It has been argued that society’s relationship to nature was redefined by the Industrial Revolution that took hold in 19th-century Europe. As the masses moved from farmland to factory, their lives were no longer shaped by the rhythms of the natural world, yet their desire for the countryside persisted. Crowded and congested cities responded to this need by creating the pastoral experience in the form of urban parks. This period also led to “the age of the landscape painter,” in which urbane artists such as J.M.W. Turner began to combine imagination with observation of the natural world. A century later, the rise of photography would challenge and demystify landscape’s role in the cultural imagination.
In the 20th century, North American cities grew at surprising rates and soon began to sprawl and dominate their surroundings. The seminal 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, curated by William Jenkins, pointed toward an alternative approach to making landscape photography—an objective style that nonetheless addressed the notion of the “man-made environment”—and suggested that society’s relationship to the natural world had become dysfunctional.
Like the New Topographics photographers, Robert Burley’s practice concedes human action on the landscape by focusing on constructed urban environments. Sharing his predecessors’ survey-like sensibility, he brings an equally liminal awareness to his slow, tripod-dependent operation of observation, allowing viewers access to not only place, but also time. Burley has photographed the ravine systems, waterfronts, and parks of North American metropolises since the mid-80s. His dispassionate scenes feature urban watersheds knitted with expressways, railway lines, industrial compounds, utility towers, and pipelines. At the same time, Burley’s phenomenological images often offer glimpses into some of the remaining natural habitats found within and along the river valley systems and lakefronts.
It is therefore fitting that the City of Toronto commissioned Burley to create a collection of photographs celebrating Toronto’s natural spaces as a way to both examine and promote our 21st-century relationship to nature. Through this visual archive, the city acquires evidence of the considerable natural areas within its urban parkland system as part of a strategy for maintaining and communicating their ecological and civic function. Though commissioned for their documentary value, the images that comprise this exhibition, and Burley’s new book, also reveal intangible aspects of the temporal. He places timeless elements alongside those that are in flux, interrogating temporality by juxtaposing the permanence of municipal infrastructure, the seasonal shifting of landscapes, and the ephemeral quality of people’s day-to-day movements. These images are not simply records; they also bear witness to the current state of Toronto’s shoreline, rivers, creeks, and valley forest, imparting knowledge about our urban geography, water supply, biodiversity, and public space. Subsequently, these images become instruments to safeguard and protect that which they describe. In the end, Burley’s work suggests that the relationship between city and nature is being redefined again in the 21st century as more sympathetic and enlightened, as urban dwellers increasingly invest in nourishing and encouraging all forms of the natural landscape found inside their city limits.
The book, An Enduring Wilderness: Toronto’s Natural Parklands, is published by ECW Press, with texts by Toronto writers George Elliott Clarke, Anne Michaels, Michael Mitchell, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, and Alissa York.