The work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is beautifully terrifying. His large-scale aerial photos can be so abstract that the patterns and colors of his chosen landscapes and topographies evoke lovely textile designs. Closer examination of the hues and shapes, however, reveals the mind-bending ways humankind has irreparably altered the natural world. Burtynsky's work draws you in with its beauty and magnitude before its content gives you pause.
Having trained his critical eye on the way that industry has transformed nature in projects such as Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Oil (2009), Burtynsky has now turned to the most vital stuff on Earth as his latest subject: water. A five-year-long exploration of "how water shapes us and how we shape water" has resulted in Watermark, a documentary co-directed with Jennifer Baichwal that opened at the Toronto International Film Festival, a book and companion app, Water, and a photographic exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art & Contemporary Art Center. And as with his previous work, Burtynsky renders some of the most devastating effects of human progress into stunning and thought-provoking images.
While each manifestation of the Water project has it’s own form and tone—the film more poetic, the book more structured—it’s all roughly organized around a series of themes. "Source" yields breathtaking images of pristine waterways in Iceland and the Canadian north, while "Waterfront" explores humanity’s fascination with and manipulation of the water’s edge—be it for recreation, real estate, or spiritual reverence. "Agriculture" and "Aquaculture" visit the people and places dependent on water to supply the world’s food, and depict the impact such production has on the natural environment. And "Control" offers nearly absurdist portraits of water rerouted to create a verdant desert, or worse, the stark plains of the barren Colorado Delta.
For the most part, Burtynsky’s images speak for themselves, being neither overtly critical nor didactic, but the artist says his body of work is driven by a particular view of the world. "All of my work comes out of a deep concern for human expansion into the landscape," says Burtynsky. "These kinds of images show you how water terraforms a desert. Add water to a desert and you can get agriculture, but at the expense of the Colorado River. It shows, to some degree, examples of us being not great guests on our host planet."
With Watermark in theaters, the exhibit running in New Orleans until January, and the weighty Water tome now available, Burtynsky shares some insights on why he chose the most vital of substances as his latest subject matter, his creative process on distilling a vast topic and then capturing it in single frames, and why thinking about water matters so much.
Water started to hit home when I was still working on the Oil project. I was doing a shoot in Australia and that really shifted my way of looking at the world [at the time, a bar patron was admonished for finishing his beer and leaving his glass of water on the table]. It’s so precious there that you’ll get called out on walking away from a glass of water. Where I come from, on Lake Ontario, that’s unheard of. Australia at that time was the first continent to be getting the full-on effects of global warning. Then I started looking at the American southwest and it’s on that path.
I was still working on Oil and what it said to me was, if oil all of a sudden ran out or went to $10 a gallon there’d be a lot of chaos—we’d all be plunged into a recession, food prices would go up, fuel prices would go up so the airline industries would collapse—but we could still survive. There are workarounds. But water is non-negotiable. There is no workaround. You turn to dust or you move.
When I first started thinking about the idea of water it seemed daunting. It seemed almost undoable because it’s such a pervasive subject that permeates everything. But oil had a similar affect on me. I thought, how can I do something on oil, when everything has been touched by it? If you look at everything we interact with—our clothing, our home, our streets, our car, and plastics and how much it’s used in everything—you see that everything is touched by oil. But I managed to get through it, draw an impression of it, and bring in examples of a larger activity so that these images could serve as stand-ins for much greater human expression that’s being replicated all around the world.
For instance, with the Mines project, I was researching where these larger-than-life incursions and expressions of industry occur in places we don’t normally get, so I looked for the biggest iron-ore mines and the biggest copper mines. It was always about getting behind that fence to reconnect us to these landscapes that we partake of every day.
One thing that’s consistent in all of my work is that these aren’t accidents; they’re all conscious landscapes. They’re all things that we’re doing and that we have done through our legal and social systems and structures of capitalism. We’ve allowed a certain amongst us to go in there and do what we do. That’s why at the beginning of the Water book I do show one accident, which is the [Deepwater Horizon] oil spill. Yes, it was a disaster, but to me it was a consequence of industrial overreach.
I have a basic arc when I’m shooting because when I’m pointing the camera at something I like to know to what part of this idea does an image belong. So when I started with water I tried to distill it down to the main things. Agriculture being one of the largest human uses of water became very prominent, particularly desert agricultures, because we’re redirecting water. So the minute we redirected water we’ve shifted the water shed—we’re moving water from its natural destination to one that we want, and then we’re shaping those landscapes to create food for animals and for ourselves. When you look at all the water we redirect as humans, 70% goes to agriculture. And of that water, 70% is toward growing feed for animals. A full 50% of our water is to feed livestock. Agriculture is a large section of the book.
Then Waterfront is this huge catchall idea for this human desire to be near water, whether it’s spiritual, or owning real estate there or recreational or economic, or creating a fake waterfront because of the desire to be near water.
Then Distress is where we get it wrong, like the Colorado Delta or Owens Lake. And again, we’ve done this intentionally. Owens Lake was an intentional grab to create the L.A. aqueduct, and thus destroyed that lake, which then became a toxic lakebed.
I started shooting more intensely with helicopters with this project. When I did the Spanish work [featuring aerial views of vast greenhouses], I went and rented a pilot and a chopper for a week and went all over Spain. We had a truck tracking us on land. It had the helicopter door in it and it had enough fuel for two refuels. So we were able to put down in any old airstrip, or even a farmer’s field if we wanted to, and through GPS and cell phones the fuel truck would meet us wherever we were. So, I spent a week with a pilot travelling all of Spain. That meant if I wanted to get up just after the light came up and hover around an area to see what it’s doing in the morning light, then fine. I couldn’t afford it up until then because you have to book these things individually. This time I looked at the five locations I wanted to shoot and it would have cost more to rent for each location, so I went to one company and just said, "Look, I want a helicopter and pilot for a week."
You can put the odds in your favor to find a subject that is going to work with the right light at the right time of year. When shooting some salt lakes, I didn’t want the photos to be just a sunny desert, so I went when there was the highest probably of rain. I placed myself in that location with a chopper on standby for 10 days so I could wait until there was some weather or a cloudy day. I wanted the cloud to soften the landscape, and the water on the salt lakes would add a layer. I call it an encaustic layer; you can almost feel the surface of it.
There were a couple of locations I went back to. There was one location in China where I just went and hung out there for eight days with a crew and people on standby. The air never cleared. I left without taking a picture. I went back and spent another couple of days and it was a repeat performance with the air, and then all of a sudden it cleared. I ended up getting the shots I wanted in one day. That can happen, after all your planning and everything, you still need the right conditions; you need a little bit of luck.