A couple years ago we were out visiting my dad in Bakersfield over the July 4th weekend. Around dusk, just as people were starting to light off their fireworks, I went out for a run. After a few blocks of gated neighborhoods and a big church barbeque, the asphalt ran out and I was on a dry dirt road, surrounded by oil well pumpjacks as far as I could see in the fading light.
I went another mile or so and then turned around to look back toward the city. The long, flat line of glowing red, fading, and broken here and there by the mechanical rise and fall of pumpjack silhouettes. Just above that, the distant silent explosions of fireworks.
This is the kind of industrial-sublime terror that came back when I saw Edward Burtynsky’s Oil photos, here at the Nevada Museum of Art through September. Last month, when he was in town talking about his photography, Burtynsky said that when he sees skyscrapers (for example) and other vast human-made structures and systems, he is interested in seeing and showing “the hole that skyscraper [/tanker ship / suburban neighborhood / supply chain / auto fleet, &c.] came from.”
He did a lot of this pretty directly with his earlier mines and quarries projects. But how do you show the “holes” where petroleum comes from? Or the ones it leaves in people and places as it makes its way through a global economy?
Like, for example, oil sands extraction in Canada’s boreal forest, which involves, first, clear-cutting and then the stripping and removal of topsoil and earth to a depth of around 20 feet, over hundreds of square miles. Or a massive tire dump in California that catches fire and burns for two years, with flames reaching a half-mile into the air.
How can we hope to represent the tremendous scale, speed, and meaning of these transformations and phenomena? Burtynsky’s Oil series goes about this by dividing things up as Extraction, Detroit, Transportation, and The End of Oil.
Also, if you’re interested, The Atlantic ran a fine interview a couple weeks ago that gets into a lot of this, and there’s a great little article over on this design magazine/blog too.
related: Edward Burtynsky, Chris Jordan, Shopping for Independence Day, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, archived americana, roadside explosives