Depth of Field, volume 6, no 1 (July 2015)

Contesting the ‘natural’ landscape: Edward Burtynsky in Power of Water at FOTODOK space for documentary photography, Utrecht (2014)

Maartje Willemijn Smits

Water is perhaps one of the things that we in the Netherlands tend to take for granted as something that is ensured in its quality, supply, and control. The exhibition Power of Water at FOTODOK in Utrecht, from September 7 to October 10 2014, has explored the importance of the access to and proximity of water with the work of the (inter-) national photographers Kael Alford (USA), Benoit Aquin (CAN), Edward Burtynsky (CAN), Elspeth Diederix (NL), Anne Geene (NL), Marie-José Jongerius (NL), Carl de Keyzer (BE), the Disputed Waters Collective (Johannes Abeling and Ronald de Hommel, among others), Jan Rosseel (BE), Niels Stomps (NL) and Brian Voermans (NL). The exhibition includes examples ranging from contained and regulated Dutch delta waterworks to protecting the country from flooding, to scarce water supplies in Israel, and water mismanagement in China, the latter resulting in the transformation of huge pieces of land into sandy deserts. An artist whose work was central to the exhibition, with the specific aim of initiating the re-thinking of our relation to water within the larger framework of environmentalism, is the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.

With over thirty years of photographic work, Burtynsky – along with Jim Brandenburg and Charlie Waite – is one of the world’s most famous contemporary landscape photographers. His large-format photographs most frequently represent landscapes that have been altered by human activity. Burtynsky refers to these as ‘manufactured landscapes’: vast spaces of mining, shipping, oil production, recycling, quarrying, and manufacturing. His work traces our dependence on nature and the natural resources derived from it, visualizing the discrepancy between ethical environmental concerns and the extent to which we seek to live ‘a good life’. With the book Water (2013), which is part of the exhibition at FOTODOK, Burtynsky explores how the element water has been essential in forming and shaping landscapes around the world. Accordingly, this ‘portrait’ of water is not so much about water itself, but about the complex systems that humans have put in place in order to harness and exploit it.

Taking new heights

Water was a five-year project for which Burtynsky had travelled around the world, resulting in a series of photographs, the photobook, and the documentary Watermark (2013, director J. Baichwal), as well a component of the exhibition. With its 228 pages and a format of 36 x 29 cm, the book Water is a large and bulky object, featuring an expansive selection of photographs and including a preface by the photographer himself, as well as two essays, the first written by Wade Davis and the second by Russell Lord. The photographs in the book are categorized into seven themes: ‘Gulf of Mexico’, ‘Distress’, ‘Control’, ‘Agriculture’, ‘Aquaculture’, ‘Waterfront’, and ‘Source’. Each individual theme explores a specific aspect of humanity’s relation to water. ‘Gulf of Mexico’, which portrays the BP oil spill in 2010, is most directly related to a news event. The other themes investigate water in a less journalistic, less ‘newsworthy’ manner, concerning landscapes that are more difficult to contextualize. ‘Distress’ shows areas where water is scarce, whereas ‘Control’ includes the disturbing large-scale incursions to divert and control the flow of water. ‘Agriculture’ presents images of by far the largest human activity on the planet: the irrigation of farmland for our food supply. ‘Aquaculture’ provides a glimpse of what is increasingly becoming an important source of food, namely the cultivation of the land and sea, rivers and lakes to harvest water-based crops such as rice and seaweed, as well as the farming of aquatic animals such as shrimp, clams and fish. In ‘Waterfront’, Burtynsky depicts manufactured landscapes that convey humanity’s desire and need to be near water, with perhaps the most impressive example being the pilgrimage of 35 million people who journey to bathe in the Ganges River in India. Finally, the theme ‘Source’ turns to the mountains, from which fresh water originates, not yet maintained and regulated.

In his photographs, Burtynsky literally takes his photographic style to new heights: the aerial image. By using man-lifts, small fixed-wing aircrafts, helicopters (both remote and piloted), and a specially designed fifty-foot pneumatic mast with camera mount and fiber-optic remote, the photographer aims for a birds-eye perspective. As such, these images are somewhat akin to an emerging field of ‘drone photography’ (see for example the work of George Barber, Tomas van Houtryve, Trevor Paglen, Rus Turner, Andy Snow, and the Dronestagram project by James Bridle). Many photographs in Water feature a horizon that is either positioned very high or cut off by the upper frame of the photograph: such compositions result in views in which the space is flattened, becoming an almost abstract labyrinth of patterns and shapes, with some being disturbingly geometrical and others (seemingly) organic. The photographs featured in the theme ‘Distress’ visualize spaces that have been compromised in order for other landscapes to exist. The photograph Colorado River Delta #2 shows a view of the Colorado River that has almost completely dried up after the building of a dam, leaving behind the scars of what was once an abundant and vital river, now shrunken like an old tree with its branches slowly dying and disappearing back into the earth. The photograph Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation/Scottsdale, falling under the theme ‘Control’, contrasts both the distress and the control of water in a single image. Running precisely down the middle of the image, a straight road harshly divides the land: on the left side, a completely dried-up landscape; on the right side, we see a city with houses surrounded by green trees and water streams. It is an absurd image that effectively visualizes the disturbing scale on which human systems are controlling water, and how this results in landscapes in which nature – being the vital source of cultural life – has been exploited, then cut off, and subsequently left to the wayside. With the book’s concluding theme ‘Source’, Burtynsky turns his focus – for the first time in thirty years – not to the way in which human systems are imposed on the earth, but rather to the pristine landscapes of the hydrological cycle: mountains with glaciers and snow. Photographs such as Mount Edziza Provincial Park #1, depicting impressive untouched mountain landscapes, are a clear reference to the work of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich, Jean Dubuffet, David Shapiro, and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as landscape photographers of the nineteenth century, such as Carleton E. Watkins, William Bell, and Timothy O’Sullivan.

By ‘returning’ us to the source in the final chapter of his book, Burtynsky forces the viewer to confront his own ethical position with regards to the origins of water. After having seen the impressive manufactured landscapes that humans have created – whether intentionally or not, whether damaging or enriching – he takes us back to landscapes that are as yet untouched, but most certainly already under threat.

Contesting genres and conceptions

What makes Burtynsky’s oeuvre so valuable is its extreme richness, the complexity of the issues it addresses, and the affective responses it evokes. With Water, the photographer demands that the viewer undertake a serious reconsideration and reconfiguration of water’s multiple roles as a victim, an aggressor, a source of life, and a threat. Through photography – a medium that has been associated with notions of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ throughout history[1] – Burtynsky provides the ‘visible evidence’ to draw attention to the material reality of water landscape and environmental changes[2]: the viewer is obliged to decipher and decode this evidence. The aerial view results in an image that wavers between a watercolor painting and a photograph, and thus forces the viewer to engage more actively in what is pictured. As Russell Lord explains in his introductory essay to Burtynsky’s book: “They demand close and steady study as sequences, just to recognize them as landscapes, or even, as photographs.”[3] The aerial perspective confronts us with large flat surfaces that are incredibly detailed, thereby drawing the viewer to the materiality of the surface, i.e. the texture of the photograph. Lord argues that the photographs, in this sense, obliterate any notion of being a window on the world (as photography is often considered), but instead draw one’s attention to the ‘photographicness’ of the photograph. The viewer has to put himself into the photograph in order to understand its language. The abstraction, flatness and formlessness of the landscapes forces a new way of looking, as the photographs challenge one to make sense of what he is seeing.

Within the broader debate on environmentalism, Burtynsky’s work is exemplary in two ways. It engages the audience in questions concerning humanity’s relationship with the environment. At the same time, it pushes toward alternative frameworks of thinking that are sustainable for both nature and culture. As Wade Davis explains in his essay in Burtynsky’s book: “Despite the years of growing environmental concern, we still view the natural world essentially as a commodity, a raw resource to be consumed at our whim.”[4] The photographs in Water challenge the traditional genre of the horizontal landscape, and consequently, invoke questions not only in respect to our relationship with water, but also to the artistic landscape genre itself. The landscape as a concept and representation, as we understand it today, emerged in the seventeenth century and is derived from the later Western art historical tradition of the pictorial landscape, with exemplary works by Caspar David Friedrich, William Turner, and Claude Monet.[5] The well-known nineteenth-century Romantic paintings of pristine landscapes, in which the human figure is dwarfed and overwhelmed, have clearly served as inspirational sources for Burtynsky. Yet, the aerial perspective that he chose for Water contests these horizontal views and makes the concept of the landscape both more flat and more diffuse. Furthermore, not only does Burtynsky’s work challenge the traditional confines of a pictorial landscape, it also questions the notion of landscape as ‘natural’. The artist demonstrates that nature is not something untouched and ‘out there’, but in fact pre-designed, manufactured, and altered. Burtynsky’s work therefore problematizes the rigid binary between nature and culture. As a result, to think of nature as something that is not separate from us, but something in fact deeply interconnected with our daily practices, demands a conceptual shift. The book Water is therefore of interest to every inhabitant of the Anthropocene – the new geological epoch in history marked by the dominating influence of humanity over the earth.[6] The photography of Edward Burtynsky, with its aerial view of manufactured landscapes, is exemplary in helping us to obtain large-scale perspectives on the actual conditions of the Anthropocene. Its immense weight lies in problematizing the classical distinction between nature and culture, and consequently, in raising questions of sustainability that have today become unavoidable.


Maartje Willemijn Smits is a graduate of the Research Master Gender & Ethnicity at Utrecht University. She has written her thesis on the landscape photography of Edward Burtynsky. She obtained her Bachelor in Cultural Studies at the Radboud University Nijmegen, and has studied documentary photography and film at the AKV/St. Joost art academy in Breda.


1. Barthes 1981; Sontag 1971.

2. Brown 2014; Peeples 2011.

3. Lord, ‘Into the Deep’, in: 2013, pp. 186-189: 186.

4. Davis, ‘Water Notes’, in: Burtynsky, pp. 20-25: 25.

5. Lefebvre 2006; Lefebvre 2011; Mitchell 2002.

6. Steffen et al. 2011.