Yesterday I had the good fortune to go and see an exhibition by the landscape luminary Edward Burtynsky. He is possibly best known, thus far, for his Tailings series featuring the ‘nickel tailings’ photographs which show the extraordinary oranges of oxidised rivers against a bleak, industrially manufactured black background.
The new exhibition is entitled ‘Water’ and is currently running at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, which is part of the contemporary arts area in Gillman Barracks in Singapore. He continues with the theme of industrially and commercially altered landscapes but quite literally takes it to an new altitude. The exhibition showcases the scale and impact of manufacturing and human consumption on the world’s water supplies.
The results look almost otherworldly, shot as they are from heights of up to 7000 feet. However, rest-assured, the astonishing images which are portrayed before you are of this world. Taken at this altitude you find yourself looking in many cases for a point of reference, a sense of scale. This is very often not forthcoming and, for me, is part of the attraction of the photographs.
What I enjoy is the fractal, chaotic and organic nature of the low key contrast colours and the wandering curves and lines that move the eye around the frame. It has a painterly quality somewhat reminiscent of cubism.
I want to make a link between the two but I am unsure how to get there. Clearly Burtynsky is aware of this and has shot from this height to accentuate the disconnect between what the eye is used to seeing from one view point and deconstructing it to be seen from a completely different view point.
It is not, of course, chaotic or organic it is completely manufactured by humans. Which makes it even more interesting as clearly (one suspects) no one has set out to make it look this way from 7000 feet, so why is it so intrinsically interesting to the eye?
However, the real stand out pieces for me were the surreally high graphic ‘pivot irrigation’ images that he has produced. From a distance these enormous prints have the appearance of wooden doors with astonishing grain. Close up, the resolution is such that you can see each individual furrow in the earth. The right angles of the fields and furrows are exactly perpendicular to the edges of the frame, leaving you wondering two things a) how did Burtynsky manage to photograph to this degree of accuracy and b) how do the farmers and engineers manage to get the drainage channels so amazingly straight, getting every last inch out of the precious soil?
Without a doubt my favourite series within a series, these images represent the pin-point accuracy that man has developed to farm and manipulate the land. The triangle that has been created in the middle, either on purpose or inadvertently, creates a halting disturbance in the circular motion created by the pivotal irrigation method.
Specifically the image above reminds of me of Da Vinci’s ‘The Vitruvian Man‘.
Other images in the same ‘mini-series’ remind me of the inside of a hard drive. The slide rule, digital straightness of the vertical lines being halted by the ‘disc’ at the top of the frame.
The main enjoyment I derive form these ‘pivot irrigation’ images is the high graphic intent and industrial scale of the photographs. It suits the place I find myself in currently with my own photography although with rather a ‘higher’ level of execution.
Indeed, in 1917 Paul Strand said that if one were to use photography honestly he must have “a real respect for the thing in front of him,” which he would express “through a range of almost infinite tonal values which lie beyond the skill of human hand.” ~ AtgetPhotography.com
I feel this quote sums up very well Edward Burtynsky’s approach to his extraordinary art.
‘Water‘ runs until 6 April 2014 at The Sundaram Tagore Gallery in Singapore.