Depth of Field, volume 6, no 1 (July 2015)Maartje Willemijn Smits: Contesting the ‘natural’ landscape: Edward Burtynsky in Power of Water at FOTODOK space for documentary photography, Utrecht (2014)

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Water is perhaps one of the things that we in the Netherlands tend to take for granted as something that is ensured in its quality, supply, and control. The exhibition Power of Water at FOTODOK in Utrecht, from September 7 to October 10 2014, has explored the importance of the access to and proximity of water with the work of the (inter-) national photographers Kael Alford (USA), Benoit Aquin (CAN), Edward Burtynsky (CAN), Elspeth Diederix (NL), Anne Geene (NL), Marie-José Jongerius (NL), Carl de Keyzer (BE), the Disputed Waters Collective (Johannes Abeling and Ronald de Hommel, among others), Jan Rosseel (BE), Niels Stomps (NL) and Brian Voermans (NL). The exhibition includes examples ranging from contained and regulated Dutch delta waterworks to protecting the country from flooding, to scarce water supplies in Israel, and water mismanagement in China, the latter resulting in the transformation of huge pieces of land into sandy deserts. An artist whose work was central to the exhibition, with the specific aim of initiating the re-thinking of our relation to water within the larger framework of environmentalism, is the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.

With over thirty years of photographic work, Burtynsky – along with Jim Brandenburg and Charlie Waite – is one of the world's most famous contemporary landscape photographers. His large-format photographs most frequently represent landscapes that have been altered by human activity. Burtynsky refers to these as ‘manufactured landscapes’: vast spaces of mining, shipping, oil production, recycling, quarrying, and manufacturing. His work traces our dependence on nature and the natural resources derived from it, visualizing the discrepancy between ethical environmental concerns and the extent to which we seek to live ‘a good life’. With the book Water (2013), which is part of the exhibition at FOTODOK, Burtynsky explores how the element water has been essential in forming and shaping landscapes around the world. Accordingly, this ‘portrait’ of water is not so much about water itself, but about the complex systems that humans have put in place in order to harness and exploit it.