Image: Edward Burtynsky reviewed on Photomonitor

Edward Burtynsky reviewed on Photomonitor

"His latest project kept him busy for six years from 2007 and is dedicated to the most fundamental resource of all: water.

The exhibition at Flowers Gallery is an outcrop from the project as a whole, featuring 14 of the 110 photographs in the accompanying large format book. Those are spread across six themes grouped by the roles water plays in our lives. The exhibition concentrates on the chapters for 'Distress', in which water is spoiled;  'Control', showing the infrastructures, such as an amazing Escher-like step dam, used to control the flows; 'Agriculture'; and 'Source', which highlights the purity of natural water systems, for example in photographs of mountains. There's one image of 'Aquaculture' - cultivation of aquatic organisms under controlled conditions, which is particularly important in China; and nothing from the 'Waterfront' chapter, which presents the ways in which humans interact with their watery environment, and so provides a peopled contrast to the empty landscapes which, in consequence, form all of the Flowers show.

That edit minimises any distraction from what emerge as the most striking characteristics of the images: their un-photographic nature, and their enactment of water's centrality. At least half of the photographs looks decidedly painterly - and certainly not like the digitally unmanipulated photographs which Burtynsky assured me they are. The obvious comparisons are with abstract painting, but images of silt in spray look like Turneresque clouds; agricultural studies of fields are so unnaturally demarcated that they seem diagrammatic; and pivot irrigation in Arizona, which imposes giant circles on the landscape, calls minimalism to mind.  Burtynsky himself says he was pleased to see images emerging which referenced some of his favourite painters, citing Friedrich, Dubuffet and Diebenkorn.

How is the centrality of water enacted? The book's epigraph states that 'water is the reason we can say its name', i.e. it's the key formative and constituting element of both the subject taking the photographs and of the scenes captured. That makes the images a sort of demonstration of the visualising self as well as of the underpinning basis of the planet. In many shots, as if animated by that role, the water-formed landscape takes on an organic appearance: a glacial runoff could be a close-up of skin; a river delta looks alternately like seaweed or internal organs; pivot irrigation now seems decidedly cellular.  Burtynsky says he's interested in the questions 'how does water shape us and how do we shape water?'

As with previous projects, the images themselves have great intrinsic power. That's partly a function of Burtynsky's technique of mounting his Hasselblad on a remote-controlled miniature helicopter; and partly of the ability to find the most surprising and impressive views. Burtynsky credits Google Earth as a transformative selection aid, and it's the choice of location linked to the tilted aerial perspectives - and consequent lack of a horizon - which allows that strikingly painterly quality to be achieved.

What is the environmental message? Burtynsky doesn't seek to preach, so much as to show how, in his words 'our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times'. The book, though, does contain social and scientific perspectives as well as an artistic one. We learn, for example, that Canada has 20% of the world's fresh water (but only 0.5% of its 7bn population), whereas China with 20% percent of the population and a similar land mass has just 8% of the water; that a billion litres of raw sewage are dumped daily into the River Ganges; that only half the population of Haiti has access to potable water.

All of which - perhaps a little problematically? -  falls away in front of the photographs as printed two metres wide: ethical concerns and sophisticated analyses collapse into good old-fashioned awe."


Paul Carey-Kent

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