Here is the Gulf of Mexico, from above: in one image, silver water torn and separated like gauze over midnight blue ocean; in another, seagreen and aquaramine pools shot through with a nervework of mud-brown and iridescent rainbows. They are striking, disorienting, and magnificent photographs—so much that you might not immediately understand what it is you’re seeing. But the more you study the images in Edward Burtynsky’s Water series, the more you begin to sense that something is wrong. The impulse is to look away, but you can’t look away.
The images are often beautiful even when what they depict is not. Most of the photographs in this body of work present us with human transformations of nature, sometimes in ways that are environmentally degrading and almost always in ways that are resource depleting. So, for example, upon viewing photographs of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we recognize both that the image is somehow arresting, and also that it is terrible to see—especially if we are aware of the implied damage beyond the borders of the picture. Most of us are probably used to nature photography that is beautiful, true, and good. It depicts plants, wildlife, and natural landscapes, and seems to offer implicit instruction on how to perceive and appreciate them. The images in Burtynsky’s Water series, however, evoke confusion, anxiety, even rage.
While Burtynsky does not identify as an activist, we may be tempted to see his work as such. What else could possibly be the point of such photographs—of a distant, aerial eye bearing witness on the destructive human impact on planet Earth’s water systems? Just look at what you’ve done, this distant, omniscient viewer seems to say. So we may immediately want to see the work as environmentalist, and may subsequently feel overwhelmed, uncomfortable, and unable to respond in a way that feels appropriate. We want to take a side, to push back or yield, but it isn’t clear what taking a side would mean—is one’s taking a side for or against the photograph? For or against what the photograph is depicting? For or against the photographer? What if, alternatively, we find a landscape rendered unrecognizably strange by center-pivot irrigation to be in some way appealing? What if we see these photographs as abstract art rather than nature photography? Would we have missed something? Perhaps we could excuse ourselves by acknowledging the commonplace presence of center-pivot irrigation and our dependence on this technology for food and sustenance. Burtynsky’s images are strange but not, in a key sense, unnatural.