Much like Watterson, Edward Burtynsky captures the sentiment of human hubris in his photography. This year, the David Brower Center features Burtynsky in its seventh annual Art/Act exhibition, which commends artists who have invested significant time in their careers to advocacy and engagement.
A prolific Canadian photographer, Burtynsky depicts how the extraction of resources — namely minerals, water and oil — has shaped the natural environment. Reminiscent of abstract paintings, the photographs gesture at how industrial production has damaged and transformed Earth’s landscapes.
Burtynsky’s photographs are not typical nature shots. Many of them border fictional. Rich with colors and textures, they reveal humanity’s complex relationship with the natural world. For example, “Xiaolangdi Dam #2” depicts a body of violently splashing water that explodes into ethereal brownish-gray cloud puffs. One might not even see a thin bridge and swaying tree behind the cloudy mass, which is actually China’s Yellow River. The stunning photograph shows how people have managed to control the mighty forces of water. It gestures at the power of technology to control the earth from which it originates.
Yet humans are dependent on the very same earth that they manipulate and damage. Sharing the same fictional aesthetic, “Colorado River Delta #8” intrigues viewers with its special aerial angle. From this vantage point, the image almost looks like piles of chalky, green rectangles submerged in a sea of silver paint. Lines run through the silver color like wrinkles on leathery skin. This is actually a picture of the Colorado River Delta, which had not experienced a drop of water in more than 40 years until the government unleashed 105,000 acre-feet of water from the Morelos Dam in December 2014. In contrast to “Xiaolangdi Dam #2,” the surreal image illustrates human dependence on the environment as well as how industrialization has depleted natural resources.
Burtynsky also employs visceral imagery to convey the ailing conditions of the earth. In “SOCAR Oil Fields #9,” he captures a chilling snapshot of oil rigs in Azerbaijan. The grimy landscape looks almost extraterrestrial, with a brownish-blue substance swirling in shoddily paved dirt. Dozens of oil rigs are lined up in the background, almost like pestilent viruses taking over the land. In the far distance, there is a polished urban area with towering buildings next to a clear white sea. The piece presents a terse tension between opportunity and destruction. Oil drives human advancement, but at what cost?
“Shasta Lake Reservoir, Northern California” harnesses a similarly chilling sentiment but with more subtle techniques. The image looks glossy and flat, much like a picture from a magazine. The viewer witnesses a gorgeous shot of the Shasta Lake, a reservoir formed from the Sacramento Dam in 1945. Since then, it has been California’s largest reservoir, providing farmers and municipalities with water. Superficially, the steel-blue reservoir looks calm and perfect. It is bordered by mountains and lush forest. Still, there is a sense of depletion and loss conveyed by the flatness of the picture. A closer inspection discloses traces of the drought that has wreaked havoc on California. Between the water and the strips of forests lie lengths of fissured bronze cliffs. The photograph was taken in 2009. By 2014, the reservoir was down to 30 percent of its full capacity.
A beautiful yet tragic collection, the David Brower Center’s latest exhibition blends the borders between false dualities: fiction versus reality, aesthetic versus function and construction versus destruction. The photographs are phantasmagoric and dreamy yet rooted in a cold reality check. They are visually arresting yet serve to concern and inform. And most importantly, they shed light on the destruction that occurs in the name of constructing human civilization.