3.20 / Review

From Reno: Edward Burtynsky: Oil

By Victoria Gannon August 2, 2012

Driving east toward Reno, Nevada greets me with parched hillsides so smooth that they resemble sand dunes. The ground is arid and brown, too humble for flowers or lawns. For several miles, I picture only weathered ranchers in the sun, shuttling overworked cattle into pens. I imagine the tracks of the transcontinental railroad first being laid over a hundred years ago, spontaneous and lawless boomtowns growing alongside. I idle in this frontier dream until, a few miles outside town, I'm forcefully awoken by a subdivision of houses. Their lushness is without precedent. Sprinklers twirl over groomed yards; shiny cars sit in paved driveways. Billboards and gas stations, parking lots and big box stores sprout. Casinos beckon. The high-desert city opens up in plastic abundance, rebuking whatever scarcity the earlier landscape suggested.

Situated both physically and conceptually at this juncture between Western spaciousness and artificial plentitude is the Nevada Museum of Art. Located in downtown Reno, the museum reflects the contradictions epitomized by its surroundings through its programming and exhibitions. At the museum’s core is the Altered Landscape Photography Collection, a group of photographs that explores man’s effect on and depiction of the environment. The collection’s images counter traditional representations of the landscape in which nature is presented as pristine and untouched, as in Ansel Adams’s photographs of sublime mountains or Albert Bierstadt’s paintings of mist-shrouded valleys. Instead, the Altered Landscape photographers present society and landscape not as dichotomous, but as interdependent and entwined, so embroiled as to be indistinguishable.1

Edward Burtynsky. Talladega Speedway #1, Aaron 499 Race, Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009; chromogenic color print; 46 ¾ x 58 ¾ inches. Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz, New York. © Edward Burtynsky.

Photographers Lewis Baltz and Robert Dawson, who both have work in the collection, take tract housing and highway rest stops, culverts and oil dredges as their subjects. Baltz’s The Nevada Portfolio (1977) contrasts the state’s dry, sagebrush-studded ground with the sterile, newly constructed subdivisions that interrupt it. As though in response, Dawson’s San Francisco’s Entire Water Supply Flows Through This Pipe, Near Mather, California (1992) exposes the hydrological manipulation that supports such developments. Dawson’s caption sounds hyperbolic compared to his understated image—it’s just a picture of a pipe. But his discordance is purposeful, underscoring the difficulty of visualizing and comprehending the scope of society’s environmental interference.

A single dynamic repeatedly emerges from viewing the collection’s images: to build something requires exploiting something else. Identical flimsy homes are erected overnight; a distant forest is cut down. Cars drive on a road; a Central Valley plain is decimated by oil dikes. A subdivision goes up in the desert; water is diverted from a lake miles away. Such mundane scenes become a set of visual equations that expose the absurdity of the built environment and the drastic interventions that enable it.

Edward Burtynsky. Shipbreaking #11,Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000; chromogenic color print; 46 ¾ x 58 ¾ inches. Courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowitz, New York. © Edward Burtynsky.

A similar string of relationships becomes visible in the museum’s current exhibition, Edward Burtynsky: Oil. From 1997 to 2009, Burtynsky traveled the world to document the life cycle of this fossil fuel. He visited India, Canada, Azerbaijan, and Arizona, among other places, photographing pipelines, derricks, gas stations, junkyards, and people. The fifty large-scale color images on view are not in the Altered Landscape collection, though they could be. Like Dawson and Baltz, Burtynsky makes visible man’s symbiotic and destructive relationship with the environment.

The series presents oil at its most abstract and sanitized, as well as at its most direct and dirtiest. It proceeds in three sections: “Extraction and Refinement,” “Transportation and Motor Culture,” and “The End of Oil.” In the first section, we see a massive pipeline snake its way through a lush forest in northern Canada, visually echoing Dawson’s San Francisco’s Entire Water Supply. We are then immersed in the intricate architecture of an oil refinery, a reflection of the industry’s sophisticated technology. In the second section, we see professional car races attended by rapt fans and towns whose only businesses are gas stations and fast food franchises. Here oil functions as a means to an end, enabling entertainment, travel, and commerce. Both sections present oil euphemistically; it’s there, but it’s cloaked in sleek and shiny packaging.

It’s in the final section, “The End of Oil,” that the interaction between humans and oil becomes visceral and immediate. We travel to oil-saturated recycling centers in India where the ground is thick with tar and men scrape barrels for traces of petroleum. We go to the site of incendiary oil rigs being dismantled by hand; blowtorch sparks fly through the air. We visit fields of rusting fighter planes and salvaged automobiles, symbols of American culture and its long and detrimental afterlife. The section’s subtitle is a double entendre, referencing the detritus that punctuates oil’s lifecycle and the earth’s ultimately finite fuel supply.

As Dawson’s aforementioned photograph illustrates, a single scene cannot portray a multidimensional phenomenon. Like the Altered Landscape collection, Burtynsky’s series acquires its power cumulatively. Through juxtaposition and implied narrative among images, equivalencies, sequences, and contradictions form. The most striking disparity to emerge here is the one between those who live with oil in the most physical, fundamental, and dangerous of ways and those who interact with it only at a distance, pulling up to a neon-lit pump or watching a car race from the bleachers. Drivers in the United States fill their cars with gasoline and never spill a drop on themselves, while a man in Bangladesh is physically coated with the viscous liquid as he scavenges for traces from a used barrel. Through such pairings, we witness how each piece in this multipronged system necessitates the others. 

While Burtynsky’s photographs engage with complicated questions, they do not sacrifice beauty or grandiosity. A field of abandoned jets at dusk glows with opalescence; the patina of a rusting oil rig foregrounds a primitive scene of men kneeling over orange flames. In this way, his work follows both the trajectory of the Altered Landscape photographers and that of more romantic artists who valued beauty above all else. In the end, the question Burtynsky poses is not simply how to cure our dependence on oil. Instead it’s a question more timeless, one fundamental to all aesthetic endeavors: How can a thing so beautiful also be so horrific?


Edward Burtynsky: Oil is on view at the Nevada Museum of Art, in Reno, through September 23, 2012.


  1. Many of the photographers with work in the Altered Landscape collection, such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, were among those who exhibited in the seminal 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, at the George Eastman House. The exhibition is credited with fostering an alternative approach to landscape photography, in which the idyllic and beatific was replaced by imagery that acknowledged environmental degradation and everyday suburban and urban environments as potential subject matter.

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