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Tuesday, 24 November 2009


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He does do beautiful work, and I've always liked industrial photography. Unspoiled scenery is lovely, as are soaring skylines and graceful towers and bridges. But there's a certain poetry and beauty in human industry and functional infrastructure that some modern photographers seem embarrassed to celebrate. Artists must, of course, be true to their own artistic vision. Personally, though, I've always found this attitude somewhat ironic, considering that photography was arguably the first unique art form of the industrial age.

Here is a different view of the problem with OIL.

My first impulse after reading this post was to write off the work as yet another selectively photographed, gloom-and-doom collection of "evil industry" photographs meant to instill fear and anger. (Disclaimer: I am an exploration geologist by profession.) But then I paused and had a look at Burtynsky's web site, artist statement, and images. Burtynsky has done a wonderful job of making arresting work from "ugly" subjects. The work is exaggerated toward the "dark side", but I found Burtynsky's message directed not so much toward industry, as toward the consumer. The consumer has not only a right, but moreso a responsibility, to know what's behind their products.
As photographers, we should all be aware that with a different vision, one could make benign and pretty photographs in the same locations.

I recently came across the TED talk he gave about the project. Pretty interesting: http://www.ted.com/talks/edward_burtynsky_photographs_the_landscape_of_oil.html

If you happen to visit Amsterdam this winter, Huis Marseille will have an exhibition of Burtynsky prints starting next week.
The house itself is also worth a visit.

Burtynsky's deep personal connection to this topic is related by Tyler Green in his "Modern Art Notes":


I applaud and appreciate Burtynsky's intent, ambition and accomplishment as represented in the book and exhibit, and admire his work in general.

However, my one quibble with this monumental work, especially in light of its title, is (ironically) its limited scope. Granted, the production of oil and motor culture and its consequences are dominating and toxic aspects of the dominant culture of this planet. But we citizens of that culture seldom contemplate how widely and profoundly oil pervades every aspect of our existence and dictates our political, social and economic priorities. What and how we eat; how we dress and groom ourselves; how we wash and clean, and entertain ourselves; how, where and why we engage in armed conflicts and occupations... all dictated or heavily influenced by oil reliance.

A propos this gathering: just about every aspect of digital photography is made of oil--from the materials and methods used to develop and produce the equipment to the inks and screens used to reproduce and present the image. And, of course, oil gets all of those things into many hands at affordable prices.

I'll also recommend the video, which I picked up at the exhibit of "Oil" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art currently running through 12/13.

The video concentrates on industrial development in China, including the "Three Gorges" Project.

- Tim

Thank you for this article, Geoff. I have been both fascinated and inspired by Edward Burtynsky's meticulous imagery of such scenes for some time. Seeing the original prints is a real treat.

I also recommend the "Manufactured Landscapes" video. Thank you for reminding me to get the catalog.

I can appreciate a natural landscape as much as the next person but damn I love industrial shots like the one above.

Glistening metal is one of the most under appreciated subjects IMO. Abstract sections of trucks, trains, junkyards and heavy equipment added to industrial pipe configurations do my heart good.

If the opportunity arises to see an exhibition of Burtynsky's work grab it. The prints are absolutely stunning, technically and artistically.

It's landscape photography of this kind that really interests me. The moment I saw the shot of the refinery I thought of Bernd and Hilla Becher's Typologies which are beautiful but feel more like a scientific exploration than a photographic one. For me Robert Adam's is much more interesting than Ansel Adam's and there's definitely some truth and landscape in Edward Burtynsky's Oil

"If the opportunity arises to see an exhibition of Burtynsky's work grab it. The prints are absolutely stunning, technically and artistically."

His Oil exhibition is coming to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, this spring. Only a 250 mile drive from me, which I'll make. The irony

The opportunity has arisen if you can get to Ottawa, Canada before 31 January. Go to the Carleton University Art Gallery to see 22 examples of Mr Burtynsky's China work:

"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."

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


Well, that's most of my Christmas shopping done in one post, including my self-present. Thanks, Mike!

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