Oil's Slippery Slope: "These Images Tell an Epic Story of Mankind Expressed through Our Discovery, Exploitation, and Celebration of This Vital Natural Resource."

USA TODAY, January 2010 | Go to article overview

Oil's Slippery Slope: "These Images Tell an Epic Story of Mankind Expressed through Our Discovery, Exploitation, and Celebration of This Vital Natural Resource."


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THIS ORIGINAL exhibition, featuring 56 large-scale color landscapes by Canadian native Edward Burtynsky, surveys a decade of photographic imagery exploring the subject of oil. With many new photographs, most never before exhibited, it chronicles the "lifecycle" of a major energy source, one that profoundly has shaped the modern world.

"Edward Burtynsky's images of industry and altered landscapes are among the most powerful, most visceral photographs being made today. His body of work on oil is an extraordinary undertaking--a profound and un precedented look at a subject that affects all of our fives," says Paul Roth, senior curator of Photography and Media Arts at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where the exhibit was on view late last year.

From 1997-2009, Burtynsky traveled internationally to chronicle the production, distribution, and use of this critical fuel. In addition to revealing the rarely-seen mechanics of its manufacture, he photographs the effects of oil on our lives, depicting landscapes altered by its extraction from the Earth and by the sprawl generated around its use.

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Burtynsky's large-scale color photographs render his subjects with transfixing clarity of detail. His extensive exploration is organized thematically: aerial views of oil fields; the architecture of massive refineries; highway interchanges ribboning across the landscape; and motorculture aficionados at automotive events. The artist concludes his exploration with a series of arresting "manufactured" landscapes: ancient oil derricks; vistas of junked vehicles; recycling yards; and mammoth shipbreaking operations.

Burtynsky photographs the phenomenon of oil in an effort to portray its complex psychological and physical dimensions. These images tell an epic story of mankind expressed through our discovery, exploitation, and celebration of this vital natural resource. His images hint at the socio-economic complexity of the subject, but remain open-ended by creating a sense of the sublime.

Writes Roth in the book (Burtynsky Oil) released to correspond with the exhibition: "In these pictures, Edward Burtynsky shows the man-made world--the human ecosystem-that has risen up around the production, use, and dwindling availability of our paramount energy source. The mechanics and industry of extraction and refinement: the development, products, and activities associated with transportation and motor culture; and the wreckage, obsolescence, and human cost that lies in the End of Oil. …

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