At the newly re-opened Photographers Gallery, the first major exhibition is 'Oil' by Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky. I visited last week. The exhibition presents some of Burtynsky’s images in a series that goes back more than ten years, and which explores much of the vast scope and influence of ‘Oil’ in today’s world – its extraction, refinement, use, ‘end’. Indeed, the images on display are arranged, broadly, around these ‘stages’ of oil. In practice, I personally felt more comfortable reading them as a whole, as a complex but cohesive piece of work rather than as chapters in a narrative.
Burtynsky has said that he creates images that are open to multiple readings, and it’s important to bear in mind when looking at this body of work. They are detailed, deep, often complicated images, presented on a considerable scale (even if Sophy Ricket in Hotshoe does describe them as “... surprisingly diminutive ...”, almost making it sound like a put-down), which explore a subject whose scope and impact across the globe and throughout our lives would be impossible to document in totality. The work does, most definitely have a political dimension, but Burtynsky seems to be more concerned that we ask ourselves questions about our own use of oil in so many aspects of our sophisticated and highly developed lives than that we prepare our placards and get out onto the streets. Indeed he almost seems prepared to celebrate, with us, the wonder of what man has achieved with oil, whilst at the same time undermining our wonder as we are drawn into the detail of his wonderful images and see the waste, destruction and, very occasionally, human misery.
Another reading, though, and one that I found myself exploring, both in the gallery and subsequently, relates to the formal qualities and the relationship of these pictures to others, going back to Romantic painters and taking in the New Topographics and other contemporary fine art photographers along the way. Compare 'Shipbreaking No 13' with this from Joel Meyerowitz and this from Caspar David Friedrich (and influence that Burtynsky acknowledges). Like Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and others, he uses the large format camera to step back (quite some distance in many cases, up in a crane – like Struth photographing Notre Dame in a film seen at the Whitechapel Gallery – or up in a plane) and capture scale, light, colour, perspective and detail, in the manner of the sublime landscape.
Moving specifically to the formal qualities; the prints – very high quality chromogenic colour – are large (in my opinion anyway, Sophy), highly detailed, and much sharper in that detail that some of the big exhibition prints I’ve seen. That matters for Burtynsky’s work (perhaps for others, too, if the scale is going to work). His ‘VW Lot No 1’ depicts, from a typically elevated viewpoint, what must be thousands of Volkswagen cars, arranged in neat rows, and disappearing into the distance out of the top of the frame, presumably awaiting delivery. As a viewer, one can step back with Burtynsky’s camera, and wonder st the scale; be intrigued by the abstract pattern; reflect on the industry behind their manufacture; and be troubled (in context) by the oil they will consume. But one is also (or this ‘one’ at least) drawn into the vast frame to look at the detail and the way in which each individual car is sharply defined. Then, one can admire Burtynsky’s skill and professionalism; recognise his attention to detail; compare him to the painter who carefully craft each brushstroke; but also, perhaps, consider that each of those vehicles will be delivered to someone like ourselves. We all, in our protected little environments (and the inside of an automobile on a highway is the epitome of that aspect of the modern world) contribute to the whole. The ‘big picture’ is the sum of its parts.
Comparable in its intense detail, is 'Densified Oil Filters No 1', in which used and compacted oil filters fill the frame in their hundreds. The scale is different but the effect is similar. Firstly the viewer is caught by the size of the print, the ‘texture’ that makes it look like an abstract oil painting (Pollock?) even though the surface is, of course, flat; and the ‘what is it’ question, which (as with the VWs) draws one into the detail, where we ‘get the message’. Filling the big frame and letting the waste filters ‘flow’ out of its edges adds to the sense that this particular oil outcome may go on forever. The same principle of intense abstract detail is present in 'Oxford Tyre Pile No 4'; this time with a huge pile of waste tyres, but with a compositional difference. Just off centre frame is a ‘void’ reminiscent of a deep canyon and echoing the deep earthworks that appear elsewhere in Burtynsky’s images. A similar centre-frame breaking of the detail occurs in 'Highway No 5', where two highways and the intricate intersection at their meeting, carve through the seemingly endless sprawl of Los Angeles suburbs, laid out across the frame in an image shot from an aircraft. Are the rows and rows, streets and streets of buildings being compared to the tyres, the oil filters, the VWs? It’s tempting to think so. And once again, we can step back and wonder at man’s industry; stare, appalled, at the sprawl across the landscape; admire Burtynsky’s professional and creative skills in envisioning and then constructing this immense view; and admire the beautiful quality of the final print on the gallery wall. All seem to be valid readings.
I also found myself, again, reflecting on process – creative process. How does Burtynsky get to these final prints that I’m studying? From a notion to this result; how does that happen? There are numerous interviews and video clips on his website, in some of which he discusses process. I havn’t had the time to look into it all in detail but, as well as reaffirming that this is a project that has already been ongoing for more than ten years, he describes how he approaches particular site that he is to photograph – the research; the numerous visits; the taking of many preparatory shots; the identification of what he then wants to produce and how he will go about it; and so on. As with my visit to the Roger Ballen exhibition some weeks ago, I begin to appreciate the dedication, attention to detail, professionalism etc in the creative process. Here are two very different artists; totally different images and aesthetics; Ballen looking inward and creating his own black and white images; Burtynsky looking outward and documenting the world, in colour. Yet in comparing the artistic and creative processes associated with each and the quality of the end result in these two exhibitions, the same basic quality of dedication and professionalism is clear.
In conclusion, this exhibition demonstrates how a dedicated and skilled fine art photographer can use beauty, scale, colour, perspective and detail to present fantastic quality and hugely impressive images that both singly and in total engage the viewer and invite detailed reading. And then, it offers multi-dimensional possibilities for the reader – see the exquisite formal qualities, as I did, and read them in the context of fine art genres; or read the environmental messages about man taking from the earth and from the landscape; or look at the historical context, the documenting of man’s industrial history and development. Enjoyable – and it makes you think!