By Jonathan Keats | Forbes
As a student at Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in the '80s, Edward Burtynsky got the assignment of a lifetime. "Go out and photograph evidence of man," his instructor told him. Reflecting on the experience in a magazine interview thirty years later, Burtynsky observed that the task gave him "the license to be an alien within my own culture."
Over those three decades, Burtynsky has construed his culture ever more broadly, traveling to dozens of countries with his camera, observing the boundless ways in which humans alter their environment. With his spectacular large-format color photography, he has surveyed quarries and tailings, and examined the impact of oil from the wells of Azerbaijan to the freeways of Los Angeles to the seaside shipbreaking facilities in Bangladesh. However his latest project, currently on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art, is arguably the most challenging from the standpoint of seeing the world as an alien, because his subject is the very essence of human existence: Over the past five years, he has photographed water.
The theme is beguilingly, exasperatingly broad. There are pictures of dams in China, housing developments in Arizona, phosphorous mines in Florida, the Ganges in India. He has photographed a geothermal power station in Mexico and dryland farms in Spain. There are reservoirs, dikes, wetlands, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In this profusion of images, his topic is elusive – as perhaps it should be. Water is all around us, and within us too, so ubiquitous that it becomes invisible until its absence is noticed.
As climate change makes rainfall increasingly erratic, and industry drains aquifers and poisons wells, water's absence is being felt (and written about in books such as David L. Sedlak's formidable new Water 4.0). But encounters with water's troubled future is still mostly local. Burtynsky's sprawling photo essay brings together a multiplicity of locales, presenting a world of evidence that each viewer must personally navigate.