Daily Picture Show

Edward Burtynsky's Obsession With Oil

Edward Burtynsky will go to great lengths to get the perspective he wants for a photo.

"If it's 300 feet, then I'll go to 300 feet," he said before a recent lecture at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where his work is currently on display. Using cherry pickers, trucks, helicopters and even slow-flying Cessna airplanes, "I've been able to liberate myself from a fixed point of view," he explained.

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And in this way, his art is dependent on the very force he has spent the past 12 years chronicling: oil. Refineries, rigs, decrepit planes and race cars; this Canadian-born photographer creates strangely beautiful images from landscapes affected by the production or use of the world's most valuable fuel.

The gallery above does not do justice to his work, which is 5 feet tall, dwarfing the viewer. Shot from above — even at this size — Burtynsky manages to turn massive groupings of tires and homes into tiny toys.

Though his eery images of waste and consumption make him a natural ally for environmentalists, he said there's no political message in his art. Asked why the oil workers are barefoot in Bangladesh, he offered an explanation without outrage. (Hear him discuss the image below.)

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Edward Burtynsky

Edward Burtynsky

"I'm interested in the theater of the things we make, in how we are reshaping our planet," he offered, stopping short of saying that reshaping is bad. At a recent lecture, he left that to his co-presenter, an academic who threw out terrifying statistics about what humans' dependency on oil means for the Earth.

In his elegant, almost corporate-looking suit, it's hard to imagine that Burtynsky was once a laborer at the sorts of places he now photographs. He worked in a gold mine and a GM factory — among others — to put himself through photography school.

"It paid well, just wasn't the right job for me," he said, again staying neutral. He did add, however, that he's glad he's successful enough to push a shutter rather than a production line button.

You can see more of Burtynsky's photos here and here. His work will be at the Corcoran until Dec. 13.

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