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Brad Temkin Discusses The State of Water

By Elizabeth Snell

Water flows through concrete diffusers and into a large body of water.

Over his successful photography career, Brad has found himself drawn to water because of its essential need to humanity. In his traveling exhibition with ExhibitsUSA, The State of Water: Our Most Valuable Resource, his photography puts visitors face-to-face with the systems and techniques that deliver our most valuable resource. Brad is currently working on the Aqueduct project in Los Angeles.

Brad Temkin, Treated Water, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2017;
ink on paper, 40 x 32 inches; Courtesy of the artist.

Below, he shares his path to water and his enduring optimism as humanity seeks to fix our mistakes and works to sustain our natural resources.


M-AAA: What drew you to water as your photographic subject in this series?

Brad: Water was one of the first things I photographed, and I’ve always been interested in it. 

This series, The State of Water, came out of a previous series called Rooftop about green roofs. Green roofs are made to mitigate our carbon footprint, not just to insulate. It constructs a way to absorb stormwater runoff. 

Like life, one thing informs the next in my process. I got to thinking, “Where does that water go?” Which led me to start learning about wastewater, and potable water, which became this series. I am drawn to the way we, as people, fix things. I’ve always been a naturalist. With this project, I am also thinking about what happens if we don’t have water. 

How did you start this series and get access to wastewater facilities?

I called up a friend who was an engineer that worked on the deep tunnel in Chicago and asked if he might be able to help with access. 

I also saw the film, The Big Short, which also informed my thinking about the urgency. The movie is about the Wall Street hedge fund guy that predicted subprime home loan shortage. At the end of the film, the last part spoke about what everyone was up to, and Michael Burry, the hedge fund guy, turned all of his investments to focus on water. This was an “Ah-ha” moment for me.

Since I live in Chicago, I wanted to start with photographing Chicago’s “Deep Tunnel.” I called the person my friend introduced me to at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to gain access. Then, that process continued throughout the country. 

I researched how many major cities in our country handle wastewater and drinking water. Philadelphia has one of the best in the country. Phoenix had the hundred year drought and deals with issues of water equality. Seattle has an incredible watershed. Chicago has one of the most sophisticated combined sewer systems in the country where wastewater is cleaned and then goes to the Mississippi River. Milwaukee’s cleaned wastewater goes back into Lake Michigan, where they also get their drinking water. 

Are there any frequent or common misconceptions or questions that you get about this series of work that are surprising?

Haha! Misconceptions include the idea that it is disgusting. People always ask, “how does it smell?” The bottom line is that it isn’t all wastewater. I’m photographing drinking water, too. When I say this to people, they frown, but the fact is that almost every glass of water we drink has probably gone through several sets of kidneys.

Green algae coagulates against a metal barrierseparating it from a nearby puddle of still water.

Brad Temkin, Algae, Chicago, Illinois, 2016; ink on paper, 32 x
40 inches; Courtesy of the artist.

How do the wastewater facilities clean the wastewater?

It’s inspiring and simple. To clean the water, we mimic nature. Microorganisms eat wastewater and break it down. Solids get filtered through sand and gravel like in riverbeds. Sun hits it and is disinfected and reintroduced. Water departments take dirty water, and they treat it with ozone and add microorganisms as a filtration system. Flocculators stir it and treat with chlorine, sometimes UV light. Then, it goes back to rivers. 

Engineers and scientists take what nature does and speed it up. It’s incredible. In this series, I am showing that we are using the same water processes that nature has used for billions of years, and we are picking up on it, learning how to use it to do better. 

How do you see your work as fitting into and/or expanding the current conversation about climate change and the environment?

Whether the climate was changed because we screwed it up, or not, I don’t care. I want to know how we fix it. That is the conversation I want to pursue. I don’t want to focus on blaming. Climate change is happening, let’s try to do something about it. I want to continue the conversation and stress how important collaboration is. When many people have a similar vision, great things happen. It takes a village. 

Focusing on the negative is so unimaginative. I like showing that when we have a problem, we take charge of it. I’m interested in not how we plunder but how we fix our plunder. I love that about people. Once we realize and own our mistakes, we have to fix them. We become our best when faced with the worst, and survival and to sustain is the endgame 

What kind of camera and equipment do you use? 

I use an Arca-Swiss field view camera, and a Hasselblad, medium format full frame digital camera.

I make only one or two exposures of each scene. It is very exact and I usually know what I want. I don’t do different versions. I may make two to three different exposures with different shutter speeds for water flowing to get the right representation. 

Brad Temkin, Sewer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2017; ink on
paper, 32 x 40 inches; Courtesy of the artist

How do you see the role of photography in education and advocacy?

My belief as a picture maker is to never repeat myself. I use beauty as my sharpest tool to seduce people into my subject. I want people to learn about it. My role is to open the door for people to become interested and ask questions. 

The role of art, as I see it, is aimed at asking questions. By doing that I’m advocating for people to learn. 

Education is power. When you know something, then you have the ability to make better choices. The only thing we really own are the choices we make. I educate myself to be a better person, to make better choices. 

In my work, I’m addressing sustainability. The earth is going to survive with or without us. Life will continue but maybe not as we know it. The trick to sustainability is to make our lives comfortable while we are here, and that future generations are able to use this place that we call home. 

If we don’t have water, then we are out of the equation.


The State of Water: Our Most Valuable Resource is touring January 2025 through January 2030 with M-AAA’s touring exhibition program, ExhibitsUSA. Learn more and book the exhibition.


Light skinned man with black rimmed glasses in a headshot portrait.

Brad Temkin. Photography by Jamey Stillings.

About Brad Temkin

Brad Temkin (American, b.1956) is best known for his photographs of contemporary landscape. His work is held in numerous permanent collections, including those of The Art Institute of Chicago; Milwaukee Art Museum; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Ft Worth; The Eastman Museum, Rochester; and Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, among others. His images have appeared in such publications as Aperture, Black & White Magazine, TIME Magazine, and European Photography. He has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships including an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017. A monograph of his work titled Private Places: Photographs of Chicago Gardens (Center For American Places) was published in 2005. Temkin’s second book titled ROOFTOP (Radius Books) was released in 2015; and most recently The State of Water (Radius Books) was published in 2019. He has been an adjunct professor at Columbia College in Chicago since 1984.


Header photography: Brad Temkin, Inlet, Los Angeles, California, 2018; ink on paper, 32 x 40 inches; Courtesy of the artist.