One photographer’s oceanic journey
Humans have historically gravitated towards living by the water. As vapour, liquid, and solid, its ever-evolving form fascinates us and holds a mysterious ability to soothe, calm, and inspire.
Photographer David Burdeny has invested several years in a journey to document the mesmerised oceans. Through his series of captivating photographs, he attempts to distil the essence of how water instils in us a sense of peace, unity, and wellbeing.
We spoke to Burdeny to discover how he creates his powerful images and how his style has evolved over the years.
What do you love most about photography?
Photography has taken me to some of the most beautiful, strange, and fascinating places you can imagine. I’m often out photographing during odd hours of the day or night — always alone for several hours at a time waiting for the exposure to run its course or simply waiting for the right conditions. In our hurried world, it’s a great luxury to slow down and feel time pass by while watching the snow fall, or the stars move over your head. It’s this meditative aspect of the process that I love so much.
Why did you choose a career in photography instead of architecture?
My earliest work, such as the colour abstracted “DRIFT” series and the first black and white seascapes of Japan, France, and the West Coast of Canada, was developed in sync with the aesthetics and ideals of my Architecture graduate studies at the University of Manitoba.
But being an artist is a full-time job if you want to do it well. At least it is for the kind of work I do, so there came the point where I realised I had to pick one vocation or the other, or they would both suffer. It wasn’t an easy decision and I backed out of it a few times, but I went with what my heart says is right and decided to focus all my efforts on photography. A decision I will never regret as it has changed and enriched my life in so many ways. This was after my North I South series of images from Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica in 2008.
Where do you get your inspiration to start a series?
Curiosity is key. I’m inspired mainly by that which I do not know. I often pick a location, be it a city, a country, or area, and just go there because it interests me on a personal level. I may spend minutes or days there, but I don’t know until I arrive. I first travelled to Egypt because I’ve had a fascination with the place ever since I was a child and wanted to fulfill a personal desire to stand in front of the earth’s earliest architecture. Half of me was there to make photographs, and the other half was there for personal reasons.
How do you decide when to close off a series? Why have you intentionally kept the Oceans series open?
I often use typology as an organising element within the series. The Russian Metro (“A Bright Future”), Italian and French interiors over the years, (“Traces of Time”), and the Prairie Town series are good examples of that, and just like a book, it needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Making it longer does not necessarily make it better, and by virtue of the typology mechanism, it’s only as strong as its weakest link. They are meant to be seen as a whole, so I edit tirelessly, much like a coach would assemble a hockey team, where each player’s skills enhance the other players. The oceans, on the other hand, are very different. I often do typology studies of them as well, but they are so incredibly plastic as a subject matter I could stand in one spot for the rest of my life and make a new image every day. It’s an impossibly steep learning curve — too vast a subject with endless possibilities and never feels resolved.
Of the different bodies and forms of water in a natural environment that you could have chosen to capture, why did you choose oceans as the theme?
I think we as humans are hardwired to love bodies of water, the ocean in particular. It was here that the earliest life stemmed, and water is the essential element on earth for our continued existence. I firmly believe our bodies know this, which sets up a reciprocal effect of peacefulness, unity, and a sense of wellbeing. I feel all this when I’m on the shore looking out — and with the images I make, I try to capture a small part of those feelings.
How is shooting water uniquely different from other elements of nature?
Where you stand plays a significant role. By simply elevating yourself either on a hillside or placing the camera under a drone, or going up in a helicopter, the water’s surface becomes less opaque and flooded with color. This elevated viewpoint allows you to see all the plants and lifeforms living below the surface. You begin to understand this isn’t just a body of water but a whole ecosystem.
Of the various oceans you have photographed, which has had the most powerful impact on you? Why?
A difficult question and almost like trying to pick a favorite child. Each one is equally beautiful and equally different. Crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica in fifty-foot swells amidst massive tabular icebergs was a humbling experience and a reminder of just how physically insignificant we are as humans. In Greenland, I saw first-hand the effects of climate change and the impact it’s had on the landscape and the people who make it their home. The small fishing villages in Asia are just so poetic, with their humbleness and centuries-long connection to the ocean.
Which ocean would you want to photograph next? Why?
Returning to the shoreline of Japan will be the first place I go when I’m allowed to do so. I started shooting images there in 2002 — remote areas — usually the northwest coast. I had two trips planned for 2020, and I plan to pick up where I left off before the world closed down.