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Edward Burtynsky: Artist's Statement

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Edward Burtynsky. Click image to enlarge.

I began to think about water as a subject for my work in 2007, while on a production tour photographing gold mines in Australia—the first continent in this era to begin drying up. Stories about farmers leaving as their land dehydrated were everywhere in the news.


Mr. Burtynsky's website includes a wealth of background materials and stories on his life and projects, including Oil, China, and Water. The site also includes an excellent video library. For a taste, we suggest you start with his interview for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an environmental advocacy group based in Toronto.

While there I met a photojournalist who recounted a story about an incident he had experienced in a bar in Adelaide. He ordered a beer and a glass of water, finished his beer, paid the bill and was about to leave when the bartender stopped him and instructed him to finish his glass of water. Suddenly water took on a new meaning for me. I realized water, unlike oil, is not optional. Without it we perish. I thought about ways that I could build a body of work around the idea of water. Unlike my Oil and China projects, with Water I had no preconceived notions about what the images in such a project might look like. I trusted that my intuition would lead me to the pictures.

In 2008 my research started in earnest. I wanted to find ways to make compelling photographs about the human systems employed to redirect and control water. I soon realized that views from ground level could not show the enormous scale of activity. I had to get up high, into the air, to see it from a bird’s-eye perspective. Determined by the specifics of each location, I would find a way to depict the most telling viewpoints. The ensuing four years found me at work in nine countries: employing location crews, using man-lifts, small fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters (both remote and piloted) and a specially designed fifty-foot pneumatic mast with camera mount and fibre-optic remote. This pulling away from the earth has allowed me to see our world in ways once unavailable to artists. In addition, the evolution of high-quality digital camera equipment has allowed me to create crisp, finely detailed images from moving aircraft—something that could not be easily accomplished with older, analogue film systems.

As production on the Water project began to roll out I categorized the images into: distress, control, agriculture, aquaculture, waterfront, and finally source. Distress included landscapes such as the Colorado River Delta, that has not seen a drop of water from that river in over forty years, and is now a desert; or Owens Lake, that saw its water diverted to Los Angeles in 1913 and is now a dry toxic lakebed. Agriculture represents - by far - the largest human activity upon the planet. Approximately seventy percent of all freshwater under our control is dedicated to this activity. I went to China and Spain to see the process of farming fish and seafood. The section Aquaculture provides a glimpse into a quickly growing and increasingly important food source. Waterfront looks at the way we shape land to create manufactured waterfront properties, and speaks to me about the human need and desire to be near water—even if it is artificial. I went to India to witness the largest pilgrimage on the planet with thirty-five million people arriving on the holiest day to bathe in the Ganges and release them of their sins – an ancient spiritual belief in the cleansing power and sacredness of water. Source comes from my journey to those places where a critical stage in the hydrological cycle takes place; in the mountains, containing glaciers and pure fresh snow. I went to northern British Columbia and Iceland to capture these images. They are the first landscapes in over thirty years I have taken that focus specifically on pristine wilderness, instead of the imposition of human systems upon it.

I feel this project encompasses some of the most poetic and abstract work of my career. I was seven years old when I discovered my love of making art, while painting landscapes alongside my father who painted as a hobby. I loved the tubes of oil paint and the smell of the linseed oil and the names of their colours: burnt umber, chromium blue, cadmium red. When I was eleven I got my first camera and a complete darkroom. I immediately fell in love with photography and never looked back. However, I never lost my love for painting and have tipped my hat to it a number of times throughout my work. While executing the Water project, I was pleased to see images emerging that referenced some of my favourite painters, including: Caspar David Friedrich, Jean Dubuffet, David Shapiro and Richard Diebenkorn. The aerial perspective that I adopted for this project, as well as its subject matter, allowed those influences to seep into my photographs.

Over the past five years I have learned a few things about water. When disrupted from its natural course there are always winners and losers. The moment water cannot find its own way back to the ocean or be absorbed by the ground, we are changing the landscape. When a stream or river is diverted, all life downstream is affected and remains altered until water returns. Insects, plants, frogs, the salamanders and countless other creatures, including people, have paid an enormous price because of our voracious appetite for water—and what we do to the earth while getting at it.

Human ingenuity and the development of its industries have allowed us to control the Earth's water in ways that were unimaginable even just a century ago. While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding, and very thirsty civilization, we are reshaping the Earth in colossal ways. In this new and powerful role over the planet, we are also capable of engineering our own demise. We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing, while we are doing it. My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival, something we often take for granted—until it's gone.

—Edward Burtynsky