Research: Edward Burtynsky – Water

During my research, I came across a contextual relevant body of photographic work by Edward Burtynsky.

My previous knowledge of Burtynsky’s creative work is through his large scale landscape images of architecture, industry and geology. There is often very modern, realist visual approach throughout his images, often following land’s transformation from natural to man-made.

During my earlier stages of photography at college, I often looked Burtynsky as an example of a contemporary photographer whose practice I could aspire towards, often fulfilling a sense of awe and place that few others have achieved within a field of the landscape romantics and technical panoramas. This does not mean to suggest I lack respect for this approach, as it is something that also forms part of my creative interests, however, his approach often filled a largely under-appreciated documentary approach to land, that has growth massively since its early origins in the 1970’s & 1980’s.

What I have often found appealing about his work, the richness of colour and contrast, usually representing bare earthly colours such as oranges, yellows and browns. His vision doesn’t not generally seek to find places of natural purity and tranquillity but to document land in the stages of transformation or change.

Exploring the Residual Landscape

Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work. I set course to intersect with a contemporary view of the great ages of man; from stone, to minerals, oil, transportation, silicon, and so on. To make these ideas visible I search for subjects that are rich in detail and scale yet open in their meaning. Recycling yards, mine tailings, quarries and refineries are all places that are outside of our normal experience, yet we partake of their output on a daily basis.

These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

Edward Burtynsky

In reflection of his own practice, Burtynsky discusses a dialogue of ideas that I find a great deal of creative inspiration from. We as humans feel compelled to keep grow, develop and consume through our reliance upon natural resources regardless of the repercussions that resound within nature.  Again, we meet this conflict that distinguishes man and nature, driven by a desire for economic growth and an obligation to preserve what is lost throughout this process.

I have highlighted various previous bodies of work upon Burtynsky’s site that I found to be inspirational within my own interests in landscape photography.


Uranium Tailings #5
Elliot Lake, Ontario 1995
Nickel Tailings #31
Sudbury, Ontario 1996
Nickel Tailings #30
Sudbury, Ontario 1996
Uranium Tailings #12
Elliot Lake, Ontario 1995
Rock of Ages #1
Active Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, USA, 1991
Rock of Ages #7
Active Section, E.L. Smith Quarry, Barre, Vermont, USA, 1991
Rock of Ages #33
Abandoned Section, Rock of Ages Quarry, Vermont, USA, 1991
Carrara Marble Quarries # 24 & 25
Carrara, Italy, 1993
Iberia Quarries #2
Marmorose EFA Co., Bencatel, Portugal, 2006
Mines #22
Kennecott Copper Mine, Bingham Valley, Utah 1983
Mines #13
Inco – Abandoned Mine Shaft Crean Hill Mine, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, 1984
Silver Lake Operations #1
Lake Lefroy, Western Australia, 2007
Tailings #1
Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, 2007

His latest project offers a slightly different aesthetic in regards to colour and follows many of the core aspects I want to encapsulate within my own work but upon a much larger scale, offering an incredibly detailed and grand point of view. I found an article relating to this in design boom, an architecture, art and design publication.

edward burtynsky water photography

xiaolangdi dam #1, 2011
yellow river, henan province, china
chromogenic print
image courtesy of edward burtynsky/nicholas metivier gallery

edward burtynsky: water
nicholas metivier gallery, toronto
september 5 – october 12, 2013

beginning september 5th, 2013, canadian photographer edward burtynsky will be presenting a series of images titled ‘water’ at nicholas metivier gallery in toronto. throughout the body of work, burtynsky personifies water, exposing its vulnerability, capability, and power. juxtaposing these visuals, in other images from the set, is the complete absence of water, focusing instead on the consequence of its deficiency. each shot carries the viewer through a complex sojourn — encompassed in rugged landscapes, complex patterns formed by icy rivers, and thick swarms of bathers flocking to the sea. the project documents the world’s water supplies, spotlighting the burden that manufacturing and consumption bear on earth’s natural resources.

‘water’ will include large-format photographs and moving film, and will be accompanied by burtynsky’s fifth book, ‘burtynsky – water’. below is the trailer for ‘watermark’, what will be a feature-length documentary, co-directed by jennifer baichwal and edward burtynsky, that will be released by mongrel media in canada in fall of 2013:

the series is factioned into groups, articulating water’s role in each image. burtynsky spotlights agriculture, as one category, which represents the largest human activity upon the planet — approximately seventy percent of all fresh water under our control is dedicated to agricultural activity. the images presented of dryland farming in rural spain and pivot irrigation in the suburbs of arizona, chronicle the fascinating effects of human interaction with nature. the photos that make up ‘water’ were shot in ten different countries. burtynsky approached each landscape from a unique perspective. for his captures, he used helicopters, both actual and remote controlled, and small aircrafts, ascending into the air to achieve a powerful sense of scale and space.

marine aquaculture #1, 2012
luoyuan bay, fujian province, china
image courtesy of edward burtynsky

veronawalk, 2012
naples, florida, USA
image courtesy of edward burtynsky

greenhouses, 2010
almira peninsula, spain
chromogenic print
image courtesy of edward burtynsky/nicholas metivier gallery

dryland farming #2, 2010
monegros county, aragon, spain
chromogenic print
image courtesy of edward burtynsky/nicholas metivier gallery

thjorsa river #1, 2012
chromogenic print
image courtesy of edward burtynsky/nicholas metivier gallery

navajo reservation / suburb, 2011
phoenix, arizona, USA
chromogenic print
image courtesy of edward burtynsky/nicholas metivier gallery

pivot irrigation, 2011
suburb, south of yuma, arizona, USA
image courtesy of edward burtynsky

I also referred to his official site for further clarity upon the range of images involved within this project, all of which are intensely distinctive and beautiful in their representation of their focused subject matter. Burtynsky goes to great lengths to offer us a perspective of the earth’s water sources unlike anything I’ve seen before, merging a sense of grandeur and forewarning with his intentions. With this, we gain a greater idea of the sheer extent of water, its geographical attributes and significance, its usage and transformation through industry and agriculture, its consumption and interaction with various life forms, as well as the scale of demand placed upon it.

Oil Spill #1
REM Forza, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010
Oil Spill #5
Q4000 Drilling Platform, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
Oil Spill #10
Oil Slick at Rip Tide, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
Oil Spill #15
Submerged Pipeline, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
Alberta Oil Sands #14
Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007
Owens Lake #1
California, USA, 2009
Phosphor Tailings Ponds #3
Polk County, Florida, USA, 2012
Phosphor Tailings Pond #2
Polk County, Florida, USA, 2012
Polders, Grootschermer
The Netherlands, 2011
Salinas #2
Cádiz, Spain, 2013
Benidorm #1
Spain, 2010
I have found this area of research to be very helpful in gaining contextual and aesthetic insight into a respected landscape practitioner and topically relevant project.
I will continue my research.

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