The Art of Industry: The Making and Meaning of Edward Burtynsky's New Exhibit, 'Oil'

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"Photography is a way to mine ideas that are things."

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"Oil Spill #2," Discoverer Enterprise, Gulf of Mexico, May 11, 2010. (Edward Burtynsky)

Venue's debut last week at the Nevada Museum of Art coincided with the premiere of a new exhibition there: Edward Burtynsky: Oil.

This thematic show, on display through September 23, features nearly 50 large-format images that, taken together, tell the story of oil, from its origins, extraction, and processing in the tar sands of Alberta or the first offshore platforms in Azerbaijan, through the spaghetti junctions and motorcycle rallies that represent oil's spatial, infrastructural, and cultural footprint, all the way to oil's afterlife in mountains of compacted barrels and broken tankers in the Bay of Bengal.

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"Breezewood," Pennsylvania, USA, 2008. A gap of under a mile between freeway sections gave rise to this landscape of franchises and gas stations, now known (at least to roadgeeks) as a "breezewood." (Edward Burtynsky)

After a tour of the exhibition, followed by a lecture that introduced some of Burtynsky's most recent work -- a global portrait of the human relationship with water -- Venue set up in the Center for Art + Environment library for a conversation with Edward Burtynsky. We could not have asked for a more interesting subject for our project's inaugural interview.

The following edited transcript of our discussion ranges from drones to film-making, to the future of photography, to the response of Vermont quarry owners to Burtynsky's work, by way of truck beauty pageants, pipelines, and the unexpected challenge of photographing Niagara Falls.

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"Talladega Speedway #1," Birmingham, Alabama, USA, 2009. (Edward Burtynsky)

Geoff Manaugh: Particularly in your early work, there seems to be a focus on what I might call primary landscapes: looking at where the oil actually comes out of the ground, where the rock is physically cut from the quarry, or where our products are first assembled, and so on. But there's also a move, particularly in the Oil series, toward representing secondary landscapes -- landscapes of consumption, where the oil is burned in the name of a NASCAR race, or where truck drivers enter their big rigs in truck beauty pageants.

I'm curious, though, if you would ever be tempted to pursue your subject to the next step -- that is, to a kind of tertiary landscape. For instance, with your current water project, would you be tempted to photograph, say, a family eating tomatoes that were grown in a greenhouse in southern Spain or someone drinking bottled water at the gym? And if not, why not?

Edward Burtynsky: I haven't really thought of taking it to that tertiary place. I've always been interested in systems that are scaled out to the point at which the collective impact is visible, versus the individual act of consumption. In fact, I think it would be very hard to make an image of that act of individual consumption. It just doesn't fit into what I've been doing.

When I'm photographing these systems -- systems of extraction, or really just systems of urban expansion, in general -- what's happening is that I have an idea and I'm trying to find the best or most accessible stand-in for that idea. I'll look at many candidates, and very few will actually get photographed, and even fewer will make it through the editing process.

I've certainly gone to places like vegetable-packaging plants, but then I'm looking at bagged carrots en masse, rather than a single example of a carrot in somebody's refrigerator. In fact, I did a whole series on vegetable-packing plants back in 1982, and I got into the Heinz Ketchup plant and so on. To me, that's more interesting.

I think the key to my work is that most things I show are things that we rarely get in front of. We get in front of produce departments in grocery stores quite regularly, so there just isn't something I feel I can say about that that we don't usually know already.

Nicola Twilley: And the idea of showing these unfamiliar landscapes is to reconnect us to them?

Burtynsky: Yes, exactly. I'm looking for the disconnected landscapes that provide us with the materials we need to live, build, and do everything we do. Showing the greenhouses in Spain that provide fruits and vegetables for most of Europe is interesting -- but to actually show those vegetables on a counter is too far, I think. It's implied that we eat them at some point.

Twilley: Perhaps you'd actually rather have the viewer make that connection for themselves?

Burtynsky: I think so, yes.

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"Oil Fields #19a," Belridge, California, USA, 2003. (Edward Burtynsky)

Twilley: I'm curious about the challenges of making still images of what are very dynamic systems. For example, earlier this morning in your lecture here at the Nevada Museum of Art, you were describing the Kern oilfield as a very kinetic landscape; you talked about the flow of oil and the machinic soundscape. Are there aspects of these landscapes that you struggle to capture in still photography, and do you ever think of experimenting with film?

Burtynsky: Well, I am starting to work with film. I haven't filmed independently yet, but I am currently in the process of co-directing a film. It's following the project I'm doing on water, so, everywhere I go now, I've got a film crew with me.

Twilley: Are you working with them to document your photography process, or more as an additional way to document the water systems you're hoping to portray?

Burtynsky: Both. There are things that I'm taking still photographs of that probably aren't going to translate very well onto film, and there are things that I can't make stills of that are better suited to be filmed -- and then there are subjects that can handle both. I'm finding that there are elements of all three categories in the film we're currently working on.

I don't know if you've seen Manufactured Landscapes, but photography is the authoring thread through that film, and I want to do the same thing for water, too. In some ways, it's the stills that I'm making that are going to determine where the film goes. How we bring them into play in the actual movie is all part of the experience of going into the editing room and figuring out what makes sense where.

But when it gets down to making the film -- to the logic of the film -- I think all our doors should be open in terms of how to do it. I'm of the belief that you pursue your interests, you pull it all in, and you sort it out later.

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"Oil Refineries #23," Oakville, Ontario, Canada, 1999. (Edward Burtynsky)

Manaugh: It's clear that there's an environmental consciousness animating much of your work, but it's also true, I think, that there is a way of looking at your photographs of, for instance, large oilscapes that could read into them a kind of industrial heroism. In some of the works -- such as the footprints in the sand with oil bleeding through, or the ship-breaking yards -- the human presence seems to add a clear critical dimension. But in your shots of these often strangely beautiful, cathedral-like refineries, or even of the Talladega raceway, I'm curious how you manage to balance a kind of activist environmental agenda with photographs that might otherwise be seen as very formal or simply very aesthetic. Also, how does your use of other media, such as lecturing or film, work to make your critical approach more clear?

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Presented by

Geoff Manaugh & Nicola Twilley

Geoff Manaugh writes at BLDGBLOG. Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography. In 2012-13, they are traveling to sites around the United States with their portable-media project, Venue.

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