Edward Burtynsky, the globe-roving Canadian photographer whose big aerial pictures of man-altered natural landscapes are seductively beautiful and strangely disturbing, spent a dozen years on and off making the images for his 2009 book “Oil,” which took him from the oil sands of Alberta to the Azerbaijani oil fields to the crazy cloverleaf freeways of Los Angeles.
The project explored the fossil fuel that “affects every part of our life,” even if we don’t see the actual oil very much, says Burtynsky, who was inspired to focus on an even more precious fluid — water — while working on “Oil” in Australia in 2007. The country was in the depths of a historic drought, and the photographer was stirred by stories about ranchers who were losing their land. Many were forced to look for jobs in the city, and some committed suicide.
No water, no life
“That really made me sit up and take note,” says Burtynsky, 60, on the phone from his Toronto studio. “Once there’s no water, there’s no option. There are alternatives to oil — electricity, natural gas. When there’s no water, there’s no life. It’s a far more powerful liquid that we depend on and sort of take for granted until it’s not there.”
With California in the grip of its own record-breaking drought, it only makes sense that the Burtynsky show opening Friday, Sept. 18, at the David Brower Center in Berkeley primarily features sweeping bird’s-eye-view pictures from his 2013 “Water” series.
The exhibition honors the recipient of the Brower Center’s seventh annual Art/Act Award, given to an artist engaged in environmental activism. The Center is saluting Burtynsky for having created over the past three decades “riveting imagery depicting the consequences of modern existence on the environment.”
The “Water” pictures include large-format color images that often read like artful abstractions at first glance: the dried-up Colorado River Delta in Baja, Mexico, with its lunar-like silvery gray surfaces; a great swirl of water at China’s Xiaolangdi Dam on the Yellow River that brings the British painter J.M.W. Turner to mind; and an aerial picture of dry-farming land in Aragon, Spain, whose jutting organic forms suggest the shapes of Picasso or Jean Dubuffet.
Then there are a handful of pictures from earlier Burtynsky series, like his extraordinary images of rock quarries — a marble one in Carrara, Italy, and a granite quarry in Vermont with a blue outhouse set like a toy on a massive block of stone — and a photograph of a glowing orange nickel tail from a Greater Sudbury, Ontario, mine, flowing like lava.
“This is not an act of imagination; this is a real place in the world. But it is also an act of seeing,” says Burtynsky, who does copious research, using Google maps and other tools, before choosing the landscapes he wants to photograph and hiring a pilot to fly him over them in a small plane or helicopter. “To me, it’s a remarkable and exciting discovery to be able to find these places.”
He began to find his metier in 1983 when he drove across North America, photographing landscapes the old-fashioned way, in the tradition of predecessors like Carleton Watkins and Edward Weston. But for him, the tradition of “making images of pristine landscapes showing the grandeur of the West” had run its course; he decided he could add to the conversation by photographing “the intersection of man and the landscape.” That general idea, he adds, “was big enough to carry me through decades of work, as long as I stuck to it.”
It was the intervention of humans, through water diversion and dam building, that altered the Colorado River Delta that Burtynsky photographed from the air in 2012 (one of the “distressed” water landscapes he captured).
“Flying over the Colorado River Delta 50 years ago, you’d see marshy wetlands. There were fish and fowl, and animals and people who lived there. Now you see a vast desert, with these tree-like root forms etched in the silt. When the tidewater runs back to the sea, it creates these rivulets, and these root-like forms emerge. It’s all a direct result of the diversion of the river.”
In 2009, Burtynsky shot the lovely but seriously depleted Shasta Lake.
“It’s an amazing landscape with beautiful colors, but it portends a future that is at risk,” says the photographer, who says we have no choice but to rethink how we use water.
Aesthetically pleasing, his photographs first evoke a sense of wonder, then raise questions about what that place is and how it got that way. “The viewer is captured by the image, and after being captured, begins to grapple with the subject matter, to think about what is our collective impact on the planet. … We’re going to find ourselves in a pretty sad place if we’re not careful.”