Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
Many of the 20th century's greatest landscape photographers consciously embraced an environmentalist ethic in their work. Ansel Adams's long association with the Sierra Club and his tireless devotion to conservation is of course well known. Eliot Porter, Ray Atkinson, Robert Glenn Ketchum and many others pictured the dwindling remnants of pristine landscape as a redemptive Eden, worth preserving before it was all paved over.
While many folks have continued pursuing this idiom, in a world with six billion people and relentlessly increasing pressure on the environment it's harder to find unique corners of wilderness that haven't been photographed already. Confrontational images illustrating environmental degradation have been a feature of work by photographers such as Richard Misrach, Ed Kashi and Robert Glenn Ketchum. (Ketchum seems to slyly insert a few shocking images between more traditional pretty landscapes.) There can be a kind of formalist beauty to such photographs, but it's obviously a much tougher challenge than rendering a snow-capped mountain or forest waterfall attractively.
Edward Burtynsky has built a career in fine art photography meeting this challenge. He began photographing conventionally beautiful landscapes in large format. As he relates in the video Manufactured Landscapes, he had an epiphany while attempting to photograph in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania. He realized that every bit of landscape within sight had been completely reshaped by coal mining. Nothing was "natural." The landscape as reshaped by man instead became his subject.
Oil is Burtynsky's latest book. The extraction, distribution, consumption, and declining availability of petroleum are all explored through his large-format photographs.
The opening section examines extraction and refinement. The immense size, geometric order and rectilinear shapes of production fields and refineries make for images of striking formal beauty despite the subject matter, all rendered in fine-grained detail. The cover image, reproduced inside, is a vast diptych of a California production field with endless ranks of derricks, shot in warm late-day light. Another image shot from the air reveals the colossal scale of tar sands extraction.
Next is "Motor Culture," images of the world oil has made. Aerial shots of geometric highway interchanges, the immensity of exurban sprawl, endless rows of new cars awaiting shipment—even Bike Week in Sturgis, South Dakota, gets the same monumental treatment.
Last, and darkest, is "The End of Oil." In this section Burtynsky shows us the final result of the process: rusted out, oozing abandoned oil fields, endless ranks of junked cars and airplanes. Some of the most affecting images show unbelievably vast piles of discarded tires, or the grim oil-soaked reality of recycling in the developing world.
Following the images are essays by curator Paul Roth, writer/photographer Michael Mitchell, and economist/ecologist William E. Rees. Their essays provide a sobering perspective on what the extraction of petroleum, the consequences of its exploitation, and the predicted decline in production mean to civilization and the planet. The essays bracket a short, ironic postscript group of photographs of Detroit's decaying abandoned auto factories.
Oil is a remarkable book for those concerned about where, as an industrial civilization, we are headed in the future. The beautiful photographs of nominally unappealing subjects may cause a bit of cognitive dissonance compared to photographs of a pristine mountain lake; but they're beautiful just the same.
For those interested in Edward Burtynsky's work, there is an embarrassment of riches currently available in book form. Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky, catalog to the 2003 exhibition, is still available, though its reproductions are marred by poor shadow detail (U.K. link). China (Steidl, 2006) has very good reproductions, which beautifully depict the country's vast factories and frenzied urban construction, together with older coal and steel facilities (U.K. link). Finally, Quarries (Steidl, 2009) (U.K. link) applies the same immaculate large format photography to the mining of marble, granite and limestone. Reproductions are again excellent; large vehicles look like Matchbox toys inside gleaming marble pits in the earth. Great stuff if you like this kind of photography.
Featured Comment by Gavin: "I work in the oil industry, mostly installing offshore platforms and laying pipes, not something Mr Burtynsky has photographed, but it is nice to see some really good, truthful pictures of any kind of industry. The manufactured landscape is all around us; most of the 'wild' landscapes here in the U.K. are anything but. I used to live down in the SW of England and Dartmoor, a popular haunt of landscape photographers, was once one of the most industrialized areas of the World (probably) as tin and lead etc. were mined. It doesn't take much effort to find the remains of the mines and smelters if you know where to look."
Featured Comment by Moose [responding to Gavin]: "From a broader perspective: 'Southern England, for example, is one of the largest structures ever made by man. We think of it as nature: the beautiful expanse of towns, villages, forests and moors that extends from Cornwall to Kent and from the south coast to the Midlands. We think of it as natural, but of course it is man-made, almost all of it. It wasn't there three thousand years ago. It is a consciously created structure, perhaps 300 miles by 100 miles, and it has been created slowly, patiently, over a period of about a thousand years.' Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Book One, 'The Phenomenon of Life,' pp. 28-29."