Book Review: Water

A visual meditation on water’s power to sculpt the earth.

Published July 11, 2016

There’s something profound to me about seeing the world from the air. Before the airplane breaks the cloud barrier and I get distracted with making regrettable movie selections or flagging down the drink cart, I glue my forehead to a window and watch, transfixed, as the landscape features I know at eye level meld into foreign assemblages of texture, shape, pattern, and color. From up high, everything human seems so puny and tenuous. And the natural world—the red-stained Australian outback, the undulating ice of the North Pole, the sawtooth peaks of the Rockies—appears raw and resolute. The proof that expanses of wilderness still exist beyond our cities is reassuring.

I felt the same swirl of awe as I flipped through the pages of Water—a visual meditation on the transformative impact of water on the landscape in a coffee-table-book format. Bernhard Edmaier, a geologist turned photographer based in Germany, visited remote reaches of the planet to explore his subject in its many manifestations, shooting primarily from an airplane or a helicopter. The result is a mesmerizing collection of images of geological features rich with saturated colors, dramatic patterns, and abstract forms. There are stripes of glacial ice and moraine debris, milky rivers spilling into a blue sea, frozen marshland polka-dotted with pools of meltwater, steaming crater lakes—and no evidence of human tinkering.

Edmaier is a master of composition. With the most abstract images, I sometimes found it challenging to grasp a sense of scale or to parse exactly what I was looking at—some scenes reminded me of stereogram posters from the ’90s, where the viewer stands close and stares cross-eyed at a busy pattern until a hidden 3D image emerges—though that only made me linger longer on each scene.

Edmaier’s partner, geologist Angelika Jung-Hüttl, wrote the book’s minimal text. With an authoritative and matter-of-fact style, she peppers in facts—for example, since Earth formed, there’s been a constant 1.4 billion cubic kilometers of water on the planet; a wave three or four meters tall can smash into the coast with a force of 10 tonnes per square meter; and the fastest glacier (Jakobshavn in Greenland) moves at a rate of seven kilometers a year.

Water is the latest in Edmaier’s substantial list of published books highlighting the artistry of geology and was clearly a significant undertaking. I would have loved to see a foreword by the photographer, explaining his process and motivation for the project. On his personal website, he indicates that he hopes his photographs of “fragile nature-created formations” will provoke people to “decide for themselves whether the remnants of intact natural landscapes are worth preserving.”

Overall, Water is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to peer down from the clouds and marvel at some of the planet’s most striking landscapes—without the hassle of economy class.

Water
By Bernhard Edmaier
239 pp. Prestel Publishing