“Sleepwalking on Water,” The Wall Street Journal

By Richard B. Woodward via The Wall Street Journal

'Cerro Prieto Geothermal Power Station, Baja, Mexico' (2012) Edward Burtynsky/Nicholas Metivier Gallery/Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz

The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has rolled out his “Water” project this fall with the synergistic marketing aggression of a Hollywood blockbuster. Seven galleries in six cities and three countries have been selling gigantic examples of the work, which offers his global perspective on water and civilization. Some prints are 10 feet across. “Watermark,” a feature-length documentary he co-directed with Jennifer Baichwal, has opened in select cities across Canada. The big, handsome and pricey catalog ($128), published by Steidl, even has an interactive iPad app.

Against the glare of this media-blitz, the national museum tour of “Water” is quietly making its first stop in New Orleans. As if to avoid being dismissed as an afterthought, the Contemporary Arts Center here, and the New Orleans Museum of Art, have given Mr. Burtynsky plenty of room to spread out and elaborate an argument. More than 50 wall-size prints occupy two floors of the CAC, while an additional eight prints line the entrance hall at NoMA.

With Hurricane Katrina as the invisible backdrop, the setting could hardly be improved upon. What U.S. city could be a more suitable host for a provocative show about water management than this swampy Southern port, tenuously guarded by levees, and prone to stormy incursions from the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico?

As it happens, the first photograph at the CAC—of two fireboats spraying water on the crippled Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling platform in 2010—tells you everything that’s impressive and frustrating about Mr. Burtynsky’s ambitions.

Like all the images in the project, it’s an aerial view in which human presence is dwarfed by the scale of nature’s majesty. The vast dark-green ocean glistens as two small red boats symmetrically douse the wellhead where a crown of fire shoots into the air. Other views on walls nearby, taken weeks later, track the oil spreading across the water like a ghostly white shroud.

Whatever their meaning, however, all of Mr. Burtynsky’s photographs are gorgeous because primarily they are about colored patterns on colored surfaces. Even though we know that oil from the rig killed untold numbers of birds and fish, and fouled the Gulf’s waters for months, if not years, imperiling people’s livelihoods from Texas to Florida, Mr. Burtynsky’s camera turns these cruel facts into seductive abstractions.

His project is therefore more about the gross limitations and deceptive allure of photography. Any helpful information it can sometimes convey is beside the point. The fireboats in that first photograph, vainly showering the oily flames, illustrate nothing so much as technical ineptitude. As BP soon (but not soon enough) learned, the fissure in the gushing wellhead originated near the ocean floor, below the water’s surface.

To give Mr. Burtynsky credit, he isn’t claiming to offer solutions to vexing planetary issues. He is merely surveying the many states and uses of water around the world. Sorted into categories such as “Distress,” “Control,” “Agriculture, “Aquaculture,” “Waterfront” and “Source,” his pictures document the remarkable variety of forms human beings have devised to harness the vital power of water: canals, stepwells, floating greenhouses, rice terraces, ditches, ponds, circular sprinklers, sewage plants and hydro-electric dams.

He has followed water back to its ancestral home as ice in polar glaciers, into the salty deserts of California, Arizona, Mexico and Spain, and along the continental littorals where apartment high-rises have shot up in response to the yearning to be near an ocean beach.

Mr. Burtynsky is at his best when presenting the mystical place of water in the human mind. Four views of this year’s Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, a 55-day Hindu festival where as many as 100 million people may gather for sacred bathing, hints at the spiritual communion that allows this 1.24 billion-person democracy to function. Another 2013 photograph of the ghats at Varanasi, where devout Hindus go to cremate their dead, teems with unpredictable activity. One can even spot a traffic jam on the steps where several parties are waiting their turn to carry a ceremonially wrapped corpse on a bier down to the Ganges.

Elsewhere, the God’s-eye view of Mr. Burtynsky’s camera tends to flatten rather than illuminate crucial details about life and water. Soaring IMAX IMX.T +1.73% perspectives are always thrilling at first, until one senses that everything is rendered with an impersonal, elevated sameness. (The fact that his digital prints are all super-size doesn’t help matters either. With respect to color quality, the catalog is preferable.)

Photographers have known for more than 150 years that any landscape seen from a height provides novel angles of familiar ground-level objects and can give any image automatic theatricality. Nadar took his camera over Paris in a balloon during the 1860s, while Edward Steichen directed an airline surveillance unit in World War I. David T. Hanson, Emmet Gowin, Terry Evans, David Maisel, Doug Rickard and Trevor Paglen are a few of the many artists who have shown us earth anew by photographing from above.

“Where I Stand,” a 10-minute film that concludes Mr. Burtynsky’s show, suggests that his project may have gone wrong from the beginning. He states proudly that he no longer has to search for his pictures. They are “predetermined” by his choice of site. When he arrives somewhere and sends his camera up in the sky, either strapped to a remotely controlled miniature helicopter or attached to a full-size one he has boarded himself, he already knows the photograph he intends to make.

This may account for the dutiful gamut of “Water.” Almost none of the pictures has an internal urgency. Walking through the show, one feels that Mr. Burtynsky has been visiting these places after ticking off boxes on a mental checklist. Efficiency has bred pictorial complacency.

Like his 1997-2007 project, “Oil,” Mr. Burtynsky’s “Water” is harmless, the photographs being politically neutral in the tradition of National Geographic. If they won’t do much to help better analyze or decide contentious questions about the economics of water use, one reason lies with photography’s poor vocabulary as an explanatory medium.

That doesn’t absolve the photographer from sharing any responsibility, however. Less awesomeness and a tighter focus on individuals, as they go about daily handling common natural resources, might yield a different kind of dramatic material for Mr. Burtynsky’s hungry camera. A more grounded point of view would at any rate be a welcome change from what the poet Robert Lowell once termed the “monotonous sublime.”

Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

Edward Burtynsky: Water

Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art through Jan. 19

Travels to the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College in summer 2014.