I was introduced to Burtynsky's photographs (note photographs not the man) a few years ago so when the opportunity came to attend this exhibition I jumped at it. Not only for the exhibition visit objectives but also to see the photography up close n personal like. It always amazed me that Burtynsky could take photographs of polluted rivers and raped landscapes and make them look so stunningly beautiful. to quote weareoca-
Edward Burtynsky’s exhibition Oil proved once more that the tension between aesthetics and subject matter is still an unresolved conflict in photography. In that tension lies the ability of photographs to visually compel and at the same time trigger emotions in the viewer. And if there is a photographer who has managed to find a perfect symbiosis between aesthetics and subject matter, that is Burtynsky.
The man himself has said about this body of work -
"In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil…”
Looking once more at hurriedly scribbled notes, which meant something at the time, I think I can decipher them enough to provide a coherent account of what I saw and felt.
Arranged over 2 floors there is a distinct separation between the uses of and then the effects of oil production. The body of work is actually split into 3 sections Extraction and Refinement, Transportation and Motor Culture and The End of Oil. The curation of the exhibition has obviously been very carefully thought out, the images mounted in black frames with gaps intentionally left between the images and frames themselves. I wonder if this is to add yet more grandeur to the already hugely impressive photographs, being 6 to 8 feet across. Or I think we discussed between ourselves at the time was it to suggest the oil itself, or to not "end" the image but have a suggestion the the photograph could carry on beyond the frame? This is one exhibition where I truly believe that the images could not have been displayed in a smaller format. So much detail would have been lost.
Even the lighting seems to reflect the mood of the images with artificial spotlights in the areas depicting waste and decay and the natural light, which floods in upon the upper floor, providing a more positive feel where we enthusiastically embrace all that oil has to offer us.
On closer inspection of the images themselves I kept asking myself how each was produced. An awful lot were taken from a high vantage point, was this from helicopters? Planes? Taller buildings? Cranes? The low horizon provides for the vast sweeping landscapes were the inclusion of smaller objects and people give perspective to the vast swathes of landscape being affected. Burtynsky is a master of using light, even if you think his work is digitally manipulated, or manipulated too much, the time of day at which he shoots has more impact on the feel of the final image. He uses "the golden hour" to great effect.
We walked to the top floor and worked our way down, from the celebratory to the final decline and "dark side" of the industry. Much is made of the conflict people feel about his imagery. Does he make them too beautiful? Is the need to sell and make a profit behind how he constructs them? Does it matter? If the image gets across the message of the environmental problems we face to some, whilst titillating others does it ultimately matter? Photography or fine art, the interpretation of an image always has been and always will be open. In some ways it makes a refreshing change to have something horrific made to look attractive, surely the fact that we have heated discussions over it helps to highlight the issues more? We get inundated with the horrific portrayed in an horrific fashion, why not go "wow that is gorgeous" followed by "wow is that really an oil spill" or "jeez have we really turned that river orange?"
My notes then seem to be sparse jottings about a Kiss concert, images appearing to be nature v man, comments on highways and pipelines, that you can both get close to the images to inspect tiny details as well as stand back to appreciate the full vista, rust and decay...see I told you they rambled.....
Looking online for images has jogged my memory about what I wanted to say about some...
Kiss Concert Parking Area
Burtynsky seems to be a slave to photographic rules, leading lines, rule of thirds perspectives all helping the "beautifying" of the topic. But he also gets his message across, how else would we manage to stage a concert in such a place without transportation, without oil. The contrast of the man made machines and the mountains in the background. They are there for millennia, oil and man less so.
Again the sweeping line of cars, the vibrant red against the white salt flats all a celebration of the motor industry and fun.
The final section, although possibly more disturbing as it looks directly at the impact of the oil industry, to me in some ways was more satisfying. It felt that this was the real message behind the exhibition, not the story of how it is produced, not this is how we use it, not the debate of the aesthetics of the photographs themselves but the mess we leave behind and how yet again, on the whole, we seem to leave third world countries in a worse state than us.
Burning Tire Pile # 1 Near Stockton, California 1999
Recycling #10 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001
Shipbreaking #23 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000
Shipbreaking #13 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000
No matter your opinion of the photographer himself I think what cannot be disputed is he has produced a stunning body of work which raises huge discussions which can only be a good thing. Personally I still walked away having loved it, and his work, no matter how traditional some aspects appear to be or how much he is criticised for making his work commercial.