Burtynsky: OIL


The Photographer’s Gallery (TPG)

26th May 2012

Gareth, Jose, Clive

Objective 1:

gain a personal perspective on the work of an influential photographer

I first encountered Burtynsky’s work at the Liverpool Look11 festival where a few of his Bangladesh ship-breakers photos were on display, and I was astounded by the detail, sharpness and sheer depth of his work. On the Photographer’s Gallery website they have a few images as a background and even on a small computer screen they are still impressive, although the screen shots nor the books for sale come close to seeing the original images.


There was an OCA study trip to the same Liverpool festival and I was surprised at the fairly negative perception of Burtynsky’s work from several students on the blog, and at this TPG study day I heard a few similar conversations. In one conversation it was suggested that his work was “photoshopped to death”, and that caused me re-think what I was seeing, and re-examine the exhibition, and yes, I understood that Burtynsky has perhaps moved beyond “normal” photography into the realms of HDR, which I personally dislike when it’s over-done, but Burtynsky had seduced me and I was temporarily unable to apply some objectively. My thanks to the tutor who opened my  eyes, and of course that’s why they’re there, doing a very under-stated but definite on-going education.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

But leaving the media manipulation to one side I’m still hugely impressed with Burtynsky’s work because of the direction he’s taking in exploring issues such as the damage done due to our use of oil. We’ve come across Chris Jordon in OCA blogs, and his latest message is similar to Burtynsky’s although my objectivity is returning and I wonder how much of their mission is due to concern for the environment vs concern for their income.

As to the work on display I have a few thoughts and reflections, and I followed the flow of the exhibition through Extraction & Refinement, Transport & Motor Culture, and The End of Oil. Although now in full objective mode I’m thinking this is a tidy way to arrange your work for either sales to a gallery or as a theme for OCA level 3.

First image(s) I saw was an oil field in two large frames where as I walked alongside I felt that I was actually in the scene. (Oil fields 19a and 19b), shown on the right in this snap.

All the images were framed in black, with a narrow inner black recess, representing oil perhaps, but not obtrusively defining an edge to the scene. The framing in a photo is a key part of the decision making, as to where it starts, what is included, what is left out, and Burtynsky frames his shots with no jarring edges.

The next few images showed more oil fields, some with giant pipelines (Oil fields 22) and others of a refinery where a tanker was moored with endless storage, pipes, pools of oil, and in sharp detail  which could only be seen in a heavily processed huge image such as this.  I was reminded of Ansel Adams “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” where the negative looks very uninspiring, and yet produced a photographic masterpiece when it was “dark-roomed to death”. Is that fair? I would really like to see Burtynsky’s negatives and judge for myself.

Then on to “Transportation and Motor Culture” where the dependence is oil is illustrated. As landscapes these are spectacular, but more obviously heavily manipulated. I enjoyed all the photos as pure spectacle, and started thinking of experimenting with film myself to try and replicate the same level of detail which is there, whether photoshopped or not. Highway 5 LA. freeway leads us into the distant city. and is drab, grey, depressing. I’ve been to Los Angeles and it didn’t look anything like this, and I couldn’t believe this could be considered in any a true representation. I wonder if most of his photos are dusk or dawn, they certainly have the long shadows if not a golden glow.

A Kiss concert parking lot appears, filled with immaculately cleaned and polished Harley Davidsons all neatly lined in polite rows. This probably wasn’t Burtynsky’s message but it says a lot about his audience who can spend time and money cleaning their HOGS. Maybe they pay a Mexican to do it. Noise from the concert isn’t apparent, but it probably added to the “pollution”.  I enjoyed the rest of the pollution on display, as I did the Taledega Speedway, with a truck running around the track while massed ranks of immaculately dressed mechanics, sponsors, owners, all lines up to sing the national anthem, every detail clearly visible. Motor sport is usually pretty grubby, even formula one at trackside, but these people are straight out of a glossy Hollywood movie. Oh yes, and there’s pollution caused by the cars probably..

Over the Pacific and on to the Napu bridge interchange. The spiral approach leads us in, and reflects a common Burtynsky technique of creating circles and leading lines as in the best lessons on Gestalt in the TAoP module.

Back to the VW factory car lot in Houston, with thousands of new cars ready to consume more oil. All packed in protective plastic wrappers that are also wasteful oil by-products.

On the end of oil, and seen below are the Alberta Oil Sands, a nightmare that will run out in fifty years, after which nature will inevitably reclaim this land, and over a period of maybe two hundred years the consumption and mess of oil will be forgotten again, and the earth spins on. I thought the idea of nature reclaiming whatever mess we make might make an interesting future OCA project.

Downstairs on the fourth floor we saw the consequences of oil, the used oil filters, the miles of desert covered by old aircraft, the Bangladesh ship breakers, expired oil fields and so on. I wondered what would happen to all these scenes, but in the timelines of the universe it will be no time at all before they turn to rust, or evaporate, or get covered in a new ocean or ice sheet. I’m not sure I care what happens to many of the objects because they’re not disturbing anything, and they’re not particularly a consequence of no oil, more a consequence of the American defence industry that constantly needs to sell new and slightly equipment.

There were a few photos that moved towards the pictorial, one being a fire on an oil rig floating in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill with two boast spraying with water and producing a delightful little rainbow. Another was the line of oil rig towers in Azerbhyzhan that would have done well in a camera club. However the majority of the photos were very disturbing when the effect on local people and wildlife was taken into account.

Oxford tire pile, CA. Ditto,probably there for longer than fifty years but nature will inevitably reclaim that space. Even if the tyres only degrade in the sun at a very slow rate, in a million years they’ll be gone.

Shipbreaking Bangladesh.  Recycling I assume?

The people-what’s their stories? Short lives limited health and safety, complete lack of interest in their situation?

No evidence of machinery to take away, no tyre tracks. Do the men cut into small pieces they can carry?

No females shown but I think in the Look11 show there were several present.

Oil spill

Submerged pipeline, Mexico.

I thought this was OK on first glance, because the landscape is cut, but but unobtrusive at ground level, like a canal. But the title required a second analysis, and the sea is actually covered in black oil.

Gulf of Mexico

Sunlight on water or fires?

Oil spill sub pipe 5 – pretty colours in the centre. Fire, water, rainbows.

Socar oil fields, Azerbaijan

Horrible scene, amazing photo.

6 more photo interest than subject detail – repetition of towers.

3 reflections in a pool of oil. Still in use or just abandoned?

1a and 1b. Habitations beside the horror.  Note as before on use..clothes on line so people still here. Mosque. Blurry animals just visible.

Jet engines Arizona. What happens to them?

Sikorsky helicopter scrap yard

AMARC – military, and a few civilian planes African express airways. (ex CIA?)

Hard to be objective, very emotive images.
1997- his epiphany, oil itself as a subject.

Objective 2: – reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery

-a completely different experience to seeing the photos on a smaller scale, not least because you can walk alongside, and see all this sharp detail. On the latest iPad I noticed that the display there was the best I’d seen on any computer screen, and there is a Burtynsky app for the iPad which I passed on buying, and even though the display is only around 10 inches it is still superior to the official books on sale in the basement which are printed several times larger.

In the July edition of the British Journal of Photography there is an interesting article on photo-books which seem to be an new collector’s market. The price of traditional published books of photographs is already high, with little books selling on publication for £20, and then being unavailable for any less than several hundred pounds, seems to have traveled to self-published and on-demand editions. For me though, I’d take one full sized Burtynsky in place of several hundred photobooks.  (Another thought is that the future will involve your collection of photobooks being a set of archived apps downloaded for the iPad or other tablet device. Having seen the quality of the iPad’s display and under threat of the weight of my bookshelves crashing through the ceiling to the floor below, I welcome the coming of the new technology, although I’d still take just one Burtynsky..)

Objective 3: – network with other OCA students

– an increasingly valuable aspect of this course. We shared opinions, ideas, gossip and links to other sources. After the gallery a few of us stopped each other spending too much money on books downstairs, and then some of us went on to other venues and then a quick drink at the end of the day. We provided support in several aspects of the course, including how to approach assignments, what course to take next, which tutors were a bit slow in responding and which were being mis-quoted.


Things to follow up: 

New topographics, how the landscape is changed;

Mishrach desert canto;

How does keep his camera still on a helicopter? See guardian and other reviews.

Desert island disks web site archive -for photographers;

the Burtynsky oil app for iPad (no);  Stuart Kerr

Another great day, and next up is the Saatchi gallery study day. I subsequently received an invitation to a private preview guided by a curator with a glass of wine, so I may have to give up my place on the OCA day, but I hope not, it’s less about seeing the exhibition, and all about mixing with OCA students and tutors.


About watlvry

Flaneur for my own ailments; government and corporate hypocrisy; guitar stuff; the music business; home made videos featuring home made tunes played at home; a bit of golf; and of course photography. Specifically "art" photography (doesn't exist) and contemporary photography ( sadly does exist in all its grotesque reality).
Gallery | This entry was posted in Events, Exhibitions, Reflections. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Burtynsky: OIL

  1. Catherine says:

    I enjoyed your usual stringent and well-informed review Brian. As always, a pleasure to read and digest.

    • watlvry says:

      Thanks Catherine, it was a great day, sorry we missed you. Will you be attending the Saatchi show in July?

      Hope you’re enjoying P&P where I’m following your blog?


      • Catherine says:

        Yes – I’m going to the Saatchi show. (the list was full for the last Study Day). P&P is okay – will be better when I’ve got everything off for AOP assessment at the beginning of next week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s