Saturday, June 16, 2012

Oil fields

I last wrote about Edward Burtynsky here four years ago, after seeing Manufactured Landscapes. Some of the images in that film, like the Chittagong shipbreaking beach in Bangladesh, have appeared subsequently in various exhibitions entitled Burtynsky: Oil.  The series continues to develop: in May 2010 Burtynsky flew to the Gulf of Mexico to take some extraordinary aerial shots of the BP oil spill.  These feature in a new version of the exhibition that marks the re-opening of London's Photographer's Gallery.  I was there yesterday, reflecting on how hard it is here in England to even imagine landscapes like Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA or Oil Fields #22," Cold Lake, Alberta, CanadaWriting about these photographs for the LRB, Tony Wood notes that sometimes their scale is so vast that any actual humans are too small even to register.  He describes Alberta Oil Sands #6: 'a massive installation for extracting oil from tar sands. The picture is dominated by two huge yellow rectangles that seem like abstract forms drawn onto the landscape – but then you realise they are vats of sulphur hundreds of metres wide and hundreds more long.'  Such images prompted another reviewer to conclude: 'Turner might have believed the landscape to be an ineffable manifestation of God, but Burtnysky proves that, post-industrially, it’s in the firm grip of the devil.'

A similar set of Burtynsky: Oil photographs is currently also on display at the Nevada Museum of Art (such things are possible in the age of mechanical reproduction...) Linked to this, there was an interesting conversation between Burtynsky, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley - the first manifestation of Venue, a travelling 'pop-up interview studio and multimedia rig'. Their discussion touches on Burtynsky's preference for photographing during “the shoulders of the day" (early morning and late evening), his desire not to frame the work in an activist or political terms, and his difficulties in gaining access to certain sites, like the Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia.  But the most interesting exchange occurs when Geoff asks him, "Do you see a time when you’re not going to be riding in a helicopter over Los Angeles but, instead, piloting a little drone that’s flying around up there and taking photographs for you?" Burtynsky: "I’m already doing it." Twilley: "You have a drone?" Burtynsky: "Yeah. I use it to go into places where I don’t have any air space. I work with a team. One guy runs the chopper, one guy runs the head, and I take the shutter release and compose. For example, there is no civil aviation space in China, so I was using it there. I used it to shoot the big dam area, and I used it to photograph agriculture."

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