"Consider a picture such as Nickel Tailings #34 from Burtynsky's "Mines and Tailings," a series devoted to the environmental aftermath of metal mining and smelting. Under a cool, grey sky, against a wintry violet backdrop of distant trees, a brilliant orange river swerves toward the camera from within a deep brown landscape. Fauvism has taught us to tolerate, even to relish, a pictorial anomaly such as a flaming orange river. From abstract painting, we have learned to admire the bold, simple surface design we find in Burtynsky's Nickel Tailings #34.
But such enjoyments depend on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble. We might suppress this thought momentarily by wondering whether Burtynsky has somehow re-tuned his picture's colour through some trick of digital or darkroom magic. But in the deep view a retrospective exhibition provides, we can see clearly that he is not given to aesthetic manipulations for their own sake, nor even for emotional effect, such as the elegiac splendour Robert Bourdeau achieves by toning his images of industrial ruin. Burtynsky wants us to experience the shock of seeing as a fact a bright orange stream flowing through a leafless landscape, and to notice our own resistance to digesting this information." – Kenneth Baker
Burtynsky's skill as a photographic colourist is evident in most of his work, but perhaps most strikingly in a group of photographs of nickel tailings near Sudbury, Ontario. Juxtaposing pulsating orange against a glossy black background, he extracts spectacular images from a landscape that many might consider unphotogenic. The startling colours are those we see when lava flows from an erupting volcano, which is perhaps why we immediately associate this image with natural disaster. In actual fact, the intense reds and oranges are caused by the oxidation of the iron that is left behind in the process of separating nickel and other metals from the ore.