising his own work (Cammaer 2009: 125). Such viewpoint is representative of Burtynsky’s work, in fact ‘aerial images were first popularised by land and earth artists in the 1960s’ (Schuster 2013: 196) and were gaining in popularity for environmentalist photography. A mythical space was manufactured by Burtynsky’s perspective, being a ‘conventional sense of the sublime landscape’ (Burtynsky 2003: 55). Correspondingly, Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) combined a similar perspective in his documentation of the Yosemite Valley, offering readers a romanticised perception of the land that they can only truly appreciate in person.

The horizon in Oil Fields #27 (2004) allows for readers to orient themselves within the abstraction of the photograph, conversely “Burtynsky’s most striking images are framed without horizon, causing the viewers to search the photograph for recognizable content (Peeples 2011: 382), somewhat becoming a disorientating task. Even when utilising the horizon, examining the magnitude of Oil Fields #27 (2004) can be unfathomable on account of the immense details captured by Burtynsky’s 4x5 camera. These details consist of human intervention that can be perceived on the large prints displayed in gallery spaces. Ray (2016) notes how these scaled bodies are more than just a measure of juxtaposition, but can be defined as a sublime tool, invoking a response from a reader. ‘Burtynsky’s work has met with critical response from those who question his images’ ability to call attention to the greater environmental, political and social injustices that afflict the location of each photograph’ (Peeples 2011: 377). Burtynsky has an artistic and influential ability to promote environmentalist and conservational revisions in the world, yet opts for a neutral stance in his practise. Oil Fields #27 (2004) is a landscape that inscribes colossal environmental impacts, by capturing the landscape within the aesthetic of the sublime, Burtynsky appears to indorse environmental destruction. The catastrophe presented is not a snapshot since researching, planning and preparing often consumes a greater amount of time than photographing. Thus Burtynsky’s role as an artist is to uncover the toxic, before capturing it. ‘“I started thinking maybe the new landscape of our time, the one to start to talk about is the landscape that we change – the one that we disrupt in pursuit of progress,” writes Burtynsky in Manufactured Landscapes (2005)’ (McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Landscapes Through the Lens: Edward Burtynsky and Ansel Adams, 348-359). The role of Burtynsky is demonstrated in the film manufactured landscapes, searching for the sublime in these human-altered landscapes we observe his process, technique and approach.


Manufactured Landscapes (2008) is a feature length documentary film that follows the journey of Burtynsky in searching for the toxic. By attempting to attain the perfect composition and perspective in his imagery, it would seem he is photographing something of beauty; but is quite the opposite in numerous cases. “Manufactured Landscapes sets out to challenge Western audiences’ understanding of their relationship with nature, toxicity, and oppression” (Ray 2016: 203-204), all of which formulate Burtynsky’s artistic approach. ‘Burtynsky’s work explores nature transformed through industry: he stunningly photographs shipyards, quarries, recycling plants, and factories, turning the pastoral convention of nineteenth-century landscape photography on its head’ (Ptak 2006: 14). Manufactured Landscapes, momentarily identifies how Burtynsky sporadically pays subjects in these photographs, what may seem a good deed, contrasts against the objectiveness of capturing our damaged environment. Likewise, the owners of such toxically sublime landscapes are reluctant for their land to be photographed until payment is discussed. Benefiting corporations through monetary means only assists in advancing environmental destruction, furthermore Burtynsky invests financially into the corporation, coercing him to discover the sublime, through his photographic pursuit. In the film, Manufactured Landscapes, the audience may question the role of the artist in society as being an aesthete or truth teller (Cammaer 2009). Scrutinizing Burtynsky’s ethical, social and political involvement, stipulates an insight into his morality and success as a photographer. Manufactured Landscapes ostracises any association between environmentalism or politics, in her review of Burtynsky’s Manufactured Landscapes, Nadia Bozak writes, ‘because Burtynsky systematically aestheticizes industrial civilization’s environmental incursions, his images are marked with an almost insentient detachment’ (Truscello, 2012: 189). Separating himself from any form of activism, be it environmental or political, the tranquillity in the photograph allows for the sublime to resonate with a reader, even amongst the toxicity of the landscape.


The ethics within landscape photography, especially when capturing the visual devastation towards the environment, are imperative to consider especially when such photographs are selling for large amounts of money. Whilst the exploration and photographic practise of Burtynsky is exceptional, would his reputation for constructing a consciousness towards the environment be as prominent if his imagery was not visually stimulating? Or is Burtynsky’s photography only revolutionary due to its sublimity? Burtynsky’s photographs of devastated environments are described as stunning and beautiful, drawing attention away from the environment and more to the artist, almost glorifying environmental destruction. ‘The historical prominence of the sublime in landscape photography creates a familiar resemblance from Burtynsky’s work to the nature photographer Ansel Adams, whose highly artistic work altered the perception of land use and natural resources in the US’ (DeLuca & Demo, 2000; Stormer, 2004, cited in Peeples 2011:378). Adams helped people learn to love Yosemite through his own passion for its protection, whilst Burtynsky rejected the notion of beauty from the outset (Ray 2016: 203-215). Burtynsky does not indicate the landscapes that are engendered, and require conservation within his work. He has not become involved in environmental politics, even though his images are amply annotated and refer to the work of environmental organisations (Zehle 2008). In comparison, Adams creation of a foundation for environmental organisations like the Sierra Club in 1960, stimulates an entirely new stance surrounding the environment, sublime and landscape photography as a genre.



Ansel Adams’ approach to photography, 'is based on belief in nature - in the aspects of grandeur and of the minutiae of all things about us” (Greetham 1992: 6). As opposed to the work of Burtynsky, Adams passion for nature shines through his activism and photographic practise. Born in San Francisco (1902), Adams grew up in the dunes area by the Golden Gate (Turnage 1980), not too far away from the

Yosemite National Park, a location that sparked his appreciation for the environment. Adam’s photographic practise was at the forefront of conservationist and environmentalist activism, characterised by popular images such as: Clearing. Adams’ preoccupation with nature, was centred upon the creation of sanctuaries, those special places plants, animals and aesthetic landscapes (Giblett 2011). Adams’ career in photography, influenced and educated readers to protect their local environment, in their midst of their search for beauty and connection.


Monolith, the Face of Half Dome (1927), captured on a 6 1/2-by-8 1/2 Korona View camera at the Yosemite National Park, holds within it a sense of gorgeousness and grandeur (Chianese 2014). Its ‘suspense is accompanied by pleasure’ (Lyotard 1985: 3), otherwise known as the sublime. Adams espoused a sublime spiritualism and respect for the great Wild West, emphasising the immaculate beauty of Yosemite’s landscapes (Kane 2018), advocating the National Parks conservation through a visual method of crowdsourcing. Instigating a consciousness on the physical world is best achieved through influential, photography; Adams engagement towards ‘modern cultural literacy on the National Parks, the environment and our evolving relationship to it’ (Chianese 2014: 64), gained photographic admiration and appraisal. Adam’s endorsement of Pictorialism and the subtle use of the ‘hygienic sublime’ (Stormer, 2004: 230)51 demonstrates a reaction and confrontation to the execution of ecological capitalism. Unlike Burtynsky’s overwhelming sublime that seems to romanticise the destruction of capitalism on the land, Adams assertion is clarified within the visual beauty of the land presented. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Ansel Adams impeded his commercialist photographic practise. During his focuses on the conservation of National Parks, Adams required a financial income as with any self-employed artist. Thus, whilst it is easy to dismiss Adam’s photographic work as a sell-out or a commodification of nature (Spaulding 1996), his pure loyalty and dedication to conservation in the Sierra Club, tells a different story.


Co-founded in 1892 by philologist Professor Henry Senger and environmentalist John Muir, the Sierra Club promoted a subtle but compelling change in the attitudes held by Americans toward their natural surroundings (Oravec 1981: 257). At that time, John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club (1892), ‘trusted that conservation depended on public contact with nature’ (Spaulding 1996: 630), thus Muir’s passion for writing led to collaborations with photographers in works such as: Yosemite Reflections: The Words of John Muir: The Photographs of Ted Orland (1977) and The American Wilderness (1993). The predominant focus for the sierra club was to educate the public on conservation and splendour in the landscape, striving for the creation of The Wilderness Act of 1964. By juxtaposing his own descriptive and narrative pictures of nature, referencing human development, a governmental intervention was likely to occur (Oravec 1981). Adams partnership with Muir led to his elected board membership in 1934 due to being a radical voice within the Sierra Club and contributing significantly to the protection of Yosemite National Park. Adams photographs of the ‘natural scene served as social and political purposes as well as aesthetic and commercial ones’ (Spaulding 1996: 624). Adams was a positive force behind the 1964 Wilderness Act in America, protecting 9.1 million acres of federal land. Few have worked as effectively to protect the environment and to articulate the wilderness idea as Adams (Turnage 1980), on account of his success, the group f/64 was formed in 1932, comprising the artists: Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, John Paul Edwards, Sonya Noskowiak, Henry Swift and Willard Van Dyke, assembling in-depth photographic explorations that shaped the cliché of unspoiled land (Campbell 2008).


French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson notes how, ‘the world is going to pieces and people like Adams and Weston are photographing rocks”, in contrast Weston responded, “it seems so utterly naïve that landscape – not that of the pictorial school – is not considered of “social significance” when it has a far more important bearing on the human race of any locale than excrescences called cities’ (Turnage 1980). Similar to Burtynsky, Adams profited from the landscapes captured, even though his commercial work can be seen as a contradiction towards his love for the natural world, photography is a necessary tool that has allowed him to carry out his own ‘assignments from within’ (Spaulding 1996). Richard Misrach argues that Adam’s astounding photographs invoke a perpetuating myth that keeps people from looking at the truth behind the gradual destruction of the wilderness (Chianese 2014), the sublime view of landscape can reject the notion of environmental degradation as Adams’ landscapes specifically focus on documenting and pursuing beauty.


We expect a landscape image to astound us through its natural magnificence. During the course of time, the landscape has progressed away from the strict central compositional arrangement of earlier paintings, as far back as the 17th and 18th century. The paper articulates the language employed by artists, speaking on a greater level, than merely aesthetic. The development and success of romanticism, led to a new era of response that progressed and constrained the landscape, otherwise known as the sublime.

It has become evident throughout this discourse, that the sublime in landscape imagery, is an effective method of entailing a fear of enormity, rendering a reader incapable of understanding its comprehension. Assisting in its deconstruction, ‘Longinus, Kant, and Burke are anything but radical, yet so quickly the focus of their philosophies on the sublime became rooted in nature and the natural landscape’ (Gowan 2011: 66). Their grasp on the sublime differs, yet they have proved to be imperative when considering the sublime, offering a purer understanding towards landscape photography and the process of generating meaning to a reader.

The research paper has presented an importance in the role of the artist. Whilst the diverse notion of the sublime is capable of enlightening a reader on the landscape, the conception of Ansel Adams’ environmentalist photography articulates the sublime into meaning. The analysation of Adams, including the way his conservationism is presented, offers a critical understanding on the aesthetic that is beauty. Pursuing the 1964 Wilderness Act, Adams over-glorifies nature, forming an ignorance towards the devastation in the environment. In contrast, the paper clarifies disaster capitalism through the work of Edward Burtynsky, and the destructive impact it can generate. ‘What is most significant to consider here is not the disaster event itself, but rather the disaster after the event that reproduced social inequalities ‘(Schuller & Maldonado 2016: 1).

Promoting this detached yet heavily distraught view of the environment, creates a crisis that ‘calls for a politics of emergency and exigency’ (Zehle 2008: 113). The paper discusses Burtynsky’s lack of enthusiasm for activism. The reason as to why readers long for Burtynsky to adapt his stance on activism, is due to the powerful nature of his landscapes, of which have the potential to direct positive changes for the world.

The 1975 New Topographics exhibition grappled with the representation of the constructed and human-altered landscape, being a significant turning point that is conveyed in the paper. Burtynsky’s lack of inclusion to the human form, presents a sense of anonymity similar to that of the New Topographics. Opposing the status quo, Burtynsky’s influence lies in the realm of a capitalistic nature. Adams, on the other hand, relishes the beauty of his photography, exercising its value for the greater good. Regardless of the role of the artist, appreciating the value of landscape art provides a reader with a superior understanding of the world.

The paper underlines a question concerning the sacrifice for genuine empathy over artistic virtuosity, in contemporary landscape practise. The case studies and works discoursed in the paper, stipulate a cohesive and theoretical insight into the alternative principles, techniques, and visual illustrations incorporated by landscape artists. Employing an inquiry into the sublime, most significantly in the toxic, dissects the morals behind activism and disaster capitalism, through the brilliance of the sublime.