New York

Edward Burtynsky, Glacial Runoff #1, Skeidararsandur, Iceland, 2012, C-print, 48 x 64". Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery.

Edward Burtynsky, Glacial Runoff #1, Skeidararsandur, Iceland, 2012, C-print, 48 x 64". Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery.

Edward Burtynsky

Howard Greenberg Gallery/Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

Edward Burtynsky, Glacial Runoff #1, Skeidararsandur, Iceland, 2012, C-print, 48 x 64". Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery.

Water is never only water. Absorbed, even vanishing into what collapses without it—forest, field, ecosystem—water can seem subordinate. The scope, scale, and deceptive, disturbing beauty of our fate are both visible and to be sought in the very large color photographs by Edward Burtynsky that were shown at Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery this past fall. Each offered a selection from “WATER,” a sweeping, five-year, ten-country project designed partly to show the impact of “human systems” on this natural resource, the various efforts to “harness it, shape it and control it.”

From above, extending away from us, long, low-lying polders give to a transverse row of minute houses an abstract and curious positioning. Miles of aquaculture buoys in Fujian Province form curved necklaces, then straight, code-like lines. Miles of tilted, armor-like planes ominously gathering into motion are, I learn, roofs of greenhouses in Spain.

Distance yields uncanny patterns. Great circles of a pivot irrigation system in Texas might be objects on a table, or fabric collages under glass. From above, the Colorado River delta branches vertically like trees; desert shrimp-farm salterns shift scale, narrowing focus like optical thought or suggesting the experience of rethinking or surprise. It helps to know that the biodiversity of dryland farming terrain is threatened, its differently elevated sections maplike from above. Burtynsky’s view can sometimes seem privileged.

At the Greenberg Gallery, where the photographs were hung without wall text, I overheard, “Beautiful. But what is it?” Chinese rice terraces was the answer—but, looking at their isobar-like contours darkly incised like van Gogh strokes, one wonders, Is Burtynsky making an art other than photography? Does nature itself become art without us? Burtynsky’s great white lattices are actually glacial runoff. With his camera, his eye, his command of color, he finds and makes rivers and deserts and farming into forms that are independent like paintings. Yet what does a near-abstract image of an aquamarine tank tell us about a Mexican power station? I had thought Burtynsky’s violent, almost animate peaks of Mount Edziza Provincial Park in British Columbia owed something to Caspar David Friedrich. The closest-in of all these aerial shots are more painterly, more prophetically alive than environmentally tragic.

Missing from the gallery shows were Burtynsky’s pictures of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—there are seven in the accompanying book—perhaps the most profoundly penetrating of all the overhead shots: an oil-skimming boat centered like a small, turning compass needle, below it layers of the Deepwater Horizon pollution perimetered like sinister clouds visible only from a plane. Burtynsky omitted these from WATERMARK, 2013, a video related to the series, because he felt that they might tell viewers what to think.

Steepness, harsh in Burtynsky’s earlier photographs of mining escarpments, rail cuts, and quarries, finds sanctuarial depth in his photographs of step wells in India, one showing algae-green water at the bottom. Though not a soul is to be seen in the absolutely beautiful tiers upon tiers, the clarity of close digital detail yields on each stone step a collage-like record of human use. Contemplating Burtynsky’s picture showing a huge population of pilgrims bathing in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela, I recalled a much more telling newspaper clipping in my files of the same event, showing one man—his body, his painful intensity. Yet Burtynsky’s photo captures a strange and interesting division between the water and what the thirty million make of it.

Joseph McElroy