Nothing safe about these landscapes transformed by oil

Edward Burtynsky’s breathtaking large-scale photographs, of landscapes from California to Baku being transformed by the oil industry, were featured at the Burtynsky: OIL exhibition, which ends at the new Photographers’ Gallery in London this weekend, writes guest reviewer CHRIS CORRIGAN.

You can view some of Burtynsky’s oil photographs on his website here (and read more about him here). And if you missed the Photographers’ Gallery show, that’s a shame – but another exhibition (13 July – 9 September 2012) includes a related theme and which should be well worth a visit. Admission is free.

The new show displays the work of four artists shortlisted for this year’s Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. One of them, the South African Pieter Hugo, is nominated for his publication Permanent Error. You can view many of the photographs on his website here.

Permanent Error centres on a vast dumping ground for technological waste at Agbogbloshie, on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital city. “Focusing on the young slum-dwellers who are burning the discarded, industrial rubbish to survive, Hugo’s stark photographs of this bleak landscape expose the consequences and ethics of disposal of the West’s consumption of ever-new technology,” says the gallery’s website.

Burtynsky: OIL was the first big event at the new publicly-funded Photographers’ Gallery which moved across the West End to Ramillies Street, London W1, in a £9 million development.

This choice of Burtynsky, most of whose oil photos were published in a 2008 book, was not universally approved, however. Sean O’Hagan wrote in the Observer on 20 May: “It seems a little odd that the newly refurbished space of the Photographers’ Gallery should revisit that work for its (re-)opening show, but then again if you wanted a big-profile artist making work on a hugely ambitious scale, Burtynsky is an obvious if safe choice.”

The expression “safe choice” itself seems odd coming from someone who must have viewed the exhibition.

Rusting pumpjacks across huge expanses of Californian desert; ranks of USAF bombers taken out of commission; an aerial view of a Los Angeles road interchange that is genuinely breathtaking; astonishing scenes of desecration caused during exploration, extraction and processing of oil across Asia.

Nothing looks safe for the people working or living in or near places that, thanks to Burtynsky, horrified those like me who hadn’t seen his work previously. 

Inbal Mizrahi, the gallery’s press officer, told peoplenature.org that the gallery has had more than 30,000 visitors since opening on 19 May 2012. They had decided to open with Burtynsky: OIL because “part of the Gallery’s remit is to introduce artists and photographers who have gained recognition internationally to UK audiences.

“We considered that Edward Burtynsky and his epic 12-year project on OIL deserved an extensive showing in a public (non-commercial) UK gallery context, and that his subject matter is still very current and deserved further exploration.

“We had not had an environmental or landscape themed show for a very long time and felt his work, amongst other things, is an accomplished example of how landscape and environmental photography is still a powerful genre in contemporary photography today.”

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