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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Taking new heights

Water was a five-year project for which Burtynsky had travelled around the world, resulting in a series of photographs, the photobook, and the documentary Watermark (2013, director J. Baichwal), as well a component of the exhibition. With its 228 pages and a format of 36 x 29 cm, the book Water is a large and bulky object, featuring an expansive selection of photographs and including a preface by the photographer himself, as well as two essays, the first written by Wade Davis and the second by Russell Lord. The photographs in the book are categorized into seven themes: ‘Gulf of Mexico’, ‘Distress’, ‘Control’, ‘Agriculture’, ‘Aquaculture’, ‘Waterfront’, and ‘Source’. Each individual theme explores a specific aspect of humanity's relation to water. ‘Gulf of Mexico’, which portrays the BP oil spill in 2010, is most directly related to a news event. The other themes investigate water in a less journalistic, less ‘newsworthy’ manner, concerning landscapes that are more difficult to contextualize. ‘Distress’ shows areas where water is scarce, whereas ‘Control’ includes the disturbing large-scale incursions to divert and control the flow of water. ‘Agriculture’ presents images of by far the largest human activity on the planet: the irrigation of farmland for our food supply. ‘Aquaculture’ provides a glimpse of what is increasingly becoming an important source of food, namely the cultivation of the land and sea, rivers and lakes to harvest water-based crops such as rice and seaweed, as well as the farming of aquatic animals such as shrimp, clams and fish. In ‘Waterfront’, Burtynsky depicts manufactured landscapes that convey humanity's desire and need to be near water, with perhaps the most impressive example being the pilgrimage of 35 million people who journey to bathe in the Ganges River in India. Finally, the theme ‘Source’ turns to the mountains, from which fresh water originates, not yet maintained and regulated.

In his photographs, Burtynsky literally takes his photographic style to new heights: the aerial image. By using man-lifts, small fixed-wing aircrafts, helicopters (both remote and piloted), and a specially designed fifty-foot pneumatic mast with camera mount and fiber-optic remote, the photographer aims for a birds-eye perspective. As such, these images are somewhat akin to an emerging field of ‘drone photography’ (see for example the work of George Barber, Tomas van Houtryve, Trevor Paglen, Rus Turner, Andy Snow, and the Dronestagram project by James Bridle). Many photographs in Water feature a horizon that is either positioned very high or cut off by the upper frame of the photograph: such compositions result in views in which the space is flattened, becoming an almost abstract labyrinth of patterns and shapes, with some being disturbingly geometrical and others (seemingly) organic. The photographs featured in the theme ‘Distress’ visualize spaces that have been compromised in order for other landscapes to exist. The photograph Colorado River Delta #2 shows a view of the Colorado River that has almost completely dried up after the building of a dam, leaving behind the scars of what was once an abundant and vital river, now shrunken like an old tree with its branches slowly dying and disappearing back into the earth. The photograph Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation/Scottsdale, falling under the theme 'Control', contrasts both the distress and the control of water in a single image. Running precisely down the middle of the image, a straight road harshly divides the land: on the left side, a completely dried-up landscape; on the right side, we see a city with houses surrounded by green trees and water streams. It is an absurd image that effectively visualizes the disturbing scale on which human systems are controlling water, and how this results in landscapes in which nature – being the vital source of cultural life – has been exploited, then cut off, and subsequently left to the wayside. With the book's concluding theme ‘Source’, Burtynsky turns his focus – for the first time in thirty years – not to the way in which human systems are imposed on the earth, but rather to the pristine landscapes of the hydrological cycle: mountains with glaciers and snow. Photographs such as Mount Edziza Provincial Park #1, depicting impressive untouched mountain landscapes, are a clear reference to the work of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Jean Dubuffet, David Shapiro, and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as landscape photographers of the nineteenth century, such as Carleton E. Watkins, William Bell, and Timothy O’Sullivan.

By ‘returning’ us to the source in the final chapter of his book, Burtynsky forces the viewer to confront his own ethical position with regards to the origins of water. After having seen the impressive manufactured landscapes that humans have created – whether intentionally or not, whether damaging or enriching – he takes us back to landscapes that are as yet untouched, but most certainly already under threat.