Considering how radically photographer Edward Burtynsky has already transformed the way we view man’s impact on his home planet, one might reasonably ask what the Canadian artist could possibly do to advance his already eco-conscious oeuvre. Turns out the answer couldn’t be simpler: Just add water. In “Watermark,” Burtynsky reteams with “Manufactured Landscapes” director Jennifer Baichwal, stepping up to co-direct this massively ambitious, visually arresting survey of all things aquatic. Expanding the alternately hypnotic and horrifying quality of Burtynsky’s photographic work to the bigscreen, this more avant-garde collaboration isn’t just a portrait of the artist, but a bona fide art film.
Unlike the vast majority of landscape photographers, Burtynsky isn’t drawn to the dwindling number of unspoiled vistas on earth, but the ever-growing number of spots where humans have permanently altered their environment. In many cases, people aren’t even visible in these aftermath photos, though they are invariably responsible for the transformations depicted therein — as in the mesmerizing opening shot, which looks like some sort of deep-space nebula, but turns out to be a plume of water gushing from China’s Xiaolangdi Dam.
This scene, which graces the cover of the artist’s newly published monograph, “Water,” is actually far more powerful when observed in motion. Indeed, in the time since Baichwal and Burtynsky made “Manufactured Landscapes,” the shutterbug has embraced 5K digital video cameras as an exciting new tool to heighten the effect he’s long pursued with still photography. Whereas some artists invite a crew to document the process behind their latest exhibition, Burtynsky takes a collaborative role, such that the film ultimately represents the apotheosis of the project. After the previous film, he came to recognize cinema as the coin of the realm — an effective way to communicate with a mass audience that his fine-art work couldn’t reach.
As such, “Watermark” isn’t an afterthought, but the main course, and pulling it off meant innovating ways to record extremely hi-definition footage alongside the photos he exhibits in galleries, no matter how complicated the apparatus required. Burtynsky’s solutions range from simple cranes to remote-control helicopters, like the one used to fly his Hasselblad over Luoyuan Bay, a Chinese aquaculture site where floating abalone farms stretch as far as the eye can see. Burtynsky has a way of rendering such enclaves so as to look almost abstract, as in the unique perspectives he chooses for such diverse locations as Texas’ pivot irrigation circles (viewed from directly overhead) or a system of Indian stepwells (with their sharp M.C. Escher-esque angles). Trying to find a complimentary style for the film doesn’t always translate into a coherent flow.
Given Burtynsky’s preference for photographing everything at an extreme distance, it’s somewhat surprising that “Watermark” also features a fair amount of detail-oriented footage alongside its many large-format tableaus. Although Burtynsky seems determined to remove himself as much as possible from the film, he and Baichwal leave room for other “characters,” featuring disembodied narration from a Native guardian of Canada’s Stikine River Watershed or one of the few residents left in Lone Pine, where the water of Owens Dry Lake was long ago redirected to Los Angeles.
Burtynsky occasionally supplies a bit of explanation himself, but typically withholds both judgment and context. Despite its environmental focus, the film is not an eco-alarmist call to action, a la “An Inconvenient Truth,” but rather a survey of where things stand with the world — an invaluable record of our collective handprint for present and future generations. Since water covers 71% of the planet, Burtynsky rightly chronicles man’s social connection to the stuff, which explains a sequence in which millions of Hindu pilgrims assembled to bathe in the Ganges dissolve into California girls turning cartwheels on a beach, as well as the U.S. Open of Surfing.
Occasionally, the film relies upon meditative music to link its awe-inspiring images together, but mostly, each sequence exerts its own natural sound. Judging by the sheer range of locations involved, assembling the film must have been an enormous editorial challenge, especially with its 180:1 footage ratio, which means that for every minute that made the cut, three hours were left on the editing room floor. Despite the staggering range of material “Watermark” manages to present — Burtynsky’s five-year undertaking is certainly the most encompassing survey any one artist has ever dedicated to the subject — it’s still just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg.