As a student some 40 years ago Edward Burtynsky was given an assignment to show “evidence of Man.” He took the assignment so much to heart, he made it his life’s work. He wondered what it would be like to be an alien sent to Earth to report on what its alpha species was doing to transform its own pristine habitat.
In the immersive photographic journeys he has taken since, Burtynsky has captured the world’s largest stone quarries, river-polluting tanneries, industrial behemoths in China, vast agricultural zones that are either withering or quenched on most of the planet’s water, boundless oil fields, the deepest wells in India, and colossal ships that are being dismantled for iron. His large-scale, technically masterful images usually contain multiple tensions: entropy versus elaborately ordered systems, sublime beauty versus tragic despoliation (artistic value versus moral outrage), and immensity of scale versus the pathos of humans seen close up and victimized by growth and greed. He manages to keep his work just objective enough so that it may stimulate dialogue, a Rorshach of viewers’ positions — “just as easily seen as the cover of a corporate annual report as a poster for Greenpeace.”
Through Burtynsky’s lens you can see the onrushing future of mankind, and although he finds visual allure in a natural world that’s in acute distress (quarry facets that yield Cubist masterpieces), his body of work overall is an eloquent lamentation. Perhaps inevitably, given the momentum and urgency of his mission, he has ventured into film with director Jennifer Baichwal. Eight years ago they released Manufactured Landscapes, and this year marks their return in the film Watermark. Threading 20 ravishing vignettes of “how we shape water, and how water shapes us” into a disheartening revelation of what fools we mortals be, Watermark animates Burtynsky’s photographs in a spectacle that is more music than word. It is more potent and universal by, as he puts it, letting the images carry the weight.
His most recent photographs about water are on view this week at Paris Photo LA, and Watermark is now screening across the US.
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