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Edward Burtynsky: Oil – A Ballardian Interpretation

Author: • Jan 5th, 2010 •

Category: dystopia, Edward Burtynsky, entropy, enviro-disaster, features, Lead Story, photography

by Paul Roth

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #22, Cold Lake Production Project, Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

I recently organized an exhibition of photographs by Edward Burtynsky, bringing together 12 years of his imagery on the subject of oil at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Burtynsky, a Canadian born of Ukrainian heritage in 1955, is respected internationally for his 25-year focus on industrially-transformed landscapes. His photographs of quarries, factories, mining pits, and railcuts are extraordinary for their depiction of mankind’s organization of the land for resource-extraction and profit. Jennifer Baichwal’s 2006 documentary Manufactured Landscapes is an excellent portrait of Burtynsky, and I highly recommend a viewing of both the DVD and his great books, which include Manufactured Landscapes (2003); Burtynsky – China (2005); and Edward Burtynsky – Quarries (2006).

In organizing the exhibition, it occurred to me that Burtynsky is one of our most Ballardian artists. His intense concentration on the technological sublime; the precisionist geometries of his images; and his evocation of a rationalist (yet mysterious) automatism at the heart of the relationship between man and nature: all seem absolutely the inheritance of Ballard’s insightful understanding of our times.

In writing an essay for the book that accompanies the Corcoran exhibition, I adopted a style in overt homage to Ballard — in hopes that such a literary strategy might help illuminate this great body of work. I also wanted to honor Ballard’s legacy as the foremost imaginative interpreter of the world Burtynsky documents. The editors of Ballardian.com have graciously agreed to reprint the essay here as an extension of that homage. Readers of this site will recognize the tropes, the ideas, and the specific sources I’ve drawn from Ballard’s oeuvre; I hope they will forgive any lapses, or excesses, as my own error.

Paul Roth
Senior Curator of Photography and Media Arts, Corcoran Gallery of Art

To learn more about the Corcoran exhibition Edward Burtynsky: Oil: http://www.corcoran.org/burtynsky/index.php
To learn more about the book: http://www.steidlville.com/books/968-Oil.html
To learn more about the artist: http://www.edwardburtynsky.com

All images can be clicked to enlarge.

Edward Burtynsky, Recycling #2, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

The subject is not oil.

In these pictures, Edward Burtynsky shows the man-made world—the human ecosystem—that has risen up around the production, use, and dwindling availability of our paramount energy source. The mechanics and industry of extraction and refinement; the development, products, and activities associated with transportation and motor culture; and the wreckage, obsolescence, and human cost that lies at the End of Oil. These photographs are about man, and what he has made of the earth.

Burtynsky starts at the center of the subject, at oil’s source; then moves outward around the world, showing its use. By their arrangement, the photographs survey a life cycle. Each black drop follows a path; following the pictorial sequence, we can imagine ourselves trailing in its wake.

The journey is an unusual one. We have rarely seen images of these places. Some, we didn’t know existed; others, we never thought we’d see. Has any artist ever documented this manifold subject in such depth?

This is a new form of epic history painting. Turning his camera lens to a fever dream, Burtynsky forges a new mythology for the 21st century from the lexicon of realism. With stunning detail, from improbable perches, in strange and beautiful colors, these pictures show their subjects with clinical accuracy, and with definitive force. But they also tell a parallel and more inchoate tale: a critique of civilization, and a foretelling of human ends.


Edward Burtynsky, Oxford Tire Pile #9ab, Westley, California, USA, 1999. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

Some visual experiences test our capacity for explanation—our ability to extract meaning, or convey affect, through existing vocabulary.

In particular, photography can provoke this failure of translation. The old notion—that a picture is worth a thousand words—implies a trade. It suggests that we cannot have both image and meaning at once; possessing a picture, we must barter for its logic. When we are in the thrall of a photograph, we surrender its equivalent in language.

The most powerful photographs, in fact, steal our words. They resist explication or a resolution, refuse our comprehension, render us speechless. Stilling time, preserving the ghost of a moment to be revisited in perpetuity, photography conjures the past, feeds the present, and hints at the future. Mere words can hardly contend with the magic of its revelation.

Again and again, Burtynsky’s images of oil provoke this mute, uncanny exchange. Documentary scenes of crystalline description, of staggering scale and complexity, they nevertheless have a composed, unblinking authority. They resound with a perfect silence.

One might argue that the real force and meaning of these images is not readily apparent in the scenes Burtynsky photographs. Rather, it bubbles from beneath, emerging from an enormous oceanic swell: the remnant energy of a younger sun, compacted by eons of time and pressure into the geologic strata, far below the surface.

The Unseen Reservoir

Edward Burtynsky, Alberta Oil Sands #6, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

These places are curiously familiar, as though inscribed in our synaptic gaps.

You look down from above. Inscribed on the scene below are the shapes and contours of commercial organization. You look past machinery and roads, large tanks and angled pipelines, to see the ground: quickly you sense what lies embedded in the earth, the object of the activity above.

A river system, of black viscous streams and oily tributaries, extending in every direction, not on a single plane but dimensionally up, down, left, right, a surround. A hidden root system leading to a vast reservoir. Veins, spreading through a body. Not contained by borders. Flowing everywhere, touching everything, affecting all.

Among Burtynsky’s images of the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, in scenes of the surface mining that yields bitumen, vast pools of crude oil swirl and eddy: littoral zones of the apocalypse. They offer a strange double mirror, reflecting both the clouds floating above and the reservoir below. Astonishing, beautiful even, they are the discharge of abscesses, man-made sores in the skin of the earth. The ruptures of oil’s forced disclosure.

In this artist’s envisioning, oil derricks near Bakersfield, California become great mechanical mosquitoes. Standing obediently in rows, they suck at the earth, desiccating their surroundings in service of an unlimited thirst. Arresting the metronomic rhythm of these drilling machines, Burtynsky’s lens conveys an impassive threat: a slow-moving industrial vampirism, perhaps, or the glacial decline of a junkie, reaching deeper to hit a vein.

The submerged river of oil has its conscious match in the aboveground structures devised to prepare it for use. In his images of refineries, Burtynsky tracks the labyrinthine pipe systems that guide oil through its many intermediate process streams. Like capillary beds, or the neural pathways that fire our brains, these industrial tangles are oddly biological.

We cannot shake the sense that we have seen these places in our dreams. The details are of course rooted in reality; but they suggest a hidden psychology, a liminal space channeling between the images. A terra incognita—a boundless, technological biome—united by a psychopathology of oil. If these are visions of our shared subconscious, they seem to foretell the future.

Invisible Seer

Edward Burtynsky, Trucker’s Jamboree, Walcott, Iowa, USA, 2003. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

In these photographs, as in dreams, the viewpoint is a disembodied one. We hover out of sight, watching from a remove: our perspective, that of an invisible seer. Sojourning witnesses to extraordinary scenes, we are present at critical moments, in hidden places, from impossible positions. Each is revealed in broad scope, and with abundant detail both familiar and unrecognizable. The tone is bipolar—intense and dispassionate; disoriented, yet strangely taciturn.

Burtynsky’s overhead views of motor culture events reflect this schizophrenia. At Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats and South Dakota’s Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, spectators mill about blankly: automata, dutifully performing their roles in a big budget film. Pictured at a remove, their reactions to their peculiar surroundings go unseen.

As a trucker’s jamboree in Iowa falls under dusk, visitors navigate a parking lot by the warm light of underbody neon, emanating from the tractor units. On the asphalt, yellow stripes radiate outward from a central line, guiding our eye from one shiny machine to the next. Positioned at angles and spaced for inspection, the semi cabs glow with sterile festivity.

The artist’s outlook assumes a cold authority, a depersonalization. Through the lens, we assume his viewpoint. Absent overt mediation, we are simply present, watching. We sense no filter, no interpretative voice to cloud our knowledge. No camera to bring us the view. Our insight seems total.

This is, in fact, a trope of landscape art. A naturalism of “view” offers the illusion of an unmediated self-presentation. Authoring itself, a place simply rises up before our eyes. (Burtynsky would also recognize this verisimilitude as a characteristic pretense of photographic documentary.) The implication is that our experience is definitive. Our vantage is that of an impassive bird, flying invisibly overhead, surveying the world with stately reserve.

The Overlook

Edward Burtynsky, AMARC #5, Davis-Monthan AFB, Tuscon, Arizona, USA, 2006. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

Or is it a god’s eye view, the perspective of a deity or monarch?

Burtynsky’s photographs are often made from the sky. Lifts, cranes, and helicopters provide the perch; but his vistas have an aura of impossibility. Even when standing on the ground, Burtynsky’s perspective seems one from on high, ordering and immutable. The detachment of his view imparts a seductive, undeniable power.

Gatherings, interstate highways, landscape mutations: all unfold below like prophecy. Despite their physical remoteness, and their ambiguous mood of alienation, we feel we have seen them before; and now, passing overhead, we are revenants, returning to the scene with a glimmer of insight.

For example: homes, cars, and airplanes, parked in rigid alignment by the dozens or hundreds, recede into the distance, an inventory of shelter and transport. A tanker ship, floating by a refinery depot, tells the whole story of oil’s distribution in its massive bulk. In an industrial subdivision, sun-bleached rooftops appear like chips on a computer motherboard, captured from above by satellite imaging.

The photographs have an evidentiary quality, in the manner of crime scenes. Clues are embedded in the details. Looking down from above, we see the indicators of mastery and control. The land divided, the elements negotiated, resources marshaled: nature coexisting with the promise of its own destruction. An invisible grid overlays each locale—a diagram of exploitation, the vectors of progress.

Mapping the Unknown

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields #19ab, Belridge, California, 2003. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

Like his progenitors, the great American expeditionary landscape photographers of the 19th century, Burtynsky surveys the territory. His camera is the instrument of a visionary cartography.

While Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and William Henry Jackson photographed an undeveloped landscape (the “American West”) in the early stages of its colonization, this artist maps a world that has already been radically shaped and ordered, rendered into submission. The place of his geovisualization is a psychological zone, previously uncharted—a vast, discontinuous “Petrolia” of the mind—encompassing events, locations, and people under the sovereignty of oil.

This visionary terrain opposes utopias we’ve seen before in landscape art. The painted vistas of the Hudson River School, for example, imply a permanent future of uncorrupted nature (“virgin spaces,” in the term of art historian Barbara Novak) despite the encroachment of mankind. A harmony prevails, between the transcendent beauty of nature and the civilizing development once thought to honor God’s creation.

Burtynsky’s atlas of dystopia exposes such fantasies. The deceptions of manifest destiny are revealed in the bright light of day.

In one image, we see a pipeline, directing recovery from the oil sands of Alberta, Canada, through a clearing in a forest. Its sinuous channel follows the contours of the woods; only on second glance do we realize the tree line has been re-shaped, altered by the placement of the conduit. Honoring the herculean effort that brings energy to the surface, nature bends to our will.

The place being mapped is really a complex system, and its topography, a connective network. Burtynsky renders his Petrolia as a set of relationships, organized for production: an autopoiesis, the interlocking elements of a cybernetic organism. His images reveal the mechanisms of our world of oil.

The gridlines of this imaginary territory connect at the vanishing points evident in many of the photographs. They become a pivot for our vision, an axis on which our understanding turns. Hidden meanings become evident as we look from one image to the next: places, people, their transport and leisure, all are united by oil as it is taken from the ground, refined, used, and then filters back into the earth, leaving a sediment of scrap and offal.

We navigate Petrolia through the branching passages of a maze; even when our route is circuitous, it unfolds by a fixed logic. We slide into a labyrinth.


Edward Burtynsky, Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

In many images, Burtynsky’s mapping evokes both the abstraction of remote sensing and the vividness of ground truth. As our eyes shift from distant elements to the startling clarity of the foreground, an imbalance takes hold. There is a vertiginous quality, a tipping-forward in our view.

The totality of the artist’s scope results in a kind of visual bewilderment, an insistent voiding of perspective. What is nearby, directly below, rushes toward us, as though we were falling into it; by contrast, the horizon recedes into the distance, as though we were backing away. This schism has a powerful effect. At first the eye trips up, abstracting subject elements into a field of patterns. Then, just as quickly, we experience a visual argument between foreground and background that evokes other more consequential debates: between near and distant, center and periphery, present and future, the known and unknown.

This is not unintentional, nor is it mere stylistics. Burtynsky’s technique consistently provokes a crisis of vision. The elevated and the lowly (a dialectic common to landscape art) collide in the warring of perspectives. There is a strange volume to scenes viewed from on high: real places flatten into forms, space recedes in diagonal lines, and ground and horizon oscillate a magnetic field, one that both attracts and repels the eye.

If the word “landscape” implies a remove, the polite framing of a scene, Burtynsky—by contrast—attacks with the vertical imbalance of his view. Leaning forward, falling back, we are in the grip of fate. Our vantage conveys a sense, a submerged realization, that what we see, and where it will lead, has been foreordained.

A Certain Lucidity

Edward Burtynsky, SOCAR Oil Fields #1ab, Baku Azerbaijan, 2006. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

One historic purpose of landscape art is the representation of remote places. The landscapist—our visionary surrogate—ventures into the world, returning with scenes of faraway and inaccessible locales. The outside, if you will, is brought inside. The inhabitants of one realm, curious, experience another: a place of fascination outside their frame of reference.

Burtynsky’s photographs of unknown sites and obscure industrial activities exercise a startling authority. Remarkable scenes—vistas of junk, vast motorways, toxic labor conditions, tribal vehicular gatherings, strange colors loosed from the earth, and the wholesale reordering of nature—so irrationalize our sense of what surrounds us that they can hardly be believed. And yet there they are.

The artist’s images of derelict oil fields at Baku in Azerbaijan exemplify the uncanny means by which he depicts his Petrolia. Here is a place we were never meant to see: a remnant sea of oil, bubbling from the spend depths of a deposit. Ancient derricks cluster like dark herons, stuck in tar.

A whole new terrain emerges from the discards of the oil economy. Bluffs are formed from piles of densified oil filters, crushed fuel barrels, and the stamped cutaways of electrical system parts. In one diptych, Burtynsky confronts a massive wall of tires, rising up to form a new mountain range. Even this panoramic view can’t contain the astonishment of the scene; dark circles pile past the image edges, the strata of an automotive geology.

Burtynsky’s world of oil is beyond comprehension and outside our control. Industrial sites of extraordinary complexity and public works of remarkable scale severely test our suspension of disbelief. A profusion of detail overwhelms. The safe ground we normally stand on is pulled away. How is this possible, we wonder? Our minds strain at the shock of what we see.

The chief landscape tradition Burtynsky assays is that of the sublime. Edmund Burke, in his treatise A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756), described the sublime as an evocation of anxiety in the face of nature, an exhilarating but fraught recognition of its illimitable power over humankind. When confronted by the sublime in the natural world—a raging flood, a hurricane, a precipitous cliff—man is overcome by an ecstasy of terror; thus awakening to the limits of his own dominion.

Many artists (most famously Caspar David Friedrich) have tried to represent sublime experience in the natural world. But Burtynsky draws his terrifying sublime from the world of order rather than the forces of the wild. The shock of his images derives from unimaginable scale, from crushing power; but not from God’s Nature. Rather: from the organization of resources for profit, from the plumbing of the earth to extract value.

Observing the machine, the electric light, the combustion engine, the dammed river, factory and city, airplane and car, we can imagine that man’s forward motion, from the Industrial Age on, has occasioned a new variation of the sublime. In the rise of modern technology, with its intimations of human mastery over time and space, the natural world has been rendered and contained; its force, dispersed; and our fear of God, tempered. The power of the environmental cosmos surrenders to the monstrous vacuity of science, mechanization, and progress. If, pace Nietzsche, God is dead; then it is man we must fear—and his creations.

In his book The Machine in the Garden (1964), historian Leo Marx describes 19th-century reaction to that era’s emerging marvels of industry and engineering: “The awe and reverence once reserved for the Deity and later bestowed upon the visible landscape is directed toward technology, or rather the technological conquest of matter.” The rise of the machine— and its subjugation of our surrounding environment—has engendered a new “technological sublime.”

This modern form of sublimity is more complex than mere technophobia. It acknowledges our dependence on automation, its betterments and pleasures; our astonishment at its extremes; and finally, our creeping terror at its consequentiality. We see no simplistic villainy in Burtynsky’s pictures—no industrial Golem, no homicidal Frankenstein. Rather, we see the ordering force of man, and the chilling, corrosive, penultimate threat that lies at the black heart of our rationalism.


Edward Burtynsky, Shipbreaking #13, Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

At the edge of the world, where the land falls inward and the sea drags at the sand, Burtynsky discovers an epic scene of industrial demolition: a portent of our coming extinction.

On a Bangladeshi shoreline, we see a netherworld of beached tanker ships, dismantled for scrap. The sky, a blank white, contrasts with the deep black of remnant oil, clinging to storage compartment walls. Workers cluster about their labors, their raiment stained a toxic brown. Looming up from the mud, jagged hulls tower like crumbling monasteries. We envision the dying-out of an old order.

In these scenes of shipbreaking, Burtynsky, with his mixture of awe and dispassion, his combination of wide-field view and dizzying detail— in short, his calm approach to the edge of the cliff—has marshaled all the elements common to representation of the sublime: obscurity, darkness, silence, vacuity, magnitude, vastness, infinity, difficulty, magnificence. We are immersed in a shadowland. Overcome, in the words of J.G. Ballard, by a marriage of reason and nightmare.

We will never visit this place. But we sense that Burtynsky has led us, inexorably, to crossroads of insight. We stand transfixed. Exposed, implicated: haunted by complicity. We are not, as we once may have thought, passive observers. Rather, we are the co-authors of what we see. This is the world of our making.


Edward Burtynsky, Oil Refineries #23, Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC.

A profound fate shapes human ends, and in turn we write that same fate onto nature. Destiny inscribes long scars on the earth. Our own undoing is visible in Burtynsky’s orderly grids of housing and cars, martial arrays of discarded planes, and highways that snake like asphalt rivers: the seeds of our self-destruction. Industry forges a new wilderness, and our civilization, a more efficient—and murderous—state of nature. We are not the fittest; humanity will be transcended over time; and we too, like our evolutionary forebears, will be obviated.

The gravitational pull of Burtynsky’s viewpoint derives from its revelation of consequence. The landscape is shown both as a source of wealth, and as a locus of overreach; oil, as the fuel of progress—and the dark promise of an ultimatum. The safe remove of the camera’s high perspective is mitigated by our near terror of falling. We back away from the edge, even as we realize that it is too late: we’ve already gone over.

The places Burtynsky takes us to are unfamiliar, obscure to our knowledge, but on some level they are no surprise. His images astonish largely because they give shape to our dread, to a suppressed realization of what our lifestyle has wrought. They articulate a secret truth.

These photographs suggest that what lies beneath the surface has far greater value than what lies above: to such an extent that the earth has been devastated to get at the black river below. Shaped not by time, erosion, or the weathering winds, but by the ordering force of the economy, the land has been etched by our avarice and our need. The lines radiate outward, a geometry of revelations, from where we stand at this place and time, to all places, and to our future.

Paul Roth
Senior Curator, Photography and Media Arts
© 2010, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

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  5. […] “In these pictures, Edward Burtynsky shows the man-made world—the human ecosystem—that has…“ […]

  6. I finally found the time to read through it.

    A fascinating walkthrough of Burtynsky’s vistas, and a great Ballardian moment.

  7. […] Edward Burtynsky, Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003. Chromogenic color print. Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; Hasted Hunt Kraeutler, New York; and Adamson Gallery, Washington, DC. http://www.ballardian.com/edward-burtynsky-oil-a-ballardian-interpretation […]

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