Edward Burtynsky, the founder and president of Toronto Image Works, a landmark digital photography lab and technical education facility, has captured iconic images of human intervention in the landscape in works of a scope and scale that evidence how the activities and the layerings of nature and culture change a place. His recent books include China, Quarries, and Oil. Burtynsky has an eye for the sublime inherited from photographers and painters such as Carleton Watkins and Caspar David Friedrich, but the issues that his photographs address are salient for our globalized age.
Oil & Water
John K. Grande: Edward, can you tell me what drew you to the Deepwater Horizon event in the Gulf of Mexico?
Edward Burtynsky: If you look at the arc of my work, I have rarely, if ever, chased a disaster. I don’t. To me, if they are disasters they are slow burns. Whether it is a mine or an oil patch, it is an intentional landscape. I am presently working on an idea that addresses our use of water. Steidl published my oil project last year in book form. Oil and water conspired to bring me to this intersection – a visual moment in the arc of history – at the Gulf of Mexico. Deepwater Horizon speaks of the over-reach of oil. In fact, water is the only reason that I am sitting here talking to you. Water is at the core of everything, including our life, and oil must be attributed to water – that ancient sea life brought back 450 million years later – so there is a delayed expression of the containment of energy from that era, now expressing itself out into the Gulf of Mexico.
JKG: What first drew you to the subject of oil?
EB: I was photographing an extension of the energy of oil – the mining and quarry companies. As the extraction machines are big, the scale that they are operating at uses the power of oil and gas in great quantities. These are huge industries functioning in the background to support the lives that we lead. What I refer to as my “oil epiphany” occurred to me in 1997. As I was going out to photograph these mines, I realized that everything – what exists underneath all of this economic froth, and with the size of our population and the speed of its growth – was due to the fact that we are able to extend our energy footprint using oil, coal, and natural gas, hydrocarbons that are huge contributors to this unprecedented growth. I was photographing mines, to bring these sites that exist on the edges to our consciousness into public view. I didn’t have any idea of the sources of that energy, what it looks like, what the landscapes that the stuff comes from are like, even what the processes going into the refineries are. And also to put a visual narrative around the consequences of this energy – megacities, transport, all that. It is all there only for the grace of this black liquid.
JKG: When you took photographs of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, were you restricted in any way?
EB: There is a general rule that the pilots know on their GPS. It is a line that moves all the time. You can fly at any height, but when you get to this boundary zone you have to fly at three thousand feet. No one is sure exactly why three thousand feet, but we all recognize that once you get to that height, it is hard to see what is going on. You are at a diminishing viewpoint at which it is hard to get any serious detail. What one mostly sees is the surface sheen. The actual crude itself has reddishness to it. Sometimes they mix together. The oil comes to the surface only on extremely calm days. Choppy waves push it down and obscure it. If you look closely, the decks of the ships are empty of people because the air is very toxic with evaporating hydrocarbons. On an open deck, with no mask, they would be overcome by the toxins. Hitting the oil with dispersants down deep has resulted in underwater plumes that are depleting the underwater oxygen. The fish that swim into it will receive less oxygen and accumulate oil in their gills.
JKG: The Alberta oil fields will probably go into hyper-drive if offshore drilling is restricted.
EB: What it may do is hasten the onset of peak oil. Obviously, the easily accessible inventory is now gone. The interesting thing about this particular accident is that it classically points out our tendency to over-reach. As we over-reach, we venture into places where there can be unexpected consequences. The thing that was interesting about the Gulf of Mexico from the first time I went was that I came back with more questions than answers. There was a lot of secrecy about how much oil was coming out and about the damage. They are now collecting about fifteen thousand barrels of oil a day, so it cannot be five thousand barrels a day – as they originally claimed. Tons of oil are still coming out. BP must pay a given amount per barrel spilt as a penalty, so it is in BP’s best interest to keep the numbers as low as possible.
JKG: How do we control the effects of this global economy in hyper-drive? Can we control the speed of production and consumption? Economies collapse due to the speed and volume of importing, with a consequent collapse of factories. Who is in control? What do we do?
EB: I don’t think anybody is in control. We have released a model that is called capitalism. Another model from the past was called communism. One was to be more equitable and the other was about personal gain. The equitable one lost due to corruption, unfair distribution, and a lack of incentive. We are creatures who function best when we have an incentive, and if we remove the incentive then we lose our drive.
JKG: What is the impetus for art in our times? I do believe that the Romantic idea of art was truly a construct. I find that your photos have that theatricality to them, with the scope and scale of nature’s imprint. Caspar David Friedrich’s Romantic painting The Sea of Ice (1823–24) with its ship lost in the ice, with its near and distant forms, somehow reminds me of your photos.
EB: We feel diminished when we see the force of nature. We are a small agency in a grand theatre. I believe I took a lesson from Friedrich!
JKG: I think that your photography performs a great role as it brings a perspective to what we are doing to the planet Earth, as the visual quality and surface that your art represents is what humans prefer. We are continuously reading visuals in advertising, on the screens we use, and in the environments that we live in.
EB: We are so bombarded with visuals, yet we are not going that deep … When you think of the images that have entered the public domain that have had the greatest impact – an incriminating video of Rodney King and the police that battered him that incited riots in Los Angeles would be one good example, or if you look at Abu Ghraib images, they were badly photographed and yet they were influential, but nobody looked at James Nachtwey’s fantastic images of war – you say, “How can this be?”
What we eat we are. The fact so many of us drive cars several hours to and from work, look at screens – our behaviour patterns are extremely influenced by the tools we use. People are less aware of what surrounds them and how our planet functions. The physics of the world and an awareness of our interconnectedness to nature both physically and spiritually may be exactly what could save our civilization.
And a sense of the limits, the limits of what we can do. There are three pervasive misconceptions out there. One, about our relationship with Earth, says everything is fine, capitalism is fine, and we have infinite resources. Big oil, big corporations have an interest in the narrative that “all is well” in the world, just carry on … and keep consuming. Advertising narratives conspire to make us believe that if we could just acquire this or that, then all is good with the world and we will be happy people. A lot of money is spent to convince us of our needs – for instance, how about a multi-trillion-dollar campaign designed to convince us to buy shoes! The other grand misconception is that science is going to be there to save the day. Just before we go under we are captured and saved by science – this is what I call the “Superhero Science Story.” A final, more bleak and apocalyptic, misconception is that we are all going to go over the edge and are doomed and there is no hope. I am still quite hopeful that our human enterprise inherently has the self-awareness and survival instinct to evolve as sustainable, if only the will is developed.
When we look at the world, what is amazing is that most often great tragedies don’t happen in an instant, they unfold slowly. A type of tree dies out, a species of animal can no longer maintain its diet, so these things vanish. It is true that humans have great ingenuity, but we need a consciousness of the limits within the limit.
John K. Grande is author of Balance: Art and Nature (Black Rose Books, 1994), Art Nature Dialogues: Interviews with Environmental Artists (State University of New York Press, 2007), and Dialogues in Diversity: Art from Marginal to Mainstream (Italy: Pari Publishing, 2008). Recent books include The Landscape Changes (Propect/Gaspereau Press, 2009) and Natura Humana: Bob Verschueen’s Installations (Editions Mardaga, 2010).