By Jonathan Blaustein | The New York Times, Lens
There were 2.5 billion people in the world when Edward Burtynsky was born in the late 1950s. Now, there are seven billion and counting.
“That’s literally a billion in every decade, so I started recognizing that human enterprise was expanding like a rogue species,” Mr. Burtynsky said during a recent interview at the Carlyle Hotel’s tearoom. “I gave myself the view of the outsider, with the ability to look at the systems we need to employ to support the basic mammalian biomass of seven billion people.”
That initial realization is at the root of his artistic exploration, leading Mr. Burtynsky, a Canadian photographer, to “start looking at what the effect is of that amount of life bearing down on all the existing resources, whether it’s farmland, oceans, fish and all the protein that we get through the animal food chain.” He has spent the last several decades photographing how humans degrade the earth, as they mine, drill, pump and drain in a relentless quest for resources and riches.
“I don’t see myself as a card-carrying activist at all, but I do see myself as an advocate or a concerned citizen for sustainability,” Mr. Burtynsky said. “I see that we’re stretching the boundaries and limits of what we can do in nature, without it starting to bite back. It’s starting to, but I don’t think it’s given us a really bad bite yet.”
His newest project looks at water, the most vital resource we have, and the multiple ways it is employed in the 21st century.
Mr. Burtynsky, who won the TED prize in 2005, was visiting New York for the opening of twin exhibitions at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery. Both shows feature hyper-realistic, large-scale photographs from his new work, “Water.” The exhibits are accompanied by a Steidl monograph, another exhibition curated and presented by the New Orleans Museum of Art (but on view at its Contemporary Art Center), and his first co-directorial documentary film, “Watermark.”
This inquiry began several years ago, while he was chatting with some journalists in Australia. “Some pretty crazy stories were coming back in terms of what was happening to the first continent that’s drying up,” he said. “It was in worse shape than anywhere else, at that point.”
National Geographic contacted him soon thereafter, asking him to participate in a single-themed issue on water. The magazine requested that he focus on California, where he visited places like the Owens Valley, whose water was diverted to spur the growth of nearby Los Angeles.
“It became literally a dust bowl, and it was the dust that was causing them a lot of difficulty,” Mr. Burtynsky said. “It used to be agricultural land, so a lot of fertilizers and pesticides were embedded in the soil. And a lot of selenium, for whatever reason. It was a bowl, so the storms would come in and lift the sand on to towns like Lone Pine. It featured some of the worst, most toxic dust storms in America.” (Yes, that’s the same Lone Pine made famous by Ansel Adams.)
From California, Mr. Burtynsky spread his search out across much of the planet, making photographs in the United States, Mexico, Iceland, Spain, China, the Netherlands, India, England and Canada. He broke the topic down into several categories: distress, control, agriculture, aquaculture and source. It fits his normal working style.
“I like to work in arcs,” he said. “I call them buckets, where I can fit the different ideas.” He chooses the individual subjects for their metaphorical potential, because, given water’s immensity as a subject, “you can’t be encyclopedic or comprehensive. It has to be more poetic and interpretive, but structural.”
Regardless of the photographs’ impact, and the unpleasant realities they reveal, the pictures themselves are undeniably beautiful. Mr. Burtynsky is masterly in his use of aesthetics and in his manipulation of the viewer’s expectations.
“Even though a lot of the pictures are really beautiful to look at, it’s pretty clear that even the beauty you’re looking at is something you intuitively know is not right,” said Russell Lord, who curated the exhibition in New Orleans. “It looks wrong for the surface of the earth.”
Mr. Burtynsky uses art to try to ask questions, open minds and communicate problematic concepts. He acknowledges the difficulty in presenting beautiful pictures that can be misunderstood without the proper context, but insists that the art world is necessary to finance his practice. One photograph in the exhibition at the Howard Greenberg Gallery actually depicts a sewage treatment plant in London.
“I sold a print of that the other day,” he said. “I figure that’s a new high or low for art. I’m not sure.”
“Water” is on view at the Howard Greenberg Gallery and the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, both in Manhattan, through Nov. 2. At the Contemporary Art Center of the New Orleans Museum of Art, the show will be on view through Jan. 19, 2014.
Jonathan Blaustein is an artist and writer based in New Mexico. He contributes regularly to the blog A Photo Editor, and you can follow him – @jblauphoto – and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. Lens is also on Facebook