"If there's one thing I want people to know as they walk away it's that we can't keep living like this." Edward Burtynsky
Walking around the recently refurbished Soho-based Photographer's Gallery primary exhibit – Burtynsky: Oil - I was reminded of a remark I once made in a secondary school science class. Discussing the pros and cons of fossil fuels the teacher asked us what we thought on the subject. Someone answered that the factories that produce fossil fuels blight the landscape. The class nodded in agreement. I can, however, remember my 12-year old self disagreeing with this sentiment. I put my hand up to offer a response and said that on the contrary I thought the Port Talbot steelworks with their refinery flames lighting up the evening sky - local to my home at the time - were incredibly beautiful at night. Everybody, the teacher included, laughed but I hadn't intended it as a joke.
This memory popped into my head as I walked around Oil because, at the simplest level, these pictures of oil refineries, scrap yards, helicopter graveyards, oil spills and colourful images of car-filled raceways are, and my words understate the case, absolutely visually captivating and breathtaking. They are pictures that deserve to be seen up close and in person.
There is a level of ambiguity in Oil that I was however unprepared for. Hearing that the exhibition was about the world's obsession with oil or, as Burtynsky says in a video at the exhibition, about the fact "nothing is not touched by oil" I expected pictures that would be didactic and take us close to the terrible consequences of this obsession. But this is no Walker Evans. It's almost as if God were in control of the camera we see things from so detached and distant a view.
For example, one would expect a dump of thousands of deflated tyres to be a grim sight but through Burtynsky's lens the dirt, mess and waste is transformed into something akin to a true piece of art. The camera poetically hides from us the reality of our oil use. So too, another called Densified Oil Filters in Canada, emanates the style of a Jackson Pollock. What would taken individually be just a rusty piece of metal en masse forms something ordered, patterned and meaningful as hundreds of engines compose an image of machinery patterned like a mosaic and flecked with colour. Chaos revealed as order.
The exhibit, on the pristine new fourth and fifth floors of the gallery, is a complementary home for such well crafted and, on large canvases, visually detailed pictures. The exhibit is split into three sections: extraction and refinement, transportation and motor culture and the end of oil. Finding the extraction and refinement images located on the fourth floor, under the images of motor vehicles and transport on the fifth neatly reflects the fact that extraction is the foundation upon which oil use depends. It is a thoughtful touch by the exhibit's arranger.
But as I walk between floors it is questions about the ambiguity of this piece that keep pressing me. Most illustrative of this ambiguity are several aerial shots of the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 - a horrific and ecological disaster of gigantic proportions. Burtynsky's images of the disaster are so distant that the sense of disaster is almost lost. One of the shots in particular - two tankers spraying water onto the burning oil rig - shows a rainbow forming out of the water spray of the rescue boats. It shows beauty in a scene surely where there is anything but.
"I wanted to show what oil is and how we engaged with it."
Listening to Burtynsky on a video audio supplement at the gallery he discusses what may be a reason for this ambiguity. As the photographer says, his early work was about exploring the relationship humans have between themselves and the environment and the incredible achievements we have made as a race. It was only as his career progressed, he adds, that he had what he calls his "oil epiphany" and realised that "the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over 20 years were only made possible by the discovery of oil". Burtynsky both admires and fears human achievement.
The global relationships that increasingly will come to dominate international politics in the twenty-first century are in Oil implicitly acknowledged. America, oil thirsty, the consumer and countries such as Baku, Canada and Bangladesh,- dependent on profits from oil and only too happy to supply. What America does with that oil is also depicted and Burtynsky's camera tells a story of hedonism and waste. Images of multiple parked Harley Davidson's, sprawling highways and drag racing show an America blissfully unaware of its "end of oil". Next to these images I notice a solitary image of oil consumption in China. Hanging innocuously amongst others in the gallery, nevertheless it points to the future.