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  • Oil Landscapes
  • Maria Whiteman (bio)
Oil. Edward Burtynsky. Steidl. 215 pages; cloth, $128.00.

This extravagant book is larger than most coffee table books, and one that catches the eye not only because of its bulk but by the visual demand made by the photo on its cover: an army of pump jacks stretching away to the California desert horizon. This latest collection of Edward Burtynsky's photographs (winner of the 2010 Deutscher Fotobuchpreis Silver Medal) is made up of both new and old photos that address the topic of oil from every possible angle. In Burtynsky's characteristic style, which emphasizes scale and number (most often from the vantage point offered by a construction crane), these photos prompt shock and awe in the face of the visual representation of the sheer size of those varied infrastructures that enable oil to course through the veins of global society.

Burtynsky describes Oil (which has been exhibited at galleries and museums around the world, beginning at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2009) as the outcome of an "oil epiphany" he had in 1997. "It occurred to me that all the vast man-altered landscapes I had pursued for over twenty years," he writes, "had been made possible by the discovery of oil and the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine.... These images can be seen as notations by one artist— contemplating the world made possible through this massive energy force, and the cumulative effects of the industrial evolution." The book is divided into three sections intended to document the life cycle of oil, passing from "Extraction and Refinement" to "Transportation and Motor Culture" to "The End of Oil." The photos making up each section are heterogeneous in theme and content, and photographed at numerous locations around the world. "Extraction and Refinement" includes images of older oil fields in the California desert, which tend to be jam-packed with drill rigs and pump jacks; the expansive oil sands extraction sites and tailing ponds in Fort McMurray, Alberta; and the complex, visually dynamic (if virtually incomprehensible) twists and turns of refinery structures in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Texas. "Transportation and Motor Culture" begins with a series of M. C. Escher-like images of enormous highway interchanges before taking us to massive car import lots in the U.S. and China, as well as sites at which people accumulate around the fantasy of driving, as in the biker and trucker jamborees held in Sturgis, South Dakota and Walcott, Iowa, respectively.

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Detail from Cover

If the photos in the first two sections draw our attention to the apparatuses and infrastructures that produce and are produced by oil—from sites of extraction largely hidden from view to the quotidian landscape of highways and car lots—"The End of Oil" probes the consequences of oil society, especially through the detritus that it leaves behind. The multiple images of the ancient oilfields of Baku, as well as of gigantic graveyards of cars, helicopters, planes, jet engines, tires, and oil drums, are concluded [End Page 6] with a sequence of photos on which Burtynsky made his fame: the shipbreaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh, where nineteenth-century labor meets twentieth-century garbage through the mechanism of twenty-first century offshoring of multinational capitalism's expenses and responsibilities.

Oil is a photo narrative—an attempt to tell a story through images. Rather than an exhibition of his latest pieces, the book (and the show it represents) is akin to a curatorial exercise in which one aspect of an artist's thematic preoccupations are drawn out of a larger body of work. What makes Oil unique is that in this case, the curator is the artist himself, who has revisited his large body of images in an effort to produce a tale that might generate in its viewers the same oil epiphany that prompted their production. Burtynsky is far from the only photographer to generate photo essays with political intent. One thinks immediately, for instance, of Allan Sekula's Fish Story (1996), though text (the powerful essays included alongside his photos in most of his published work) is important for...


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pp. 6-7
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