I had an all too short visit to the Burtynsky: Oil exhibition at the Photographers Gallery recently whilst on my way across London to get the train back to Manchester. A visit which, although brief, I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed. Seeing these large-scale deadpan prints ‘in the flesh’ was so much more rewarding than small reproductions in books or the web. A general point about the exhibition is that none of the prints are behind glass and the lighting is high up so for once I wasn’t fighting with reflections, I could stand back and enjoy these large vibrant images.‘Oil’ follows our reliance on oil from its extraction to its ‘useful’ end. My overriding impression from the exhibition is the sheer scale of the dependency, consumed resources and wastefulness that Burtynsky has captured. The use of high eyepoint and aerial views creates interest purely because we don’t normally get chance to see things from this viewpoint, artistically or sociologically. This gives scale to the evidence of modern life’s reliance, whether it is rows of aircraft, oil pumps or tyre mountains. The higher aerial shots I found less striking eg. ‘highway no1’; too much time looking on Google maps I suspect! The shots that really captured my imagination were the ones that were less of a plan view but still taken from an elevated position. Breezewood, Pennsylvania is a particular favorite. Different to many of Burtynsky’s images, the use of a longer focal length lens to squeeze the perspective accentuates the busy scene; the cars in the petrol station and on the streets and the range of businesses that all depend on oil in one way or another. Also the link to power with the big corporate names grabbing your attention. This picture also reminds me of one of my favorite pictures by Ernst Haas; Route 66, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969; the busy street, the vibrant colours and the big oil company names.
Another very striking image is Oil Fields#19 a&b, Belridge, California, USA, 2003. This is a pair of images making up a single panorama of the oil field. There are pumps as far as the eye can see, presumably all working? The image is carved up by diagonal lines of pumps, roads and pipelines. The image was taken late in the day as there are long shadows cast in line with the roads and pipelines and the warm light accentuates the colour of the sandy soil. It makes me wonder about the noise. Is there a constant hum into the distance?
All in all this is a really interesting and quite diverse body of work and well worth the visit. I’m very glad I got to see it before it moved on.