The spectacles of consumption on display in Edward Burtynsky's pictures of 'oil' and all its manifestations are ecologically worthy but visually indulgent, Geoff Dyer writes. Whether seen on the walls of the Corcoran Gallery in Washington or in the accompanying book published by Steidl, the photographs in Oil bring the viewer face to face with huge and troubling questions. How can we go on producing on this scale? How can we go on consuming like this? Aren't we at the point where we say, OK, enough is enough? Is it sustainable, the level of luxury and lavishness to which we have become accustomed? In short, how many more of these high-concept, high-value Edward Burtynsky productions can we take?
I am being only slightly facetious. Burtynsky (born in Ontario, Canada in 1955) hit his stride in the mid-1980s with series of large format, colour views of railcuts and mines, places where raw nature had been scarred and gorged by the agents of economic progress. What resulted, however, was not simply maiming or devastation but a source of potential wonder: an extension of Edmund Burke's notion of the sublime - itself radically altered by several hundred years of excavation and appropriation - into the realm of the man-ravaged. By the time that his work was collected into a 2003 retrospective and an accompanying book, , Burtynsky had extended his range to cover quarries, ship-breaking in Bangladesh, oilfields, refineries, and compacted mounds of trash.
Burtynsky's work has obvious similarities with that of other artist-photographers. Like Richard Misrach (who, in the Bravo 20 instalment of his ongoing Desert Cantos project, photographed an area of the Nevada desert used as a bombing range by the US military) Burtynsky produces images whose beauty is freighted with a political and ecological purpose that is unavoidable and unobtrusive. The pictures can never be reduced to a polemical message, and are always compelling - often puzzlingly so - in and of themselves. Some of the quarries, for example, comprise almost abstract blocks of striated marble, floating in a lake of flat, motionless green. Weirdly, the hard, grey-white stones with vertical gouge-scars and veins end up looking like billowing Christo wraps. Even when there are human beings or tools to help us get a fix on things, the scale is hard to comprehend. In some cases, the assault on the landscape is so immense that the idea on which we have long relied to visually orient ourselves - linear perspective - has been abolished. The ecological corollary of this is that we are witnessing something whose consequences are incalculable - if not entirely unprecedented. For it turns out that the template for this outlook was provided by an extraordinary 1932 photograph of a quarry by August Sander - best-known for his portraits - which hurled the viewer into the vertiginous midst of the picture.
Burtynsky's contemporary vision, in other words, is the product of a creative quarrying of the photographic past. Pioneering landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson (whose works were sponsored by the relentless westward expansion of American railways into the wilderness they depicted) and Charles Sheeler (who was enthralled by the gleaming promise of modern industry) inform Burtynsky's work and, in turn, are respectfully interrogated and reanimated by it. Burtynsky, then, is an original artist in exactly the sense described and prescribed by TS Eliot: part of a tradition that is actively extended and reconfigured by his contribution to it.
The intellectual background to the wealth of photographs showcased in Oil can conveniently be framed by two casual remarks. The first was reported by the cultural theorist Raymond Williams, who recalled a miner "saying to me, of someone we were discussing: 'He's the sort of man who gets up in the morning and presses a switch and expects a light to come on.'" The other occurred during a conversation I had with the woman who looked after an apartment I was renting in New Orleans during the first Gulf War, in 1991. She was against the war on the grounds that it was really about America's incessant need for oil. Then I asked if I might have an extra blanket because, at night, it was a little chilly. "Oh," she replied. 'You should just turn the heating up a bit."
To express it as concisely as possible, the photographs in Oil seek to make visible the invisible connections between these two opposing views of the world, one predicated on scarcity, the other on limitless abundance. Burtynsky offers a vast portfolio of images, from oilfields to refineries, to highways, cities and industries, to recycling and eventual waste. It's an obviously admirable, important and well-intentioned project by a serious and committed artist.
Why, then, does one baulk at it? The problem, partly, is that the titular subject - the raw material, as it were - defines our world to such an extent that it is all-engulfing. Oil is so pervasive that it ends up being an alternative rubric around which to organise a Burtynsky retrospective: the photographic equivalent of an edition of New and Selected Poems in which old favourites (arranged in slightly different permutations) are supplemented by some more recent works. Admittedly, there are no quarries or railcuts, but the Bangladeshi ship-breakers are still toiling away, the tyre piles and densified oil drums are still there. Well, fair enough, nothing wrong with a bit of recycling, but whereas Manufactured Landscapes offered a glimpse of teaming visual possibilities the totalising vision of Oil induces a feeling of satiety. There are new things (new to me, at any rate), some of them very good, especially the Koyaanisqatsi- style views of the spaghetti tangle of freeways, the cityscapes stretching out to infinity, but once the doubts start to seep in - the suspicion that Burtynsky is photographing the crisis of peak oil and climate change like someone fluently producing company reports - they prove dangerously corrosive.
Burtynsky has long had a fondness for photographing endlessly replicated units of the same thing, whether it's workers at identical benches in a factory, tyres or freight containers - anything, really. Individual examples can be stunning but in Oil, we keep getting replicated instances of pretty much the same thing: multiple versions of multiple cars, multiple versions of locust-like oil derricks. We get the point. Then the point is made again with variations so minor that they appear, almost, as an indulgence. Perhaps this is why the viewer is left with an uncomfortable sensation of bloating.
Burtynsky has always avoided wrecking himself on the rocks he photographs, but his enterprise has, nevertheless, contained a lurking potential for self-aggrandisement. In an interview in Manufactured Landscapes he admitted to a compulsion to seek out "the largest example of something - the largest mines, the largest quarry". Attracted to "massive operations", Burtynsky - more exactly, a Burtynsky photograph - is becoming a bit of a production. One gets the sense that this is as close to stadium rock as a landscape photographer is ever likely to get. There is a similar loss of intimacy, the same dependence on scale and spectacle, on the sheer scale of the spectacle. Now, of course, a crane or helicopter might have been indispensable to the creation of some of Burtynsky's photographs but a crane can so easily become a kind of podium.
Oil invites us to gorge ourselves on Burtynsky's epic catalogue, to gulp down image after image as warnings of impending scarcity and looming resource wars. But it's not just the quantity, not just a case of there being too much of a messianically good thing. No, some of the individual images are stunningly bad. One of Burtynsky's strengths has always been his subtle command of colour, whether muted and rusting or molten and blazing. In images of the Truckers Jamboree at Walcott, Iowa, or of the car park at a Kiss concert in Sturgis, North Dakota, however, the blare of colour seems simply vulgar. Granted, these may not be the most refined or understated gatherings on the planet but, like Hamlet in his rants about his mother's infidelity, Burtynsky wallows in and is tainted by what he observes without being able to claim the satirist's exemption of a Martin Parr (he is too high-minded for that). The images of crowds and speedsters at the Bonneville Salt Flats, meanwhile, lack the subtlety and zero-humidity grace of rival photographs by Misrach. They also serve as a reminder that Burtynsky has rarely been at his best with people. Actually, let me pause here to contradict the point I am about to make. One magnificent image shows a gang of ship-breakers in Bangladesh, spread out against a near-monochrome, oil-drenched shoreline, a long chain over their shoulders, trudging from one side of the picture to the next. It's as if John Singer Sargent's painting Gassed - a procession of blinded soldiers, each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front - has been relocated to a part of the world in which suffering becomes the stoic norm of an average working day (and tacitly retitled Oiled). But the general point still stands: for the most part, people in Burtynsky serve as indicators of the superhuman scale of the work they are engaged in (which becomes, in turn, a testament to the superhuman importance of the work in which they appear!); either that or they're a species of the endlessly replicated units to which he is compulsively attracted.
In China Burtynsky organised a photograph of yellow-jacketed workers arranged in deep perspectival recession along a street lined with yellow factories in Zhangzhou. It was such a striking and successful picture that Burtynsky decided to try something similar with a bunch of bikers in downtown Sturgis. Earlier I made a comparison with stadium rock; with this image Burtynsky has formed his own tribute band. The result seems to me entirely without merit or purpose except insofar as it is yet another gig on the world tour called Oil.
Geoff Dyer is the author of 10 books, including The Ongoing Moment, a history of photography. Edward Burtynsky's Oil (Dh510) is published by Steidl.