Edward Burtynsky: Oil

The Toronto based Edward Burtynsky is probably one of the biggest players in the world of photography on the subject of both man’s interference with and simultaneous reliance on nature such as his work showcasing railcuts, homesteads, mines, metal tailings, rock quarries in Iberia, China, and closer to home in Vermont, not to mention an extensive body of works on ship breaking, recycling, ports, and the rebar industry. Burtynsky is fascinated by our need for this interference in order to live in abundance of “good living” with the cars that take us from place to place, the gadgets that keep us connected, the clothes that give us our identities. These are all non-necessary to our actual survival and continued existence, yet to many in this modern time, that is merely an after thought, if any thought at all.

How many times have you heard someone say they can’t live without their iphone? And who can forget the tired but successful slogan of American Express that feeds into the consumer culture of Americans– “Don’t Leave Home Without It.” Burtynsky seeks out subjects which are not predominantly in the forefront of our minds, like that of recycling yards, mass production factories, oil refineries– but that are ever present and growing because of our “need” for modern, luxurious, amenities, or as some call them necessities. He uses scale, vantage point, and specific angles to give context about the sheer size and vastness of his subject matter.

Below are a few selected images from Burtynsky’s work about oil refineries. These are landscapes you might not necessarily think of when you hear political candidates speak about on shore or off shore drilling as America’s “answer” to rising fuel prices. However, these are landscapes that are probably near to someone you know. Near their home, near their children’s school, near their office, near the “natural” park or beach where they go to escape the hustle and bustle of a city. And at the rate we’re going, they could be cropping up in pockets all over this country, not just in the alien lands the majority of Americans have never visited and just seen on the news. In fact, just last summer when I drove down the beach from Malibu through Venice past Long Beach and down to Laguna beach, I saw well after well after well drilling in front of property, house, beach, between restaurants… They dotted what was once one of the most beautiful coastlines I had ever seen. No more.

Oil Fields No. 1, Belridge, California 2002.

Oil Fields No. 1, Belridge, California 2002.

Oil Fields No. 13, Taft, California 2002.

Oil Fields No. 13, Taft, California 2002.

Oil Fields No. 10, California 2002.

Oil Fields No. 10, McKittrick California 2002.

And because China is in the limelight right now with Olympic coverage, I want to share an image of Burtynsky’s from his series on the Three Gorges Dam, which I’ve written about before with the work of Stephen Wilkes. Many more can be seen on his website by clicking here. I can’t help but shake my head in awe. Burtynsky captured this scene of people still living their daily lives amongst the rubble of construction and evident displacement in light that highlights the dust and debris everywhere you look. How can people live, much less breathe, in a place like this you might ask? They have no choice. For them, it IS a matter of survival and continued existence, due directly to our interference with and reliance on nature. Can you see the nature in this image? Exactly the point. I urge you to view more of Burtynsky’s work by visiting his website.

Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie #5, Yangtze River, China 2002.

Three Gorges Dam Project, Feng Jie #5, Yangtze River, China 2002.


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