Edward Burtynsky at the McCord

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky doesn’t want to convey a political message with his large-format photographs.

His exhibition Oil touring internationally and currently on view at Montreal’s McCord Museum, brings together over 50 awe inspiring large-scale photographs documenting the ‘life cycle’ of the energy source that has shaped the modern world.

Burtynsky has taken photographs of oil as it is found around the world – reinforcing its global impact – ranging from Alberta’s tar sands to trucker jamborees in the United States, from the endless parking lots of Volkswagen cars in China to the oil fields in Azerbaijan and tanker graveyards in Bangladesh.

If you’ve seen Burtynsky’s documentary Manufactured Landscape, some of the exhibitions images will be familiar (you will immediately recall the section on Bangladesh, where young men disassemble oil tankers, ankle-deep in sludge) but Oil retains a greater sense of urgency.

This sense of urgency is partly due to the scale of the exhibition that adds to what Burtynsky calls the “double-edge of oil”: our dependency on oil and its environmental impact it has had our planet.

Oil spans 12 years of Burtynsky’s career and it originated at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Burtynsky, speaking at Oil’s opening reception, noted that Corcoran’s location holds special meaning for him, as it is across the street from the White House, a place Burtynsky considers the “most influential in the flow of oil.”

The exhibition explores oil’s entire cycle of life: from extraction through shipping and refining, to its use in transportation and the products closely associated with it, including cars and vehicle parts.

The first section takes us through the extraction and refinement process. The immense size, geometric order and rectilinear shapes of production fields and refineries make for images of striking formal beauty despite the subject matter, all rendered in fine-grained detail. In the first image of the exhibition, reproduced inside, is a vast diptych of a California production field with endless ranks of derricks, shot in warm late-day light. Another image shot from the air reveals the colossal scale of tar sands extraction in Northern Alberta.

In the second section, The Culture Of Oil, looks at how our lives are affected by oil, and especially, the motor culture that has been built up around it. Burtynsky connects oil to the cars we drive, neatly lined up in rows upon rows; to the cardiovascular freeways we drive on in those cars, to the sprawling suburbs connected by those highways, filled with endless identical houses; and to the people who spend their time lusting over the horse power of their latest vehicle.

Last, and darkest, is The End of Oil. In this section Burtynsky reveals the final result of the process: rusted out, oozing abandoned oil fields, endless ranks of junked cars and airplanes. Some of the most affecting images show unbelievably vast piles of discarded tires or the grim oil-soaked reality of recycling in the developing world. Looking at the final resting places for these objects that make use of oil, it’s hard not to wonder about our own fate—what comes after our dependency on oil.

The timing of Oil is fitting, for we now have many pressing arguments heating up the debate on the ‘war on cars.’ Despite this rhetoric, transportation disputes remain divisive and ugly.

All photographs © Juan Madrigal

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