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It’s well known that landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky thinks big — big subjects, big photographs. His large-format prints (dimensions up to 60 x 80 inches are not uncommon) match the physical scope of the oil industry, quarries, and ship breaking, as well as their thematic implications. His newest series on display at Howard Greenberg and Bruce Wolkowitz takes on one of the biggest (70 percent of the earth’s surface; about 60 percent of you and me) topics on the planet: water. More particularly, it is human interaction with water that draws his attention.
Of course, this theme of how people flourish with and simultaneously corrupt the environment is one Burtynsky has explored many times over the past two decades. Originally taking inspiration from American photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, Burtynsky eventually turned to landscape revisionists such as Robert Adams, Joe Deal, Louis Baltz, and especially Frank Gohlke (a group often labeled the New Topographics) who were determined to keep the human element in the frame, and not present nature as pristine in its isolation.
The photos at these galleries all take aim at the way we use water — dams, stepwells, irrigation systems, sewage treatment, beaches, mining runoff, and rice terraces are some of Burtynsky’s subjects as he ranges around the globe (India, Texas, Spain, China, Iceland, Arizona) to document these industrial-scale interactions. Many of these photos are necessarily aerial; it’s not simply that the sheer expanse of some of these locales requires a panoramic view, but that many of their most striking imagistic qualities aren’t revealed at ground level. Anyone who has flown cross-country is familiar with the circular plots (the mechanism at work is called pivot irrigation) that pattern great swaths of the Midwest and West. Burtynsky dutifully offers a pair of photos — one in Texas, the other in Arizona — that are as readily recognizable as the pizza pan or vinyl record shapes you have spied from your window seat. On the ground, one of these giant discs would appear as just a field of alfalfa.
Other god’s-eye perspectives would be harder to obtain: glacial runoff in Iceland, an acquaculture farm in China, or a sewage treatment plant in London. Most likely, we haven’t seen sky-high views of these, but Burtynsky’s treatment amplifies our unfamiliarity. In Skeidararsandur, Iceland, the camera seems to be floating out over the middle of the glacial flow — and consequently the photo lacks any evidence of land; it’s hard to tell if what we see is even a stream. The rhythmic cascade of melted ice with its metallic sheen doesn’t suggest water so much as the molten product of a blast furnace or a great rumpled sheet of aluminum. The aerial view also confounds reflexive expectations. From above, the London sewage treatment plant reveals its elegant structure; the facility’s geometrically arranged tanks could be a game board or an abacus.
Burtynsky generates a revelatory tension between the images’ environmental content (and, indeed, their advocacy) and the aestheticizing of ecological stress, if not outright disaster. Two photos that bring us up close to the roiling brown water and sediment spewing from the Ixiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River in Henan Province, China, have a painterly quality we would recognize in J.M.W. Turner. Turner depicted destructive, storm-tossed seas, while Burtynsky focuses on another, more incremental kind of damage. This dam, like almost all other such waterworks, brings benefits but at a great cost — the destruction of river communities, natural habitants, and consequent urban development. But the photos are no less alluring in their presentation of tumult and power. This doubleness—of both the art and the manufactured landscape — perhaps holds at least as much importance for him as his determination to scrupulously document global despoilment.
Burtynsky’s epic-size prints are color rich, offering granular detail. With even scant study, we can make out the faces and details of dress on some of the thousands of pilgrims assembled to bathe in the sacred waters of the Saraswati for the Hindu rite, the Kumbh Mela. The photographer’s eye encompasses a mile-wide swath dense with human activity. It’s hard not to feel a sense of amazement — as if the gallery wall had opened up to provide an Olympian view of a teeming scene just out of reach.
The scale, visual precision, and elevated point of view, though, carry the unavoidable aura of the glossy National Geographic gatefold. And with that come overtones of scientific observation, as well as more unsettling notes of imperial regard. This touristic element is not easily set aside: a totalizing impulse contends with a less generalized, more empathic subjectivity; the method and material of these photos can feel disconnected from the photographer’s desire to investigate our intimate relation to the natural world.
Burtynsky, though, doesn’t offer the conventional binary notion of human life in opposition to the earth’s. Instead, his images present human activity as not apart from nature, but rather as integral to the planet’s being: our mess is the mess that nature makes. Whether he is showing the luminescent colors produced in a phosphor tailings pond in Florida, or the more ecologically benign image of an Escher-like terraced stepwell in India, Burtynsky candidly documents human effort, human beauty, and human carelessness.
These pictures are big because their subject — our so-called battle with nature is really a battle with ourselves — is big. To be drawn into their vast yet intricate domain is to gain some felt knowledge about this conflict: that gorgeous, mesmerizing plain of glacial melt delights the eye, even as it signals impending cataclysm. The emotions and instincts that drive and complete this seduction define our species, but they may just be what doom us.
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