Writing by Patrick Keddie
[This article was published in the Morning Star]
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky had an epiphany 15 years ago when he realised the extent to which oil is the fundamental resource which underpins industry and civilisation.
That realisation impacted on his work capturing industrial landscapes and led to a lengthy project over more than a decade during which he photographed the specific impact of oil.
In this important exhibition, his photographs are a study of scale, enterprise and dependency, with all the beauty and damage they entail.
Two whole floors of this newly revamped gallery are given over to to the show, allowing breathing space to Burtynsky’s sweeping, large-format prints and drawing out the exquisite detail and tone in his work.
The exhibition reflects the progression of Burtynsky’s thinking. He began the project “in a sense of awe of what we as a species were up to” and that wonder is palpable in Burtynsky’s shots capturing the vast scale of oilfields, refineries and pipelines. Far from civilisation, and rarely glimpsed, they are utterly central to a modern human existence he describes as “floating on oil.”
He sees oil as “an energy force that flows like blood through our veins,” and that analogy is reflected in the neat system of pumps and pipes that he photographs in the bowels of Alberta oil refineries and in the overhead shots of the ribboning arterial roads that connect the vast, low-lying suburbs of Los Angeles to the heart of the towering inner city.
Yet the final section of the exhibition, The End Of Oil, portrays the consequences of our dependency.
The most intimate pictures depict oil-related detritus. Burtynsky photographs a huge vortex of disused tyres, resembling a poisoned shoal of fish and one of the few close-ups in the series is of the slimy remains of a pile of oil filters.
The Sikorski helicopter graveyard in Tucson, Arizona, is a melancholy sight with the glassy-eyed husks of helicopters jammed together, like flies with their wings torn off.
Burtynsky draws out great beauty in degradation. A striking image of a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, seemingly adrift in an oil-slicked sea, appears like a kind of modern-day toxic Turner painting.
And an image of ships tackling fire from a stricken oil rig captures the spraying water and oil combining to form a rainbow. Photographed from high above, the Alberta oil sands are strangely compelling – cottony clouds and azure dashes of sky are reflected in dark pools of oil. But at the same time, they are leaking wounds and sores on the landscape.
These photos are beautiful but often disturbing and Oil is a deeply ambivalent collection. They are a dire expose of the oil-fouled landscape but also partly a celebration of the stuff that underpins nearly every aspect of modern life.
As an exhibition, it expresses a complex notion along the lines of Walter Benjamin’s dictum that every document of civilisation is at the same time a document of barbarism.
Runs daily at the Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1, until July 1. Free. For opening times, visit www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk