4.20 / From the Archives: Photo-Sensitive

Interview with Edward Burtynsky

By Daily Serving June 26, 2012

Image: Edward Burtynsky. Highway #1 Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003; chromogenic color print. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. © Edward Burtynsky.

As part of our ongoing partnership with Daily Serving, Art Practical is pleased to republish Seth Curcio’s interview, “The Big Picture: An interview with Ed Burtynsky,” which you can also read here at Daily Serving. 


It’s often impossible to fully understand the big picture of industrialized development from the limited perspective of the consumer. Each day, most of us in the Western world go about our business—driving to and from work, using plastics made from petroleum, enjoying foods shipped from thousands of miles away—without a thought to the very resource that makes this all possible: oil. The impact of oil has consistently reappeared in the work of the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky for well over a decade. The viewpoints of Burtynsky’s photographs often soar into the air, freeing us from our limited perspectives and offering us the ability to better understand the scale and impact that this material has on contemporary life. It is only through this expansive perspective that we begin to understand the magnitude and consequences of our complicit actions.-SC

Recently, Daily Serving’s founder Seth Curcio was able to speak to Burtynsky by phone about his current exhibition, titled Oil, on view at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno through September 23, 2012. During this conversation, we learn how Burtynsky’s research has altered his own relationship to oil, how he uses scale and perspective to shape our understanding of the industrialized world, and what lies ahead for us in the future of oil.


Seth Curcio: In the introduction to your book, Oil, you said, “In 1997, I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that all the vast man-altered landscapes I had pursued for over twenty years had been made possible by oil.” Since that time, you have spent a decade and a half documenting the global impact of oil consumption. How has this ongoing project shaped the way that you interact with the world, especially in regard to oil consumption?

Ed Burtynsky: At that point, I had spent sixteen or seventeen years trying to find the largest events possible around mining and quarrying. I was interested in places that we had collectively engaged and that illustrate scale. I realized that the scale that I’d been photographing could only have been achieved through the combustive engine and a readily available fuel, such as oil.

These ideas led me to consider the things that are around me, from the fuel in my car to the road that I am driving on to the plastic container that was in my hand. They are all produced with oil. As I started to look around, I asked myself, “What’s not oil?” and that became the more interesting question. It was at that point that I closed the chapter on mining and opened the chapter on the oil landscape. That began my research on representing the extraction and refinement of oil, the urban worlds and events produced as a result of oil, and the end of the line—the final entropy and physical result of oil consumption.

Through this, I was fully aware that I was involved in the consumption of oil, too. You simply cannot live life in the modern world without the usage of oil. We are all in some way participating in the material and resource. But I’m always trying to find ways to mitigate my own consumption and impact. I planted a forest in 1985 and have since cared for it as a gesture to offset my carbon footprint. I’ve always been careful to purchase fuel-efficient cars, and each time I fly, I purchase from companies that have carbon-offset programs. It is always my hope to be able to offset my [fossil-fuel] usage through these means.

SC: As individuals, we have limited perspectives that often prohibit us from seeing the larger picture of our impact on the planet. Literally shifting our perspective to one thousand or more feet above the ground can drastically change how we see the world. For me, this was strikingly evident in the expansive aerial photograph Highway #5, Los Angeles, California, USA (2009). Can you talk a little about perspective and access, as it relates to your work?

Ed Burtynsky. SOCAR Oil Fields

Edward Burtynsky. SOCAR Oil Fields #6 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006; chromogenic color print. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. © Edward Burtynsky.

EB: When you stand at ground level, a real visual hierarchy begins to form. Everything in the foreground of the picture becomes dominant and hides everything behind it. The middle just becomes irrelevant at eye or ground level. But then I realized that as you move up a bit, things begin to reveal themselves, and you get a real sense of the relationships between the foreground, middle ground, and background. The descriptive power of the elevated point of view becomes so much more interesting than the view from the ground. From this viewpoint, you really get the chance to understand the scale of the landscape or how much of something is there, like how many cars are backed up behind you or how many planes are parked together. You get to see and really understand scale from the elevated viewpoint. And for me, that is a way that I can describe the system in which we organize certain things on such a large scale.

SC: That is completely evident in the work, too. The perspective instantly brings me back to your seminal question, “What’s not oil?” And this perspective allows you to sense the vastness and excessiveness of our consumption. The scale itself becomes grotesque. I was discussing your work with a friend the other day, and as we looked at your images, he recalled reading a passage by Robert Adams, in which he mentioned that for a landscape photograph to fully confront the grotesque and carry that depiction over to a viewer, an element of seduction or even the sublime must be present. Your images certainly contain a seductive quality that seems counter to the content, but they nonetheless draw you in. What do you feel is the role of aesthetics, as it relates to your images? How is this considered when you construct and edit your photographs?

EB: I do believe that an image has to be visually compelling to address the kind of landscape that will challenge us and make us ask the important questions. I think that artists don’t really have the power to change the world, but we do have the power to raise questions about the world that we are creating. In my heart, I feel that as artists we can hold a mirror up to society and help reflect exactly what we are doing and what type of world we are creating. All types of artists have the ability to take on this task. We must take on society and examine the condition of the human experience and make sense of it as individuals and as a collective society. You are simply not going to get this type of storytelling directly from science. It is the role of the artist to tell this type of story. It’s inherent in the creative arts to reflect where we are going in a way that perhaps has not been thought of before. And aesthetics is a portal through which people will enter to explore these notions. But if the work is not visually interesting enough for them to enter, then you won’t be able to communicate anything at all to the viewer.

Edward Burtynsky Alberta Oil Sands 6

Edward Burtynsky. Alberta Oil Sands #6 Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007; chromogenic color print. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. © Edward Burtynsky.

SC: Your images are simultaneously seductive and aggressive, instantly placing the viewer in the question-asking role. They prompt one to consider his or her place within the image and how one’s culture and daily activities contribute to a much larger problem. Paul Roth has said about your work, “The subject is not oil… These photographs are about man and what he has made of this Earth.” While the gravity of this resource is certainly evident throughout your pictures, I feel that the effects on humanity are most profound in the portraits found in the group The End of Oil (1997–2006). Since you were on the ground, engaging with people whose lives are directly impacted by man’s use of oil, I wonder if you connected with humanity in a way that was not possible in your more distant aerial photographs? Did making those portraits change the way you thought about man and what he has made of this earth, as Roth suggests?

EB: When I went to Bangladesh, it was if I stepped back in time and was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Many of the people there were engaging in the most filthy, hard, arduous work that can be conceived. I felt that I went back in time because I could never see this type of work in my culture, as that moment has long passed. These men were working barefoot in a scrapyard, cutting metal with a torch and without eye protection, and inhaling clouds of asbestos without respirators. They are part of the collateral damage of the Western [petroleum industry]. It’s a filthy job, cutting down massive ships that are technologically obsolete for our purposes. But, to see these people barefoot and still holding a shred of dignity in these types of jobs, I felt that at some point it is important for humanity to enter this project and for viewers to see humans engaging with the end result of our impact, as opposed to those who participated in the beginning of the narrative. I thought it was important to show humanity in a very unfortunate situation, even as they are attempting to better themselves, so that the First World can really see exactly who is doing our dirty work. And that is why I wanted to have people appear and at that particular point in the narrative.

Edward Burtynsky Shipbreaking 23

Edward Burtynsky. Shipbreaking #23 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000; chromogenic color print. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. © Edward Burtynsky.

Over time, it has become more apparent to me that these aren’t as much landscapes as they are places that illustrate the systems, such as how we extract oil from the ground, how we ship it, and how we build infrastructure to move machines around. The work is about trying to find a way to represent all of the systems that we have created to enjoy the benefits that the internal combustion engine and oil have afforded us. The images are not really about the singular place; they are stand-ins for the ways that we have changed our landscape to accommodate all of these things—this new way of life.

SC: Absolutely. The impact is so invisible to the Western world. There are so few moments when we can see the effects of our culture on the rest of the Earth. This brings to mind the times when we do get to see our actions unfold—like with the Gulf of Mexico oil crisis. Considering that you had been working on this project and related projects for well over a decade when the crisis happened two years ago, what went though your mind when viewing those images and video on TV? What is your reaction to the incident and all that has occurred in that region since the spill?

EB: I went and photographed that area right after the spill occurred. I had been working on a project about water, and I thought, “This is a perfect example of an immediate oil and water event that is loaded with implications that are real and happening right now.” I thought it would give me a chance to see these all-important liquids in our life in an unexpected and unwanted marriage. It was like the Frankenstein story, where we did something and didn’t fully understand the risks. We drilled through twenty-three hundred to five thousand feet of water and another seventeen thousand feet of bedrock to get to the oil—and then to have it all go bad and lose control of the well. It’s like when Doctor Frankenstein creates life, and then it turns on him and becomes a menace. The same scientists [who developed risky extraction methods] are then trying to contain the oil and get it back into the lab, but it’s not that easy. It really is the story of science overreaching and then losing control. It’s a lesson that we keep repeating: not fully understanding the risk and moving forward anyway. Imagine if this is repeated in drilling conditions in the Arctic. If there were a spill in the winter, there would be no way of reaching it; it would just gush all winter long and could very well completely destroy the Arctic. Imagine the mess that we would all be in then. The idea of an error occurring in the Arctic is a real nightmare. The Gulf has thirty-five thousand wells; [the oil companies] are not new at this, and they have every bit of technology, help, and resources available at their disposal to help solve the problem. Now, the Arctic is a completely different situation. With all of the resources available, it still took three months to stop the oil in the Gulf! In the Arctic, who is there to help? Who is there to save the day? Nobody. So it is a scary thought that we would advance into this region in our pursuit of this material.

SC: There are so many concerns about the inevitability of another spill at the magnitude of the Gulf oil crisis. But the Western world is so detached from the actual production of oil that we can seem out of touch. We just know that we still need oil, and therefore another drilling site will be built; another type of technology will be invented to reach another pocket of oil. This brings me to the landscape pictures that you made under the umbrella of The End of Oil. They are so striking and haunting. These images really get to the essence of not only the impact of our consumption of oil but also the waste we leave behind. However, we know that now matter how many of these sites are used and abandoned, inevitably another will open to satisfy our needs. So, seeing these images actually makes me consider the future of oil. I’m curious about what your discoveries have led you to think about the future of the manmade world in regard to this material? What do you see on the horizon?

Edward Burtynsky Breezewood Pennsylvania

Edward Burtynsky. Breezewood Pennsylvania, USA, 2008; chromogenic color print. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto. © Edward Burtynsky.

EB: I see it in terms of peak oil. It is not a question of if; it is a question of when. It’s not like peak oil is going to stop. It’s just like the 1974 peak oil problem: it crests and no matter how much you pump, it can’t keep up with the public demand. All of a sudden, you see supply go in one direction and demand go in the other. Then you get market adjustment; the prices go up to help reduce demand. Its like playing ping-pong on a moving train: the price goes up and down, but really it’s always moving up and going forward. When we average it out, it will move from $100 to $200, $300, $400 per barrel, and that is what it will look like at different price points. As the price goes higher, more people will be left behind. Fewer people will be able to drive or fly in an airplane, and oil consumption will be left for those with more capital while the rest of us deal with massive inflation. And Third World countries could be completely without oil, leaving them with huge amounts of social unrest. Countries like China are purchasing oil fields and natural resources from anyone that will sell, as they know that they don’t have many of their own natural resources. They are stockpiling from locations around the world in preparation for their expanded development. And there is going to be a lot of global tension as we begin to hit peak oil again.

But there is something that we here in the West can do. It is called losing our addiction to oil. I feel that we could reduce our consumption by 30 percent through conservation: raising the fuel-economy average to fifty miles per gallon in cars, producing alternative energy, and reducing the huge tax cuts to oil companies and giving them to green-energy developers. There just hasn’t been the right emphasis put in the right places yet. Historically, big infrastructure changes have to come in part from the government, just like they did when we needed to add telephone lines, highways, and hydroelectric development: they all came from the government. And, if we are going to make these changes in relationship to our oil consumption, if we really want sustainable alternative energy, the government has to be there. It has to create a level playing field. It’s got to put oil in the same place as alternatives and quit giving benefits to oil over alternative energy. Tax people for carbon consumption, and alternatives start looking really good. We all play a part in this.

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