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Book Review: Water


Book Review Water By Edward Burtynsky Reviewed by Blake Andrews Edward Burtynsky has never been one to dabble in small gestures. Whether the subject is oil, China, or mining, his focus is on large-scale processes. And his technical practices go hand in hand. He uses large format equipment to produce wall-size prints. His books are dense. In the words of Geoff Dyer, Burtynsky "is as close to stadium rock as a landscape photographer is likely to get."

Water. By Edward Burtynsky.
Steidl, 2013.
 
Water
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Water
By Edward Burtynsky

$128.00
Steidl, 2013. 228 pp., 114 color photographs, 14¼x11½". 


Edward Burtynsky has never been one to dabble in small gestures. Whether the subject is oil, China, or mining, his focus is on large-scale processes. And his technical practices go hand in hand. He uses large format equipment to produce wall-size prints. His books are dense. In the words of Geoff Dyer, Burtynsky "is as close to stadium rock as a landscape photographer is likely to get."

His recent book Water is no exception. Everything about it is outsized. At 15 inches wide and weighing more than 6 pounds, you'll need both hands to maneuver the pages, and probably a lap pad too. Then there's the concept itself. One could hardly choose a more universal subject. Sunshine? Love? Plants? Those subjects will have to wait. For now the subject is the source of all life, "the reason we can say its name," in the words of the introduction. Water. Where does one even start?

Water. By Edward BurtynskySteidl, 2013.

Burtynsky's frame of reference has generally been from a socially conscious perspective, and that's the structure of his attack here. The photos are regimented into categories with titles based on human impact: Distress, Control, Agriculture, Aquaculture, Waterfront, Sources. In other words, this isn't a book of picturesque waterfalls (although it contains a few). It's a human-interest story. As with his past work, Burtynsky isn't shy about putting a political message into his work. Water is a limited resource. Water is often polluted. Water suffers from overpopulation pressure. Water is often taken for granted and managed in convoluted ways. Burtynsky explores all of these themes and more, over and over, from every conceivable angle, but mostly from above.

Water. By Edward BurtynskySteidl, 2013.
Water. By Edward BurtynskySteidl, 2013.

One criticism of Burtynsky's work is that it's too political. Most thinking people realize that environmental problems threaten civilization, and most of the photo world operates from a post-fall perspective. So looking at photographs of environmental destruction feels a bit like being lectured to. And worse, about an issue that's already been decided, like the Copernican Revolution or Women's Suffrage. OK, it's the 21st Century. Those movements have penetrated by now. We get them. And if we don't, can a photograph change anyone's mind or motivate anyone to action? I'm not sure. Burtysnky thinks so.

Water. By Edward BurtynskySteidl, 2013.

Fortunately Water works not just a political level but also an aesthetic one. "I feel this project encompasses some of the most poetic and abstract work of my career," says Burtynsky in the introduction, and he's right. As in past projects, Burtynsky is fond of elevated views and the abstraction they sometimes impose. The majority of photos here are shot from above, sometimes from cranes and more often from aircrafts. Many of the aerial lake and agriculture photos in Water would give David Maisel or Emmet Gowin a run for their aesthetic money. They're beguiling as pure formal studies, and I think would be hard to identify if not included in a book called Water. These photographs are balanced by the broad body of the project made from more recognizable perspectives. Whatever the viewpoint, Burtynsky's vision is generally broad, inclusive, and foundational. Small gestures play a role, but only to the extent they're swept up in grand ones.

Water. By Edward BurtynskySteidl, 2013.

The book is a museum catalog of sorts, published in conjunction with the show Water which just ended at the New Orleans Museum of Art. I haven't seen the show so it's difficult to compare. But I'm guessing it was large and overwhelming. The book follows suit. It is 228 pages and printed beautifully. It's probably the closest a book can come to a museum experience, but without the same spatial limitations. The book shows many more photos than were exhibited. —BLAKE ANDREWS


BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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