Contesting genres and conceptions
What makes Burtynsky's oeuvre so valuable is its extreme richness, the complexity of the issues it addresses, and the affective responses it evokes. With Water, the photographer demands that the viewer undertake a serious reconsideration and reconfiguration of water's multiple roles as a victim, an aggressor, a source of life, and a threat. Through photography – a medium that has been associated with notions of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ throughout history – Burtynsky provides the ‘visible evidence’ to draw attention to the material reality of water landscape and environmental changes: the viewer is obliged to decipher and decode this evidence. The aerial view results in an image that wavers between a watercolor painting and a photograph, and thus forces the viewer to engage more actively in what is pictured. As Russell Lord explains in his introductory essay to Burtynsky’s book: “They demand close and steady study as sequences, just to recognize them as landscapes, or even, as photographs.” The aerial perspective confronts us with large flat surfaces that are incredibly detailed, thereby drawing the viewer to the materiality of the surface, i.e. the texture of the photograph. Lord argues that the photographs, in this sense, obliterate any notion of being a window on the world (as photography is often considered), but instead draw one's attention to the ‘photographicness’ of the photograph. The viewer has to put himself into the photograph in order to understand its language. The abstraction, flatness and formlessness of the landscapes forces a new way of looking, as the photographs challenge one to make sense of what he is seeing.
Within the broader debate on environmentalism, Burtynsky’s work is exemplary in two ways. It engages the audience in questions concerning humanity's relationship with the environment. At the same time, it pushes toward alternative frameworks of thinking that are sustainable for both nature and culture. As Wade Davis explains in his essay in Burtynsky’s book: “Despite the years of growing environmental concern, we still view the natural world essentially as a commodity, a raw resource to be consumed at our whim.” The photographs in Water challenge the traditional genre of the horizontal landscape, and consequently, invoke questions not only in respect to our relationship with water, but also to the artistic landscape genre itself. The landscape as a concept and representation, as we understand it today, emerged in the seventeenth century and is derived from the later Western art historical tradition of the pictorial landscape, with exemplary works by Caspar David Friedrich, William Turner, and Claude Monet. The well-known nineteenth-century Romantic paintings of pristine landscapes, in which the human figure is dwarfed and overwhelmed, have clearly served as inspirational sources for Burtynsky. Yet, the aerial perspective that he chose for Water contests these horizontal views and makes the concept of the landscape both more flat and more diffuse. Furthermore, not only does Burtynsky’s work challenge the traditional confines of a pictorial landscape, it also questions the notion of landscape as ‘natural’. The artist demonstrates that nature is not something untouched and ‘out there’, but in fact pre-designed, manufactured, and altered. Burtynsky’s work therefore problematizes the rigid binary between nature and culture. As a result, to think of nature as something that is not separate from us, but something in fact deeply interconnected with our daily practices, demands a conceptual shift. The book Water is therefore of interest to every inhabitant of the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch in history marked by the dominating influence of humanity over the earth. The photography of Edward Burtynsky, with its aerial view of manufactured landscapes, is exemplary in helping us to obtain large-scale perspectives on the actual conditions of the Anthropocene. Its immense weight lies in problematizing the classical distinction between nature and culture, and consequently, in raising questions of sustainability that have today become unavoidable.