Photographer Chronicles Petroleum Planet

In viewing them, we remember that we swim in a world of oil

Share this article

From the editors of the Earth Island Journal

The fish, famously, doesn’t know it’s in water. Our relationship to petroleum is much the same. From our waking moments we are surrounded by oil: It helps grow the grains in our breakfast cereal, takes us to and from work, forms the plastics that wrap our products, and then delivers those very same items to us. Oil has become the sine qua non of our lives. And for that reason it’s so easy to forget that’s it’s even there.

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky wants to remind us. Burtynsky has spent most of his career focusing on the landscapes of manufacturing complexes, creating formal compositions of industrial scenery that are at once attractive and abhorrent. His latest project is titled, simply, Oil.

Ten years in the making, the collection is the result of Burtynsky’s travels throughout the globe to examine oil fields, refineries, car culture, and the eventual disposal of our oil-thirsty machines. The photos take us to places we’ve never seen and in the process reveal the massive, complicated apparatus that undergirds our lives of seamless convenience.

Oil, which toured North America and Europe last year, is divided into three categories. “Extraction & Refinement” examines the landscapes that have been formed (or deformed) by the petroleum industry. An image of oil pipelines snaking through the Canadian forest is unsettling. The stark contrast between the silver of the pipes and the trees’ green shows how alien our technologies can appear on our own planet.

The next section, “Transportation & Motor Culture,” then pivots to look at the built environments that, however artificial, have become our homes. Perhaps the best in this series is Burtynsky’s shot of Breezewood, PA, a town that could, with its riot of corporate logos, be Anywhere, USA. The image is incontrovertible proof of how we’ve remodeled much of our world – not to serve real people, but to accommodate the needs of our cars, which have become like second skins.

Burtynsky concludes with “The End of Oil.” Where do our machines go once we no longer need them? Burtynsky’s tour of scrap heaps and junkyards feels prophetic: The piles of old tires, auto parts, and out-of-date cars and airplanes will only grow with time, the rusting Golgotha of a spent civilization.

All of these scenes are, as the photographer has said, “places outside our normal experience.” Yet they are essential to our daily existence. In viewing them, we remember that we swim in a world of oil.

Edward Burtynsky’s photographs have been shown at museums and galleries throughout the world. A large format book based on his Oil exhibition has recently been published by Steidl and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

To view the original story, republished here with permission of the Earth Island Journal, and see more photographs, click here.

To view more of Burtynsky’s work, visit: