Black Gold; Corcoran Exhibit Fuels Image of Oil Dependency

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 30, 2009 | Go to article overview

Black Gold; Corcoran Exhibit Fuels Image of Oil Dependency


Byline: Deborah K. Dietsch , THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has spent most of his career training his camera lens on huge structures - shipyards, dams and highways - to make us think about the ways in which humans have tampered with nature.

In 1997, Mr. Burtynsky had what he calls his oil epiphany. The photographer realized that the subjects he had pursued for more than two decades had been made possible by the discovery of oil and the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine, as he writes.

That awakening led to his series of imposing color prints on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Simply called Oil, the exhibit of 56 photos pays tribute to the freeways, suburbs, fast-food joints, cars, motorcycles and planes made possible by the fossil fuel.

Though the focus is oil, not much evidence of the black, viscous fluid can be found in these pictures. It's like trying to photograph something that you never see, Mr. Burtynsky says. We don't see crude oil. It's like blood in our veins. It runs through our body, but if we see it, there's a problem usually.

Rather than document the devastating effects of tanker oil spills and petroleum fires, he photographs the places where the liquid fuel is extracted, refined, distributed and consumed.

Mr. Burtynsky captures some of the same urban sprawl as architect Peter Blake did in his groundbreaking 1964 book God's Own Junkyard. The photographer pictures subdivisions, parking lots and jumbled signs, but in contrast to Blake, makes even the ugliest landscapes look beautiful.

Through his lens, huge piles of discarded car engines, oil filters and tires become textured fields of colors and patterns that resemble abstract art.

Some of his most arresting pictures focus on the most banal settings: a shiny metal pipeline snaking through the Canadian woods, the concrete spaghetti of a Los Angeles freeway interchange and rows of Volkswagens neatly lined up on a Houston auto lot.

Pictures of Canadian oil refineries, shot as if advertising their pipes and chimneys, recall the mechanistic precision of Charles Sheeler's 1920s paintings of Ford's River Rouge plant.

Through the artistry of these large-format shots - some taken from helicopters at dawn and at dusk - Mr. …

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