Oil, examined

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Photographer Edward Burtynsky takes us to the mouth of the black river

Moving from the Alberta oilsands to a trucker's jamboree in Walcott, Iowa, to a used tire pile; from an oil refinery in Saint John, N.B. to a highway intersection in Los Angeles, to a stack of used oil filters - "Burtynsky: Oil" uses photographs to slip through the lifecycle of the desired, hated and debated substance that makes our modern world go 'round.

The collection of "Oil," by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, premiered at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2009.

Top, left to right, "Alberta Oil Sands #6," Fort McMurray, Alta., 2007. "Shipbreaking #11," (detail) Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000. "SOCAR Oil Fields #2," (detail) Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006. "AMARC #5," (detail) Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Ariz., 2006.

Moving from the Alberta oilsands to a trucker's jamboree in Walcott, Iowa, to a used tire pile; from an oil refinery in Saint John, N.B. to a highway intersection in Los Angeles, to a stack of used oil filters - "Burtynsky: Oil" uses photographs to slip through the lifecycle of the desired, hated and debated substance that makes our modern world go 'round.

The collection of "Oil," by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, premiered at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in the fall of 2009.

"These large-scale images are both beautiful and sharply unnerving," a senior curator at the gallery, Paul Roth, said in promoting the exhibition. "Burtynsky takes us to places we've never seen, places perhaps we were never meant to see and he shows us a world that has incredible importance in our lives."

Featuring 56 large-scale colour landscapes, the photographs have made their way to The Rooms in St. John's for their Canadian premiere.

The Telegram spoke with Burtynsky about the work by phone earlier this week.

"I think it's more a kind of personal journey through contemplation of this substance called oil and this world it's created. For good or for bad, or for what it is," the photographer said.

It is not the first such journey for Burtynsky. Over 30 years, the artist has tackled subjects from uranium tailings to marble quarries - not necessarily common subjects for landscape artists.

His work has been exhibited in the United States, Europe and Asia. His images have been seen at locations including the National Gallery of Canada, the BibliothÉque Nationale in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

When it comes to "Oil," he said, as with his other collections, his photographs are not meant to be a battle cry for one-sided environmental extremism.

"I think there are things in the media that are saying that this (oil production and processing) is of great concern to Canada. I think there's concerns to be had. I also understand why they're there trying to get (the oil) out," Burtynsky said. "You know, with the world needing more oil and there's less and less places to get it that are safe that aren't being run by despots. So I can understand why they're there and why they're doing it. I also understand why a lot of people are concerned about it."

Specific to his collection, he says, "I think it's capable of eliciting negative or positive or indifferent (feelings). I don't know if I can actually impose that reading on everybody. I think any one of those images, frankly, could function perfectly well in any report of Syncrude or Suncor or whoever else ... I don't think they stand as indictments. I think they are what those places are. I think they describe that place."

In case you're curious ... no. The exhibition is not brought to you by Big Oil.

"The thing is, I think I try to put the work in a position where a dialogue can happen so it doesn't become a slugfest of wrong/right. I tend to stay away from polarized arguments, you know - this is wrong, this is right," the photographer said. "History may say that it was the wrong thing to do, it was the wrong place to go that the consequences were too dire. I don't know. History may ultimately rule in that direction, but who am I to say?"

Access and positioning

From 1997 through 2009, Burtynsky was able to access a variety of specific locations on private properties around the world for his work.

Shooting from fixed wing planes, helicopters, bucket lifts and scaffolding, he used high vantage points to "make sense" of the sites he was given access to.

"As a largely urbanized culture ... we never get out there. We never see the other side or the consequence of what it takes to drive a car or build houses, with what's happening in forests, or all the minerals necessary to create the kind of world that we created. So to me, the work has that ability to bridge, or it reaches back into the place called nature - the cupboards where we get our stuff. I'm looking for particularly large examples of those cupboards."

The real goal, said Burtynsky, is to leave behind a record of the locations.

One stop in "Burtynsky: Oil" is a New Brunswick oil refinery.

"(The owners) have no trouble with it. I have a good relationship with them and I'm invited to come back if I want," he said. "Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with places I go into. Sometimes the press has taken things and really positioned the work as ... that happened in Sudbury and I once got a bad editorial saying this work is giving them a bad name, but I certainly didn't set out to."

Again, he said, it is about not having the intention of exploitation.

"I don't take a polemic position. I don't take a dogmatic position - like, for instance, the image as indictment. I also understand the world is a complicated place and all corporations aren't evil. Some are not very nice. They're not evil. They're just made up of people like you and I, but they've been given this mandate to provide stuff for an ever-growing population and make a profit while doing it. So we understand the game. It's called capitalism."

Even so, he said, "Oil" does include a new chapter, a sub-collection of pictures titled "The End of Oil."

Considering the end of oil

"We're starting to see the consequences of the game and I think that's what's changed," Burtynsky said, when asked about the sub-chapter for "Oil."

"I think the abandoned oilfields in Baku (Azerbaijan) were pretty crazy. And the shipbreaking yards in (Chittagong) Bangladesh were also pretty - like I'd never seen anything like it."

"Shipbreaking #11 in Chittagong, Bangladesh" was taken in 2000 and shows the deconstruction of oil tankers at the end of their useful life.

"It was like I'd stepped back in time to a Dickensian world at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution or something. It was just people cutting steel with no cutting glasses and bare feet. You know, people carrying stuff on their backs, some with flip-flops, in a scrapyard. Just the kind of scale of the job they were doing with the most remedial tools was just a real eye-opener.

"And also the whole thing of the post-Russian federation, U.S.S.R., when they got all the oil they could from Baku and just left it for dead. Didn't take it down, didn't clean it up, didn't do anything. These oilfields sitting there, left for 20 years, just rusting and falling into the ground so to speak. Bearing witness to that was quite extraordinary."

The final chapter in "Burtynsky: Oil" is intended to prompt consideration of what happens when the resource becomes too costly, he said.

"When it gets to be too inaccessible, when the costs of getting it out are too high, maybe because of environmental concerns ... that's real limits. That's science. That's not fiction. That's real limits we'll have to hit," he said. "Let's consider it. Because, you know what? No one's arguing it's not going to happen. It's a finite resource."

He said he does not know how the Gulf of Mexico oil slick will affect people's perceptions of his show.

"That's a dynamic that nobody really controls. I think some people might feel more threatened by it, the fact that here's a show that kind of ... I don't think it's an outright indictment, but it's analytical. I think there's analysis of consequence and maybe forshadowing of the end of oil," he said.

"Burtynsky: Oil" will be available for viewing at The Rooms until Aug. 15. Burtynsky will be at the gallery to speak about the exhibition Sunday at 2 p.m.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: The Rooms, National Gallery, Museum of Modern Art Guggenheim Museum

Geographic location: Alberta, Walcott, Iowa, Saint John Los Angeles Canada Washington, D.C. St. John's United States Europe Asia Paris New York Baku Chittagong Bangladesh New Brunswick Sudbury Azerbaijan Gulf of Mexico

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Recent comments

  • Ken
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    Looking forward to seeing this show. We all need to think about the benefits and risks of obtaining oil, especially as it becomes harder to get.

  • Ken
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    Looking forward to seeing this show. We all need to think about the benefits and risks of obtaining oil, especially as it becomes harder to get.