Edward Burtynsky, Shasta Lake Reservoir, Northern California, USA, 2009, Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Edward Burtynsky, Shasta Lake Reservoir, Northern California, USA, 2009, Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, CA

Edward Burtynsky

Rena Bransten Gallery / San Francisco

As the George Clooney character in O Brother, Where 
Art Thou? comically declared, “We in a tight spot!” With 7 billion people competing for ever-scarcer natural resources in an environment beset by weather changes, Homo sapiens is headed for challenges, and not of the amusing kind. Half of the world’s population lacks adequate water supplies, and national security experts foresee the possibility of “blue gold” water wars in South America, Africa and Central Asia. 

Toronto landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky is known for his epic-scale color photos documenting the effects of various industries worldwide on the natural landscape, well-captured in Jennifer Baichwal’s acclaimed 2006 film, Manufactured Landscapes. Burtynsky’s turning from oil, mineral extraction, housing, electrification and recycling to water use is thus a natural progression. Water, the title of his new book and related gallery exhibitions, features work made over the past five years, including spectacular photos of California’s irrigation system shot for National Geographic. (Incidentally, a new Baichwal-Burtynsky film on the issue, Watermarks, is in progress.) The 13 works on view at Rena Bransten Gallery, a selection from the over 100 made for the project—in nine countries over five years—are likewise dazzling and a triumph of technical problem-solving. 

Like several other photographers shooting large-scale topographies these days, Burtynsky—who seems to have gone digital at least for now, letting his 4 x 5 view camera lie fallow—proves that the medicine of social comment and political relevance are well-served by the sugar of visual appeal. We are enthralled by the ingenuity and complexity of manmade systems, but also enlightened about the possible downside, what the photographer calls “engineering our own demise.” Where have we seen this pairing of visual splendor with moral edification before but in Romantic landscapes? Are sober-sided, concerned documentarians like Burtynsky the contemporary, postmodern avatars of the prophetic, visionary Turners, Bierstadts and Coles?

Whatever economic and political conclusions one chooses to infer or ignore from the photographs, these semi-abstract aerial views of human industry superimposed on the natural landscape are sublime. The amount of crisply rendered detail—houses, boats, cars, trees—renders them—though not physically large at 3 x 4- and 5 x 7–feet—monumental in feeling. The silvery meander of the Dyralaekir River in Iceland; the dendritic tributaries of the Colorado River in Mexico; the achingly blue placid waters of Shasta Lake in California; the cracked-ice shard pattern formed by Almira Peninsula greenhouses of Spain; and the immense jigsaw puzzle of rice terraces in China’s Yunnan Province—all are resplendently scenic, along the lines of earlier nature photographers like Ansel Adams. More fraught with contemporary anxieties are shots of the Xiaolangdi Dam in China’s Henan Province, barely visible, enveloped by a dust storm; the highly developed beach waterfront at Benidom, Spain, which now inevitably reminds us of rising sea levels and shrinking coastlines; and the vivid demarcation, right down the photograph’s midline, between densely packed suburban sprawl in Scottsdale, Arizona, and undeveloped Hohokam tribal lands, pristine and forbidding. 

Such photographs serve us by initiating discussions about anthropogenic change to the planet, their risks and rewards, and actions that the human family needs to face. They also commemorate, perhaps, an industrial way of life that is itself not immune to change.