Water, Water Everywhere: Edward Burtynsky at the Cleveland Museum of Art
In 1858 the French photographer Nadar did the unthinkable – using a hot air balloon, he took a camera up above Paris and shot the very first aerial photographs. Photography itself was only a few years old, and already someone was attempting to capture images of the world from high above. Anyone that has ever flown in an airplane has seen that same intoxicating “bird’s eye view” – so it’s perhaps not surprising that photographers would try to capture that beauty on film as soon as they had the chance.
Edward Burtynsky (Canadian, born 1955) is also an aerial photographer, but with a very specific, contemporary point of view. His intentions are more than aesthetic. Using drones, construction lifts, small planes, helicopters, and a specially designed 50-foot pneumatic mast topped by a remotely operated camera, Burtynsky spent five years documenting the ways in which the hand of humankind has touched, changed, or damaged our most precious natural resource – water. His exhibition titled simply Water, currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Mark Schwartz and Bettina Katz Photography Gallery, is part of the citywide Cuyahoga50 festival celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River Fire of 1969, and the strides taken to bring our river back to life (also included is the CMA exhibition Cai Guo-Qiang: Cuyahoga River Lightning, which you can read about in the CAN Journal right here).
Burtynsky’s photographs focus on the social and ecological impact that humanity has wielded on water in its various forms in locations across the world, from Spain to China to Arizona. Water management and conservation is obviously a global issue, with potentially disastrous consequences, and Burtynsky’s hauntingly beautiful, large-scale photographs each show a different aspect of this quandary, from dried up lakes to polluted oceans and oil spills.
And while each of these photos are compelling environmental statements about humanity’s fraught relationship with water, for me they are more successful as discrete works of fine art, quietly co-opting the traditions and conventions of other art forms – such as painting and printmaking. This is emphasized by the photographer’s very careful and deliberate compositional choices, cropping, and formal decisions. When you enter the room, the first thing you are struck by is the aesthetic beauty of the prints themselves, which is certainly aided by the curatorial decision to omit wall labels – the large photographs hang without explanation on the white walls, as if untitled works of abstract art (there are adjacent wall panels with information, as well as a glossy brochure that is incredibly useful).
In addition to the lack of labels, the painterly texture of the photos themselves increases the aesthetic focus of the exhibition. All the works are flush-mounted digital chromogenic prints with a quality so high that the surface of the photos is extremely lush and detailed. Each print invites the viewer to approach it closely to investigate the dizzying amount of detail. Very like his contemporary, the photographer Andreas Gursky, whose large-scale architectural photos similarly utilize scale and impressive technique to lure the viewer in – Burtynsky’s photographs encourage both close-looking and distant contemplation, but his photographic surfaces have an artistic, painterly quality that Gursky’s crisp, almost scientific works lack. Indeed, when very, very close, some parts of Burtynsky’s prints could be mistaken for paintings.
In addition to a nearly painterly surface, Burtynsky’s photographs utilize compositional techniques that echo artistic precedent – the point of view and cropping of some are reminiscent of Japanese Ukiyo-e landscapes. These Japanese woodblock prints were incredibly influential to Western artists in the late nineteenth century, as they embraced a similarly radical sense of perspective, and complex edge-to-edge compositions. Burtynsky’s photographs are all very meticulously composed, using many of these conventions.
The large diptych Rice Terraces #3a-b, Western Yunnan Province, China unfolds dramatically across the wall very like a Japanese Screen Painting (byōbu). Folding screens actually originated in China, but came to prominence in Japan in the 17th and 18th centuries. These hinged, multi-panel room dividers became the perfect vehicle for artistic expression – and the resulting compositions are also predominantly edge-to-edge with interesting viewpoints.
There is a dazzling beauty to the flowing cascade of rice terraces across the composition, almost like waves on a sea of rolling hills. While it appears to have been shot from a helicopter, Burtynsky was actually able to get this perspective from a nearby hillside – showing that he very intentionally cropped the view to create this composition, devoid of sky or other visual impediments.
The other large horizontal photo in the exhibition has a very different compositional and visual approach – Pivot Irrigation #7, High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA is shot from directly above and cropped to present the circles on the fields in a perfectly balanced form. The emphasis on geometric stability and balance is much more modern in approach – like the work of twentieth-century minimalist Sol LeWitt or Jasper John’s target paintings.
But the most painterly photograph in the exhibition by far is Xiaolangdi Dam #3, Yellow River, Henan Province, China. The incredible resemblance to the paintings of J.M.W. Turner literally made me pause in front of it.
Within the swirling waves and mist you can barely make out a metal walkway, the only hint to a man-made location – otherwise the maelstrom could be a ferocious storm out at sea, or inside the blowing squalls of a snowstorm.
Like Turner’s paintings, Burtynsky’s photo captures the powerful ferocity of nature in all its sublime majesty. Far more atmospheric than the other photographs on view, this shot is all sound and fury, with a high emotional tenor – and the surface of the photo itself is the most painterly of all, the misty swirls taking on the look of brushstrokes at close range. It’s a stunning work of art.
My sole critique of the exhibition is that I’m not sure these images “seamlessly intertwine documentation with artistic virtuosity” as the exhibition brochure suggests (and by “documentation” I believe they mean Burtynsky’s intent to stimulate discourse about water and the conservation of natural resources). The strong attention paid by the artist to compositional beauty and formal qualities, for this viewer, stifles the environmental message to a degree, but I’m not sure that’s necessarily a bad thing. For some, the artistry of the photographs might be what pulls them in, and gets them to engage the climate concerns presented. If you want to learn more about the ecological issues Burtynsky is addressing, make sure you grab one of the brochures at either end of the gallery. There is a paragraph explaining each site and the environmental situation at hand.
And I also suggest looking at the catalogue (there is a gallery copy on the bench, or check it out in the gift shop, or buy it if you can). Take a quick look and you can see that this show is just a tiny sample of the hundreds of images of water Burtynsky has taken over the years. Inside you’ll find breathtaking views of icy rivers in Iceland, dizzying M.C. Esher-like stepwells in India, and many more views of pivot irrigation and oil spills that had me sitting in the gallery paging through the book wanting more.