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Edward Burtynsky: Lifeless landscapes that only oil makes possible

As the Photographers’ Gallery reopens after a three-year break, Jonathan Dodds takes a look at Edward Burtynsky’s dramatic vision of the oil industry

Issue No. 2309

Shipbreaking #13, Chittagong, Bangladesh (2000) © Edward Butynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier, Toronto and Flowers, London

Shipbreaking #13, Chittagong, Bangladesh (2000) © Edward Butynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier, Toronto and Flowers, London

The Photographers’ Gallery in London has reopened its doors with a new exhibition by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.

The exhibition, OIL, features works from the artist’s trilogy of oil photography—Extraction and Refinement, Transportation and Motor Culture, and The End of Oil.

They were inspired by Burtynsky’s “oil epiphany” in 1997. “It occurred to me that the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over twenty years were only made possible by oil.”

These landscapes dominate the gallery, in images taking us from the extraction of oil in the Alberta tar sands and the fields of California to its ultimate effects on the world around us, physical and environmental.

One series of photos looks down from a helicopter onto the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. We see tankers, tiny in comparison to the vast body of water stretching out around them. Slick black oil snakes out, casting a dark sheen for miles around.

We see the effects of an increasingly dangerous and desperate pursuit of oil. Next to it, another image shows a number of ships struggle to contain a blaze following the explosion which killed eleven workers on BP’s rig.


Burtynsky’s images rarely contain evidence of human life. Shot on a large format camera, usually from a high viewpoint, the people on the oil fields simply don’t register alongside the huge structures of the oil industry.

An iPad app accompanies the exhibition, containing more images from the OIL series as well as essays, video and commentary. These are available to visitors to the exhibition.

The Photographers’ Gallery was founded 41 years ago as the first independent gallery in Britain devoted to photography. After a £8.9 million refurbishment, its new site is on Ramillies Street in central London.

This is twice the size of the old location near Leicester Square, which it left in 2008, and it now includes dedicated research and teaching spaces. New permanent features include a camera obscura onto Ramillies Street (opening times should be checked in advance).

Also new is the The Wall, a large screen on the ground floor. It forms part of a new digital programme seeking to explore the way that technology has altered our experience of images and our relationship to them.

The wall currently displays a series of images in the GIF format widely used on the internet, commissioned from artists to mark GIF’s 25 year anniversary.

Burtynsky’s OIL runs to Sunday 1 July at The Photographers’ Gallery, 16-18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW. Admission is free. Go to for more details

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Tue 26 Jun 2012, 17:32 BST
Issue No. 2309
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