Photographers Gallery 19 May - 1 July 2012
"Nature transformed through industry is a predominant theme in my work" is how Edward Burtynsky describes his work. The current exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery is a selection of his project on oil.
Following what he calls his "oil epiphany" while filling his car with petrol, it struck him that the vast human altered landscapes of the previous 20 years was only possible because of the use of oil and the invention of the combustion engine. For the next 15 years he photographed everything to do with oil. This work is presented in four categories: the extraction and refinement of oil, Detroit motor city, transportation and motor culture and what he calls the end of oil.
He presents large beautiful photos to confront us with the contradiction of good living and the cost that we are consciously or unconsciously aware of the environmental impact.
He says - "These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear."
The exhibition is arranged over two floors of the gallery and shows three sections from his oil series (Detroit motor city is not included). Beginning on the top floor with images of oil fields and refineries first impressions are of the size, radiance and clarity of the prints. Most are taken in the muted soft light of evening twilight that lulled me into seeing artistic landscapes.
It is only on closer inspection that the real nature of the scenes become apparent. This is even more striking when looking at the final section, the end of oil, where the beautiful very quickly turns to disturbing. We are presented with what happens when oil fields are abandoned and leave a scarred earth behind, or where oil tankers are decommissioned on once beautiful beaches of Bangladesh. Here the ships are turned into scrap metal by low paid workers in conditions that are unacceptable to those in the affluent west.
Shipbreaking #11 Chittagong, Bangladesh - http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/WORKS/Oil/Oil_Book/THE_END_OF_OIL/083-SHB_11_00_Oil.html
The picture above, is one of the images where the ships are turned into scrap metal taken on Chittagong Beach in Bangladesh. This image is typical of Burtynsky's work in its use of colour in light , golden hues of the fading sun shining onto the rusty hulls of the ships making them positively glow. The other common feature in his work is the wide view as in this image or an elevated view, taken from a crane or helicopter making one aware of the vastness of the space given to oil and its production.
Everything within his images appears as if perfectly planned. The arrangement of the workers and the ship form a triangle. The soft hue of the ambient light and the bright lights of the welding equipment also draw you eye into the centre of the image. The darker oil stained pieces of metal on the edges form a natural vignette. The edges of the frame have nothing distracting, something I find I am frequently guilty of. As with all his images the clarity and sharpness is perfect in every pixel.
The story in the image raises lots of questions for me. What is the man in the blue and white check sarong with a basket doing there. How many ships are lined up behind the two we can see. What has this industry done to the water and sea life. It does make one aware of the negative aspect of our dependency on oil. When will we find a real alternative.
Burtnysky's intention of searching for dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear is successful on one hand as I was seduced into the beauty of the images. I feel more anger toward the oil barons for their abuse of poorer countries and workers rather than being repulsed. I'm not certain what I should fear. The end of oil? Perhaps this would be a good thing.
I can't quite decide whether the beauty of the images slightly over rides the message Burtynsky is trying to deliver. They are all still fine art images and I feel would sit comfortably on the wall of a C.E.O.'s office.