Photographer Edward Burtynsky’s latest exhibit, 'OIL', both apocalyptic and strangely seductive
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has a lot on his mind. Talking to him isn’t like your average artist gabfest. For one, there’s little mention of his creative process, inspirations, collaborations or accolades. And it’s not for lack of credentials: the man is an Officer of the Order of Canada, his work is housed at New York’s Guggenheim and Paris’ Bibliothèque Nationale, he was the subject of an award-winning 2006 documentary (Manufactured Landscapes) and he even won an esteemed TED Prize. But the subject of Burtynsky’s work always seems to take precedence over discussions of technique and execution. His photographs are the catalysts to a frankly unsettling chat about modern industrialization, human recklessness and the consequences to unchecked development.
Edward Burtynsky, SOCAR Oil Fields #3, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Petroleum has never looked so good/ghastly
The latest conversation starter? Edward Burtynsky: OIL, an arresting exhibit featuring 56 large-scale (think 60 X 80 feet) colour photographs on view until January 8 at the McCord Museum. For over a decade, the intrepid photographer traveled throughout Canada, the U.S., Bangladesh, Azerbaïdjan and China to get a first-hand glimpse at the many facets to oil exploration, and its profound impact on communities, cities and the environment. Burtynsky trained his lens on little-seen quarries, production centres and refineries, ship breaking sites – all places our society ultimately depends on, and yet remains wholly disconnected from. The photographer returned with sweeping panoramic vistas that are at once starkly beautiful, breathtaking in scale and ominous in their implications. So what about the culture of oil compelled him to further investigate? “It’s the raw material that has most shaped our contemporary world,” Burtynsky tells me, over the phone. “No society has ever been so dependent on one thing in the history of this planet.”
Beyond his work’s unmistakable (and unmistakably persuasive) eco message – that elemental industry vs. nature quagmire – his photographs draw attention to the ‘before and after’ most of us don’t seem all that curious about. For instance, what’s the history behind those winter tires you just purchased? How did they come into being, and make their way under your car? What happens after you discard them? Burtynsky makes up for our collective disregard by doing the legwork for us. “For OIL, I couldn’t recall in my own mind seeing what the source of oil was, where it came from. I wanted to bring that landscape of where it comes from into consciousness.”
Edward Burtynsky, AMARC #5, Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Arizona, USA, 2006. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Giving Google Earth a run for its money
Whether it’s a field of pumpjacks in Texas, Alberta’s oilsands or an overwhelming maze of L.A. freeways, his shooting process is quite elaborate, often requiring cranes and helicopters. So it’s to be expected that Burtynsky would be regularly denied authorization to shoot these revealing aerial views, which seems to leave him unfazed. “I just got refused this morning, actually,” Burtynsky admits without hesitation. “I get refused all the time! And paranoia is running quite high. In America, it’s just getting ridiculous. I got refused on something that I already shot; I want to go back and do it again, and they’re worried about a heightened Al-Qaeda threat. Oh my God! If I was Al-Qaeda, I would be looking at Google Earth; I wouldn’t be using my pictures.”
Edward Burtynsky, Bonneville #1, Start Line, Land Speed-Trials, Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, USA, 2008. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Art, Truth and Politics
Burtynsky contends that his art is not overtly political, nor does he consider himself an ‘activist’ or ‘environmentalist’, as his pictures’ aesthetic quality prompt contemplation and reflection as opposed to downright consternation. His body of work questions whether we’ve flipped the switch on that time-tested saying that "humans are no match when pitted against almighty Mother Nature." In other words, has our human footprint gotten too big? “My question is: do we want to be seen as the dirtiest population for CO2 emissions in the world? I don’t want that,” argues Burtynsky. “I don’t think Canadians would like to wear that label, but we’re about to wear it…just because it helps our economy a bit. It helps a few people get really rich, and it helps the government, but it doesn’t really make a lot of people very wealthy. It’s a complicated issue for sure.”
Edward Burtynsky, VW Lot #1, Houston, Texas, USA, 2004. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.
Pull the trigger? Not so fast.
The most obvious hint that Burtynsky-the-artist doesn’t wear the ‘activist’ badge may be his refusal to vilify the multinational oil companies (i.e. the BPs and Exxons of the planet.) Organized by Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art, the exhibit has been continent hopping since 2009, with the Edmonton event sponsored by none other than Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, which got a lot of flak for two recent oil spills south of the border. With this series, Burtynsky aims to do more than preach to the choir by taking the unsettling photographs to the very heart of oil country, places whose livelihood depends on oil. “Put it this way: in Edmonton, in all the cultural institutions, it’s mostly the oil companies,” Burtynsky says. “I mean, it’s 80% of their industry. If oil wasn’t supporting culture, there wouldn’t be anyone supporting culture. It’s easy to indict, it’s easy to point fingers, but we’re all using oil every day. And they’re providing a service, so to speak, and that’s what they see themselves as. You can blame the messenger, but ultimately, the problem is deeper. It’s social. It’s our dependency; we built everything to run on oil. And when it’s gone, we’re in trouble. It’s really simple: no oil equals a massive recession, depression and ultimately a collapse of the world system.”
After surveying the end of the oil cycle, what would logically be Burtynsky’s next undertaking? Why, water, of course - that other precious, finite, jeopardized resource. “I’m interested in looking at places where water supply has reached a critical point.” His itinerary should take him to Greenland, South America, India, China, California and the Tibetan Plateau. “No water equals death, so it’s a lot more vital a liquid than oil in many ways. But it’s also treated very poorly at times, with little respect.”
Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #22, Cold Lake Production Project, Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto.