Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian Fine Art Photographer who has been concerned with the impact of human activity on the environment since the 1980s. His latest project is on water and on the many ways that humans affect the global water system. Burtynsky is wanting to stimulate thinking about the essential nature of water and to prompt us to think more long term about how we use it.
Greenhouses, Almira Peninsula, Spain, 2010 © Edward Burtynsky
Burtynsky includes a wide range of subjects within the broad topic of water: from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, to places where water is scarce or has been majorly diverted from its natural course, to uses in agriculture and aquaculture, waterfront properties, and finally mountains and glaciers as a point of untouched natural origin.
Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation / Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, 2011 © Edward Burtynsky
Shot predominantly aerially or from a point of elevation, the photographs let the spectator survey the scene from a distance. This stepping back is necessary to appreciate the scale of Burtynsky’s subjects, be it the large scale of human activity or the catchment of a glacier carving along the edges of a mountain. In many cases text is needed to make sense of what we are looking at. Though, even then, things may not be much clearer.
Owens Lake #1, California, USA, 2009 © Edward Burtynsky
Owens Lake has mostly dried up. We encounter it as a grey brown Mordor-esque landscape, a place seemingly devoid of life. Or rather, incapable of supporting life now that its water has been taken from it.
Early in the 20th century, the river that had previously sustained the lake was diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct to provide irrigation and permit development in the nearby San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas. Meaning the destruction of Owens Lake cannot be considered without attention being given to the landscapes that it was destroyed to create.
Paradise Park’s Camp Playtime – 5520 Van Nuys Boulevard in Van Nuys, San Fernando Valley, n.d.
The landscapes that Burtynsky has documented in Water exist because many people have reached reasonable decisions about what should be done, what needs to be done, in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’. The destruction of Owens Lake was controversial at the time, sparking the California Water Wars, and the issue of water rights in Owens Valley remains contentious today.
Looking at Burtynsky’s photographs we can see that water is essential and that human activity is heavily reliant upon it. What we cannot see is who decides who gets it and on what basis that decision is being made.