• Natural Order #33, Grey County, Ontario, Canada Spring 2020. Photos © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Instead of his usual busy schedule of speaking engagements and content creation, this spring, photographer and RCGS Fellow Edward Burtynsky found himself locked down in Grey County, Ont., due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

Turning the lockdown into an opportunity, Burtynsky headed out into the surrounding forests, close to lakes and rivers, with a brand new camera in hand, to focus on nature. 

The result is a new series titled Natural Order, on display this September at the Metivier Gallery in Toronto. The exhibition recalls Burtynsky's earliest works as a photographer. He spoke with Canadian Geographic about his pandemic photography. 

On how he ended up in Grey County, Ontario

I had a full calendar for the spring and summer and I went up north for a ten day work/study period to prepare for my projects and ended up staying there for five months. My daughters came back from L.A. and from London, England, to shelter in our home. We didn’t want them to be out of Canada’s medical system should they get ill, so we brought them both home. 

Natural Order #20, Grey County, Ontario, Canada Spring 2020. Photos © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

On beginning to shoot new photos

In late March I figured I’d do some deeper learning with this new camera I had. I started shooting and I just sort of fell into a project I did back in ‘81. A lot of my work that cascaded from that was very much connected to this kind of interest and respect for the natural world. I wanted to try to find a way to make images that veered away from cliche, but that resonated [with people]. It was the time of year that I liked, with all the leaves off, and I was in a great spot at the headwaters of many rivers, plus swampy areas with brush and detail … I started becoming interested in a series that paid homage to the work I did years ago, but also that made sense in the pandemic. 

On a respect for nature

Here we were, pinned down by nature, but if you look at the 40 years of my work looking at nature, I was looking at how we as a species take from nature. Going back and looking at nature again as a force, and also to see it as almost fractals that mimic what we share with nature. 

When all the trees bud and the green comes forward, I stopped seeing [the art I wanted to show]. There’s something about the tones and colours and the incredible detail present as the snow disappears and all the grasses are matted down to tones of straw and yellow, plus the red of the dogwood. 

Natural Order #44, Grey County, Ontario, Canada Spring 2020. Photos © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

On using new technology

The new camera I was working with has one of the highest resolutions possible and the detail I was getting was just amazing. The photos aren’t meant to be seen online — they’re a sad surrogate for the large prints, where everything is there in just crazy, crazy detail. These represent a digital technology that cameras are now offering. They weren’t bad before but now they are just insanely good.