Photographer Edward Burtynsky on 'Water' and the future of 3D

Story highlights

  • Burtynsky is known for his large-format photos of industrial landscapes
  • "Water" series shows how our thirst is reshaping the Earth
  • Burtynsky's new lab, Think2Thing, specializes in 3D printing

(CNN)Before there was Google Earth, there was Edward Burtynsky. Renown for his aerial images, the 60-year-old Canadian photographer has spent the greater part of three decades capturing what he describes as "nature, transformed through industry," or man-made industrial landscapes.

Pivot Irrigation #11, High Plains, Texas Panhandle, USA, 2011, by Edward Burtynsky
Themed around broad topics such as water, oil, mining and modern-day China, Burtynsky's expansive, large-format shots present a world of striking contrasts and otherworldly landscapes.
He applies a journalist's discipline to his work, spending years at a time with one project -- researching, conducting interviews, and scouting locations.
    "What is modern man's relationship to nature? How do we see it?" he asks, when describing his work.
    "With photography, I'm able to connect people to landscapes that we wouldn't be (otherwise) exposed to."

    Water, how our 'thirsty civilization' is reshaping the Earth

    Oil Spill #4, Oil Skimming Boat, Near Ground Zero, Gulf of Mexico, June 24, 2010
    Colorado River Delta #2, Near San Felipe, Baja, Mexico, 2011
    Burtynsky's newest work, "Water," is an example of how he challenges audiences to think differently about the earth's natural resources, and the consequences of our usage.
    The series, which took years to make, is split into several chapters, including one focused on the Gulf of Mexico. In 2010, he traveled to the area to document the BP oil spill disaster.
    The explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig, resulted in the largest underwater blowout in U.S. history, with estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey putting the volume of oil spilled between 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of crude oil per day, for 87 days.
    The photos show colorful, bleeding bands produced by oil slick, and its devastating effects on the green-blue sea.
    In another chapter in that same series entitled "Distressed," he explores how factors like drought and the building of dams can drastically impact the land.
    The alarming consequences are depicted within his images of the Colorado River Delta. The US' 7th longest river once flowed to the sea, but has since been reduced to dried-out, thirsty-looking arteries, and barren patches.

    Expanding into film

    In 2013, Burtynsky released "Watermark," a documentary he co-directed with Jennifer Baichwal. In 2006, Baichwal had made Burtynsky the focus of her film "Manufactured Landscapes."
    The film features diverse stories from around the world about our relationship to water -- and brings to life the stories behind the stills from "Water."

    WATERMARK - Trailer from Flowers Gallery on Vimeo.

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    "In film -- you can create the illusion of time and space. People speak, characters reveal their feelings. You can use music, which informs how you should be feeling, and it carries you to the right emotional space," he observes.
    "I have had people approach me (at the "Water" exhibition), and say 'I saw the film before I came to see the show, and now that I look at the work, the photographs mean much more to me.'"

    The future of photography

    Last year, Burtynsky founded Think2Thing, a Toronto-based 3D printing atelier.
    "I have always been interested in following the technology that I feel are presenting themselves as true industry and innovation," he explains, of his decision to venture into the realm of 3D.
    Think2Thing used 3D technology to print an exact replica of the HMS Erebus bell.
    "I like to think of Photography 1.0 as the invention of photography. Photography 2.0 is digital technology and the move from film and paper to everything on a chip. Photography 3.0 is the use of the camera, space and color, and to capture an object in the third dimension."
    Comprised of a team of artists, engineers, and designers, and partnered with Ryerson University, the lab specializes in 3D research and transforming concepts to actual objects.
    The 3D printed bell will become the centerpiece of a Franklin Expedition exhibit
    One of their first projects was printing an exact replica of a bell, excavated from a shipwreck found in 2014.
    The bell belonged to the HMS Erebus ship, one of two ships lost in the ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845, a British voyage to the Arctic.
    "We went to a lab in Ottawa, and they pulled it out for the first time for 5 hours. We had to scan the bell, and capture it as it existed on the sea floor, a moment in time," he explains.
    The surface is of photographic quality, a millimeter of powder gypsum (which absorbs the colored ink) wraps around the object, and is mapped with the exact contours of the original bell.
    "It's uncannily like the original," says Burtynsky.

    Can Instagram change the industry?

    Discussing the future brings about the topic of Instagram, and whether Burtynsky feels his industry is threatened with the ability of millions to take photos without, as a previous requisite, needing to be technologically astute.
    "It has become far more ubiquitous. But, I'm not afraid of billions of photographs. That's like being afraid of too many words. There's a difference between a writer, and someone who makes a shopping list."
    "It's a medium," he continues. "It's treated differently in the hands of someone that has a vision, authenticity, and craft. There are still people who can take it, and make something extraordinary."

    Next stop, Africa

    The prolific photographer is now in the middle of shooting his next series in Africa, and hinting at themes such as extinction and studying planetary shifts.
    "I'm interested in the fact that now we're moving so many molecules on the planet. There are billions moving towards a comfortable lifestyle. So, what's the balance of us and nature? As an artist, everything points back to that question."