For three decades, Edward Burtynsky has been taking a unique view of conservation photography. His large-scale photographs depict the complex and often dysfunctional ways in which we interact with our environment.
His latest project, “Water” is currently available as a book and an app, and is being shown in several galleries, including the Howard Greenberg Gallery in NYC until November 2, 2013. There’s also a film entitled, “Watermark” as a companion to the photographs.
How did the Water project get its start?
It started when I was doing another shoot, finishing up Oil. I was doing some mining work in Australia and I got a first hand look at the severity of the drought there. I was quite taken by what was happening. I saw it as a pre-cursor for what the future may hold for even the American southwest. These areas are starting to be affected by climate change.
Was there a specific assignment to go along with the project?
I got a call in 2008 from National Geographic. They asked if I’d be interested in doing a project on California and water. It sounded really interesting so I said OK, because I had been thinking about it myself anyway. I got a chance to work with them and their research departments for about a year. I used California as kind of a test case.
What made California such a good jumping off point?
Here was a population of 38 million people. A small percentage of the water is from the state itself and the largest percentage of it is brought in from the seven surrounding states. It’s kind of a negotiated landscape in terms of a lot of California’s desert. A lot of the farms and things are all as a result of terraforming that landscape using other watersheds. That really helped me start to get my head around a project as vast as Water.
How long were you there?
I did about 10 weeks of shooting in California during the spring and summer of 2009. Then they released the article in 2010. I was well on my way. I was going past California into other things. Using that as my base, I built on the idea, eventually getting to the book.
Research is clearly a crucial piece of your work. What is that process typically like?
I cast about and do my own research. I talk to experts in the field and try to understand the issues that experts feel are the relevant ones — the ones we should be paying attention to. I usually have one assistant that works largely with North America, and another that works mostly in Europe. Then, I also have some help in Asia as well because India and Asia are different jurisdictions with a lot of stuff going on. It’s nice to have somebody with boots on the ground there who knows how to navigate those countries.
How does the research legwork fit in with the actual shooting?
Research is really the core of the heavy lifting in figuring out where the subject lay that makes sense within the potential arc of something like Water. Then, trying to find something that’s both visual and carries with it a narrative or a consequence. If you’re doing something like Water, why this? Why here? To answer those questions. How do you go from the general idea of water to a specific place. What does that place represent? Obviously you can’t represent the whole place, but you try to represent what’s going on on a larger scale.
Has your process changed much over the course of your career?
I still use the guiding principle I’ve used for 30 years, which is looking at the particular large scale and highly-consequential landscapes that are being developed in pursuit of water. I did the same thing for Oil and the same thing for Mining. What are we doing as a species? It’s about scale. Of course that takes me to China every time [laughs]. It seems I can’t avoid that one.
It’s taken me to India where they have the Kumbh Mela festival where they have thousands of pilgrims traveling to a specific area. Just being there with those three million people there on that day was pretty wild. It marks the greatest human pilgrimage. During that whole month, 100 million people go through it. But on that one day, it’s the entire population of Canada all there at one time.
Do nerves come into play when shooting in a situation like that? Several people have died during that festival, right?
You take the whole population of Canada — give or take a few million — how many people are born and die on any given day in Canada [laughs]? With that many people, the biggest concern is always people stampeding or something collapsing, like a bridge. They lost about 35 people near the train station when a makeshift bridge collapsed in a crowd. That was the only incident.
It’s terrible to happen, but if we had any event with 30 million people, there would probably be that many shot, let alone an accident. It’s remarkable the lack of violence. I never felt threatened in that crowd. They’re all there for a spiritual reason — to cleanse their sins. Everybody is happy to be there so to speak. They appreciate the opportunity to realize their pilgrimage.
Some interpretations of your work have made them politically controversial. Have you received any push back from governments or corporations or anyone like that about the work you do? Has anyone ever tried to stop you?
Not really, no. I’ve never had anybody try to obstruct the work that I’m doing. In fact, I think my relationship with China and India have improved over a decade. I think they appreciate that I possess a certain skill as a photographer. I think they also appreciate that the photographs I make are open to interpretation.
In the very beginning, when I was talking to China and beginning to get involved with foreign affairs, I said, China is undergoing an industrial revolution. It has transferred from North America to China as the manufacturer for the world. You could choose to have it documented poorly or maybe even not at all. Or, you can allow someone with the skill set to go in there and make these iconographic images of this moment in your history that is currently unfolding.
They understand how complex the issues are.
That’s a bit surprising to me.
They understand that there are good things happening as a result of it. People are being employed. But, they also understand that the environment is being hammered. They’re not naive to that. I’ve been very honest with them and they’re not that restrictive with me. I put the work out there without indictment attached to it. I think it’s too simplistic to say that what they’re doing is “bad.” I think there’s a whole range of interpretations one could say.
In a way, it’s bringing a whole huge population out of poverty and creating a massive middle class, which, at the end of the day, allows them to eat better and get educated. Poverty is never healthy. Once people fine affluence, it immediately begins to control populations. So, one could argue that the faster a population becomes affluent, the faster it will begin to stabilize if we can get there before other problems occur.
In the past, you’ve been very open about presenting photographs and allowing the viewer to provide their own context and judgment. Seems like that’s definitely still the case.
I think rather than present it as a polemic between right and wrong, I like the open ended nature that allows these photos to become discussion points. They’re points of departure. You can get people into the conversation from both sides of the equation. Whether you’re from the corporate side or the government side or the concerned citizen side. Each has its own issues it has to deal with.
At the end of the day, if you’re a corporate employee, or a manager, we’re all citizens. We all have to live and inhabit this place. The environment is something we should all have a common interest in making sure that we don’t despoil or reduce the possibilities of life by not managing the resources that are there properly. how do we get everybody to the table.
Is it frustrating to you to see the back-and-forth dialog that’s been happening in recent years about environmental matters?
The environmental conversation has kind of failed in that it has become a rock throwing contest. it’s really hard to win against the guys who have all the money. They can out market and out campaign and out advertise a small environmental group any time of the day it seems. Getting this message out needs another strategy besides pointing a finger or saying “cease and desist.”
Are we saying that we don’t want a mine to bring copper or iron into the world? What are the options? If the discussion is going to get real and we’re going to figure out how we can do these things in a safer way, we need to create an even playing field so any corporation engaged in the removal of minerals or growing our food needs to follow some parameters. That means government policy needs to come into play and citizen’s groups can try to keep everyone honest. There are different ways to solve these problems, but the current climate of “us vs. them” is not working.
You’ve dedicated much of your career to the idea of conservation photography. How has that landscape changed over the years? Is it still a viable pursuit for a photography just entering the field?
It has certainly taken me a long time to get here. I’ve been at this for over 30 years. It’s not by any means an overnight success and no one should expect it to be. It helps I finance it by selling prints of my work. I think it’s a strategy that has worked for me and I’ve seen other artists successfully managing to do it. Generally, though, I think these kinds of larger scale projects are interesting because there is a narrative tread that goes through all the work. You can look at 30 years of my work and you can see that it’s largely about ever-expanding human systems imposed on a landscape. Everything is coming from that place.
What is it that draws you to these massive, multi-year projects?
That’s just the way I work. Other people prefer more discreet projects. One day they’ll be doing portraits and the next they’ll move onto landscapes. Not every artist works this way. I just decided 30 years ago I decided I like building a large body of work that is all interconnected. The topics were big and broad enough to keep me busy for a couple lifetimes.
Your works is definitely very recognizable. That’s getting tougher to do in a time when the average person sees such a huge number of photographs on any given day.
It’s a signature. In a world with a plethora of photographs, can a photograph have a signature of an author on it? That’s the tricky bit. A big part of it is consistently pounding away on the same thing for a long time and finding new ways to expand the same idea.
Is Water done now? Or will you continue to work on it? What’s next?
There has been five years of intense work. There’s a film that goes with the book. I’m going to probably spend a little bit of time looking at the options out there. There are a lot of things piquing my interest, but with the build up of co-directing a film, and the book, and the exhibitions, it hasn’t given me a lot of time to sit back and decide where I want to go next. So, even as an artist, I think I’m going to take a bit of a sabbatical to regenerate some ideas and thoughts rather than just jump into the next thing right away. I pretty much jumped right out of the Oil project and into the Water one, so I figure I owe myself a few months to just read and enjoy some of the fruits of the labor and figure out where I want to go next.
The Water project made use of a lot of new camera technology, especially drones. Has technology drastically changed the way you work?
It has. I think this project would have been basically impossible without all the technology I’ve been able to muster. In a way, the idea and the technology and the point in my career where I’ve been able to engage and mobilize that stuff have all come together. I’m working with top digital cameras and choppers and gyros. And then in the film I’m working with the Cineflex camera and the remote helicopters with a Red Epic on it and being able to fly that in places where there’s no access to air space like China. We didn’t bring it into India, but we did use it quite a bit in China.
What prompted you to start making films along with your photographs?
I’ve always loved film. I took it when I was in university back in ’76 and I always figured I’d one day circle back around to it. Here I am.
As an artist, I’m always interested in going to someplace where I’m not as familiar or comfortable with what I’m engaged with. I like to be just a little outside the realm of my expertise and going into film certainly fit that bill. In a way, it makes you feel like you’re pushing your creative envelope. You’re going a little bit further than where your comfort zone might be. When I’m doing that, I feel like that’s when I’m learning and growing. I want to find new ways of extending the scope of ideas I’ve been working with for a long time.
Do you think it’s a natural progression for photographers now, especially with the technology converging so heavily?
For me, it’s natural. As a photographer, all this stuff is the same. Video has gotten very intuitive and easy to run. It’s not really easy, but somebody who has been working with lenses and cameras all their lives, it’s conceptually the same. You have to add a few more things to it, but things like depth of field, light, exposure, framing, they all remain constant. You know how to compose and where the light is evocative. They’re all great lessons to have from being a photographer before you ever pick up a cinema camera.
Still photographers tend to create great film because they know what a great frame is. This is just extending those frames 24 per second. If you’re making compelling images as a still photographer, you can probably figure out how to animate them and bring them to life. It’s a natural extension. It’s far more natural than if I wanted to start painting abstracts or something like that [laughs]. My chances of making a big career move that way would be tough.
So, we shouldn’t expect an exhibition of watercolors or oil paintings by Burtynsky in the future?
Not any time soon [laughs]
The mandatory question for 2013: How do you feel about Instagram?
I pop on it once in a while, but I don’t extend my own work through that. Everything that I’ve seen, people really like it. It really is extending the power of imagery. With the image, we so rely on images for informing us today and this is a very quick way to get something — to understand something. It’s more universal than even text. If you don’t speak a language, you can be kept out of that dialog. Pictures transcend as a universal language and I see Instagram as a growing thing.
Have you considered joining and posting work to it?
In social media, I just don’t have the time. I can barely get back to my emails let alone Twittering and Instagramming. I find most of how I get in front of people is by doing things like this and talking to the media. I just haven’t gotten around to it. I’ve found that a lot of art photographers just haven’t gone down that road. Whether it’s a fear of demystifying their process or whatever, but a lot of artists haven’t. A lot of commercial photographers have, but not as many artists.
I had an assistant look around because everyone said, “Oh, you’re going into film, you’ve got to become social media savvy. You’ve got to Twitter everything you do.” And I looked around and thought, “Really? I have to?” I looked around and decided not this time around anyway. Probably next time I’ll have to rethink it. But, for right now, I’m still old fashioned.