Yesterday I went to The Photographers’ Gallery here in London to see Edward Burtynsky’s excellent exhibition entitled “Oil”. The gallery just reopened last month after an extensive refurbishment. They’ve made the most of what isn’t exactly an ideal space being situated in a relatively tall and narrow building. As I moved through the gallery, I overheard two ladies next to me as they looked at Burtynsky’s Highway No. 1 – a spaghetti junction of concrete, sweeping curves of grey in many shades, overlapping, twisting, jostling for space. “Isn’t that a nice piece of engineering?…incredible!” said the younger lady to the older one. I’m not sure that this is the primary reaction Burtynsky meant to elicit from his image but it is nonetheless a perfectly valid one. I couldn’t help but feel both in awe and despair as I stood transfixed, trying to figure where roads began and ended, unsure if this was a Highway to Hell or Heaven.
Other images in his collection are far easier to take a firm viewpoint on. Images of derelict oil fields in Baku, Azerbaijan for example. Pools of oil reflecting rusting rigs that stand sentry over an abandoned landscape. Perhaps most powerful of all were a series of aerial shots looking down on the scene of devastation across the Gulf of Mexico caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. A drilling platform on fire is lost in a thick glossy black sea shimmering in the sun (Oil spill No. 5) whilst elsewhere a submerged pipeline cuts through a sickly yellow sea – possibly due to an algal bloom related to the oil clean-up operation. Giant yellow tailings ponds surrounded by scorched brown earth with the chimney stacks of a refinery looming in the distance form the most striking image in his Alberta Oil Sands collective. The oil sands are a hugely controversial project in Canada – they have a far greater carbon footprint than conventional crude oil due to the extraction process and a devastating effect on the landscape of the boreal forest where they are mined.
I found myself constantly wondering about the logistics behind capturing such powerful images which were often taken from elevated angles (though not always from the sky) and requiring access to highly sensitive (as well as remote) locations. The close-ups of hulking rusting ship carcasses picked over by impoverished labourers in the world’s largest “ship graveyard” at Chittagong, Bangladesh is an example of the latter. The recent BBC television series on the Indian Ocean could only get to within half a mile out at sea even though they were freely able to film in Mogadishu, Somalia (widely accepted as the most dangerous city on earth). Burtynsky strikes me as a man of patience, diplomacy, charm (and possibly stealth) having dedicated himself to the “Oil” project over 12 years. His images convey conflicting emotions in the viewer towards the industrialization of the natural landscape. Burtynsky somehow manages to create both tension and harmony between the man-made and Natural landscape in a single image. The dramatic sunset seen in Shipbreaking No. 13 may cast a soft light on the rusting behemoths in the foreground making them seem less threatening. But one can also imagine an alternative more serene scene of coastal mangrove swamp with abundant wildlife and perhaps local fisherfolk that may have existed 50 years previously. Beauty can certainly be found in the most unexpected of places…but only a rare few can portray as he eloquently describes “vast junk-pile cemeteries that house the detritus of our petroleum economy” with such grace time and time again.