The Secret World of Oil

Edward Burtynsky’s haunting new photography show at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery captures the beauty and devastation of petroleum on our planet. VIEW OUR GALLERY.

For the last 30 years, Edward Burtynsky, a renowned Canadian photographer, has made a sweeping visual chronicle of industrial enterprise on a global scale. The subjects of his work range from mines, quarries, and shipping around the world to manufacturing and urban renewal in China. In the last decade, he turned with more concentrated focus to the broad subject of oil, and this work is now being shown in two exhibitions: Edward Burtynsky: Oil at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well as at Hasted Hunt Kraeutler Gallery in New York. A catalogue, Burtynsky Oil, has also just been published by Steidl/Corcoran.

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Oil is one of the most complex issues of 21st-century civilization. Geopolitical economic balances are struck over it; the planet’s health has been compromised by it. Burtynsky’s pictures piece together a global perspective on the subject, not only in the geographical range of his documentation but also the real estate covered in almost every image.

The exhibition at the Corcoran divides Burtynsky’s photographs into three sections: “Extraction and Refinement,” in which sprawling landscapes are shown dotted with oil derricks and covered with pipes from refineries in Azerbaijan, California, and Canada; “Transportation and Motor Culture,” with pictures showing the sinewy webs of interlocking highways around Los Angeles and Shanghai, and vast and intricate patterns formed by hundreds of new cars in a lot in Houston; and “End of Oil,” a kind of elegiac view of rows and rows of wrecked automobiles, piles of used rubber tires, and the dismantling of oil tankers in Bangladesh.

Burtynsky photographs at a distinct remove, either on a lift or a crane or in a helicopter, giving us a lofty bird’s eye view; his picture frame tends to be organized with the patterned geometry of mass production and mechanization, or the organic majesty of the natural terrain being methodically chipped away.

This broad photographic viewpoint on so significant an international industry is formidable. The pictures are at times breathtaking in scope, scale, and detail. They might be likened to 19th-century documentation of the vast uncharted landscapes of the American West made by photographers Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and William Henry Jackson, who worked with cartographers to survey the land. The gold in them-thar-hills of the 19th century is exchanged for the black gold pursued with greater and greater avarice today, and Burtynsky offers an edifying vision of mankind’s utilization of the land for the purposes of energy—rapacious as it might be.

“This is a new form of epic history painting,” Paul Roth, senior curator of photography and related arts at the Corcoran, writes in Burtynsky Oil. “Burtynsky forges a new mythology for the 21st century from the lexicon of realism. With stunning detail, from improbable perches, in strange and beautiful colors, these pictures show their subjects with clinical accuracy, and with definitive force. But they also tell a parallel and more inchoate tale: a critique of civilization, and a foretelling of human ends.”

The photographic elements of scale, optical precision, and color saturation employed by Burtynsky deliver a visually dynamic—if sobering—observation about how man has exploited the earth’s natural resources to satisfy an unquenchable thirst for fuel. Other contemporary photographers work in this documentary manner as well. In the 1990s, Andreas Gursky, a German photographer, chronicled examples of the global economy in some of the earliest wall-size photographs; their monumental scale was commensurate with the scope of his subject. Mitch Epstein, an American photographer, has just published a book, American Power, also from Steidl, with photographs that examine the way energy is produced and used in the American landscape.

“When I first started photographing industry, it was out of a sense of awe at what we as a species were up to,” Burtynsky writes in the introduction to Burtynsky Oil. “Our achievements became a source of infinite possibilities. But time goes on, and that flush of wonder began to turn. The car that I drove cross-country began to represent not only freedom, but also something much more conflicted. I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat.”

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Philip Gefter was a picture editor at The New York Times and wrote regularly about photography for the paper. His book of essays, Photography After Frank, was recently published by Aperture. He is producing a feature-length documentary on Bill Cunningham of the Times, and working on a biography of Sam Wagstaff.