The Design Observer Group

Posted 04.26.12

Mark Feldman

Visualizing the Ends of Oil

Edward Burtynsky, Ferrous Bushling #18; Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, 1997; from Oil. [Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowity, New York]

By now most of us understand that oil is powering the rapid transformation of our planet, enabling us to extract resources, intensify agriculture, manufacture goods, and transport people and objects at unprecedented rates and in unprecedented quantities. But what remains more difficult to grasp is the impact — the scale — of this transformation; and I would argue that this difficulty in comprehending profound change is to some crucial degree related to the difficulty of visualizing it. To be sure, photographs of the landscapes of oil infrastructure circulate widely in newspapers and magazines, but these images are usually pegged to a specific event (e.g., the Deepwater Horizon explosion), or else they are intentionally generic (stock images of derricks and pipelines that could be anywhere from Kansas to Kazakhstan). How then might we get beyond the over-familiar images and develop new ways of visualizing the era of oil that began in the mid 19th century with the drilling of a well in central Asia and has since reshaped the world? How might new visualizations help us understand better the effects of oil — or more accurately, the effects of our dependence on oil? And how might new visualizations spur action — and activism?

These questions gained new urgency for me at a conference on art and environment held last fall at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. Like many scholars, I’ve long contended that the meaning of art should be open-ended, that the artist’s intention matters less than the viewer’s reception, that all we can really ask art to do is to set in motion challenging aesthetic and cognitive experiences. But as I listened to artists and designers working in the broad and evolving field of environmental art, those convictions began to shift. I found myself bringing a range of different questions and expectations to environmental art. If the planet is at stake — I don’t say this lightly — is indeterminate art a viable option? Or do the times call for something more didactic?

The Altered Landscape
The photographs of Edward Burtynsky and Chris Jordan together make a good starting point for this investigation. Large in scale, saturated with color and often beautiful, their photographs depict scenes of petroleum industry, infrastructure and waste that few of us will ever experience in person. In their very different ways Burtynsky’s and Jordan's work underscores the power of images to attract audiences and to inspire strong reactions.

Yet our reactions will inevitably be more emotional than intellectual, and for this reason their work underscores as well the limits of photography as an instrument of education and catalyst for change. For while the formal beauty and strangeness of an image like Burtynsky’s Ferrous Bushling #18 might make us pause and reflect, and ask questions, we will need additional information to translate that moment of reflection into environmental insight — to answer those questions in meaningful terms. Here I’d like to argue that we need words as well as images in order to provide the rich context and analysis that environmental photography requires. Otherwise these stunning photographs run the risk of devolving into mere aestheticization, their once unfamiliar and eerie subjects becoming clichés. This is not a new argument (witness the mutually reinforcing power of Walker Evans's photography and James Agee's writing in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men); but it’s worth making forcefully now, as extravagantly sized color photographs proliferate on the global art scene, and as artists increasingly freight their works with claims of political and ecological agency.

Top: Edward Burtynsky, SOCAR Oil Fields #6, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006. Bottom: Edward Burtynsky, SOCAR Oil Fields #3, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006. [Photographs © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowity, New York]

Edward Burtynsky’s celebrated large-format color photographs — which will be familiar to many readers of this journal — focus on places like quarries, mines, scrap heaps and factories — what he terms “the true landscape of my time.” [1] Born in 1955 and working professionally since the early 1980s, Burtynsky belongs to a second generation of altered-landscape photographers which emerged after the first generation — Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, et al. — defined the field in the 1960s and '70s, notably in the landmark 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. This latest generation has extended and reinvented themes that reach back more than a century. Burtynsky’s first widely exhibited series of images, Railcuts, present distant views of railroads as they slice through mountains and cling to steep canyon walls, recalling late 19th-century images of the American West by Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson. In Railcuts, the human alteration — the track — is a single line in an otherwise “natural” landscape. In later series such as Mines, Urban Mines (recycling operations), Quarries, and Shipbreaking, the photographer's entire field of view encompasses evidence of human intervention.

In 1997 Burtynsky had what he describes as an "oil epiphany."As he said at a TED talk: "After 17 years of photographing large industrial landscapes, it occurred to me that oil is underpinning the scale and speed ... at which we’re taking our resources.” One result was his monumental Oil series, exhibited in 2009 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with a lavish companion volume published by Steidl. The series is intended to “map an arc” [2] in the industrial cycle of oil, from extraction to consumption to disposal. The first section, focusing on "extraction and refinement," and the last section, on the "end of oil” — scrap yards, recycling facilities, abandoned oil fields — are the most revealing and rewarding; these explore the remote environs of the industry — the played-out fields in Azerbaijan, the huge heap of trashed car engines in Ontario, the Sikorsky helicopter scrap yard near Tucson — and show us the extraordinary scale of the associated activities. In contrast, the section on "transportation and motor culture," with aerial photos of freeway intersections in America and China — seems familiar, maybe expected. As for the photographs of crowds at the Talladega Speedway in Alabama, or at a Truckers Jamboree in Iowa, well, it's hard not to agree with Geoff Dyer's observation: “Burtynsky has rarely been at his best with people” [3]

Edward Burtynsky, Alberta Oil Sands #6, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007. [Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowity, New York]

Something Is Happening Here

Consider Alberta Oil Sands #6, which seems to me an illuminating instance of what photographs can and cannot do. This large (approx. 4 by 5 feet) aerial photograph of an oil sands operation in Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, taken in 2007, captures the vastness and dirtiness of the extraction process. In the foreground are two raised fields, mustard-colored expanses broken up by orange and yellow plumes. On the perimeter there are wide roads of flattened dirt. The image seems to converge near the top center, where large clouds of smoke and steam rise into a gray sky. Elsewhere we can discern bodies of water, clusters of buildings, towers, storage tanks and other industrial infrastructure.

Unquestionably the photograph is arresting; we understand that something big and important is happening here, and that we should be concerned. But it’s not at all clear what exactly we should be concerned about. On the basis of the visual evidence, we might conclude that the ominous-looking fields in the foreground pose the most serious environmental risk; or we might simply experience a vague sense of unease and dread brought on by the very immensity and uncertainty of the image and its information. Yet at this late date isn't this kind of unease, the fear of large, earth-altering projects, somewhat old-fashioned, maybe reactionary? And even hypocritical, given that we humans have already altered every part of the planet, and that so much of our modern and comfortable way of life — including not just negative but also positive outcomes, such as the technologically driven advances of science and medicine — depends upon the energy that results from the fossil fuel we extract from the sands at Fort McMurray?

To truly understand what we are seeing in Oil Sands #6 we need to know more. We need to know, for instance, that we are looking at the Athabasca Oil Sands — huge deposits of bitumen (extremely heavy crude oil) located beneath the surface of a 54,000-square-mile expanse in northeastern Alberta, Canada. The oil (or tar) sands contain an estimated 2 trillion barrels of oil, of which 170 billion barrels are thought to be economically feasible to recover at current prices, which puts Alberta’s reserve behind only Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. The petroleum in oil sands, which is embedded in sticky bitumen, must be extracted from the sands and then refined. While some oil sands can be mined — removing what is known as the “overburden” in order to access the oily sand, usually destroying large tracts of boreal forest and bog along the way — others can only be recovered in situ by injecting hot pressurized steam deep into the ground. In Alberta, the majority of the oil sands have been mined.

Although the Athabasca Oil Sands — at 57° north latitude — are remote from most of North America's major cities, they are deeply integrated into the continent's oil economy. The Keystone Pipeline system transports crude oil and diluted bitumen from Alberta to refineries and distribution centers in the Midwestern United States. The United States now imports more crude oil from Canada than from any other country, roughly three quarters of it from Alberta. These figures are expected to grow if the Keystone XL Pipeline is approved; plans call for a new branch from Alberta through Montana to Nebraska and an extension of the main stem from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast, more than doubling capacity to 1.3 million barrels per day. 

All current bitumen extraction techniques are water and energy intensive. Producing a barrel of oil from the tar sands requires 0.5 to 4.5 barrels of water. For a single unit of energy invested in mining operations, the tar sands return six units of energy; for in-situ extraction the ratio can be as low as 1:2. (To put these numbers in perspective, a prime oil field in the Middle East returns energy at a ratio greater than 1:100.) [4] Such huge energy costs — significant CO2 emissions will result from extraction and then again from consumption, essentially a double dose of greenhouse gases — has sparked some environmentalists to characterize the accelerating development of the Athabasca Oil Sands as a potential tipping point in global climate change

Developing the oil sands poses other environmental risks as well. While much of the water used can be cleaned and returned to the rivers from which it was drawn, some portion ends up in tailings ponds. These rapidly proliferating ponds, currently covering over 80 square miles of the Athabasca landscape, contain metals and toxins, including mercury, arsenic, naphthenic acids and hydrocarbons. These compounds do not break down or precipitate out of solution quickly; in 2007 the tailings ponds were estimated to be leaking 11 million liters of water per day into the surrounding environment and this is projected to increase to 72 million leters per day by 2012. The bitumen is also high in sulfur, which must be removed in order to meet emissions standards — hence the sulfur stockpile in the foreground of Oil Sands #6.

Let’s return now to that photograph. If we consider Alberta Oil Sands #6 as work of art, the compositional focus is the vivid sulfur stockpile; but if we consider the photograph as an environmental document, then the real focus of concern should be the lethal tailing ponds and CO2-spewing smokestacks. The photograph rivets our attention — it may even be the reason you’re reading this essay — but then misdirects it, albeit unintentionally. Alberta Oil Sands #6 registers powerfully for the boldness of the documentation; but it is a document that cannot tell us the full story.

Edward Burtynsky, SOCAR Oil Fields #1b, Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006. [Photograph © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto/Howard Greenberg & Bryce Wolkowity, New York]

Scale and the Sublime

Oil concludes with photographs of the after-effects of petroleum production and consumption. SOCAR Oil Fields #1b depicts infrastructure in Baku, Azerbaijan, that appears to have been abandoned and to have undergone no remediation. Glistening, highly reflective oil ponds dominate the foreground, while rusty derricks and towers dot the background. Viewed in the larger context of the series, the photograph strengthens the implicit environmental claim of Burtynsky’s work. Dare we imagine, it seems to ask, the Athabasca Oil Sands, similarly derelict half a century from now? And yet even in this case, the deeper power of the photograph depends on knowledge of its historical context that is beyond the ability of the medium to provide. The image becomes more disturbing, more haunting, once we know that Baku was the site of the world’s first oil field, the place where the modern oil industry first took shape, and that it was oil that made the city prosperous and powerful; by the 1870s there were more than 200 wells and 50 refineries on the Absheron peninsula. Once we understand the narrative arc of this history, we can read Burtynsky's photograph as a warning of what can happen when the oil is gone and the wells are dry.

Or consider Oxford Tire Pile #9b, where we see seemingly endless drifts of tires, the slopes and ridges of which mimic the topographical features of mountains and canyons and thus recall a major theme in Burtynsky’s work: the man-made sublime. With almost every square inch of the print taken up with tires, which are located somewhere in California, the photo impresses upon us the sheer magnitude of waste. And yet we viewers need and deserve to know the facts that support this impression — that, for instance, 290 million tires are discarded in the U.S. every year, that each tire contains five to ten gallons of oil, and that many tire piles catch fire and burn for months. But of course very large numbers, which are crucial to our understanding of contemporary environmental problems, are hard to grasp. Photographs like Oxford Tire Pile #9b can function as a sort of visual primer; yet they can't really help us to grapple with the difference between, say, 25 million and 250 million — not to mention the resource flows involved in tire production, distribution, consumption and disposal — and the decisions that might follow as a result of one figure or the other.

Top: Chris Jordan, Circuit Boards, Atlanta, 2004, from Intolerable Beauty. [Photo via Chris Jordan Photographic Arts] Bottom: Chris Jordan, Crushed Cars #2, Tacoma, 2004. [Photo via Chris Jordan Photographic Arts]

Many of Chris Jordan’s early photographs share formal similarities with those of Burtynsky; and Jordan, who became a full-time photographer after a decade as a corporate lawyer, is also explicit about his environmental agenda. His first major series, Intolerable Beauty (2003–2005), is a record of the half-life of consumer culture: the photos show enormous aggregations of waste, mostly at recycling centers and junk yards. The point of view is often monomaniacal; in Crushed Cars #2 (Tacoma, 2004) we see nothing but crushed cars; in Cell Phones #2 (Atlanta, 2005) nothing but cell phones; in Circuit Boards (Atlanta 2004), nothing but circuit boards; and so on. Within the confines of Jordan's frame, there is no escape, and we confront our own complicity in the great piles of discarded electronics, metal, glass, etc.

These are beautiful and interesting photographs; even the dump is full of color, pattern, photogenic form. For Jordan, the "strange combination of beauty and horror [becomes] a potent metaphor for our consumerism"; the technical elegance of the images becomes an inverse mirror of the superficial attractions of brand-new products. Photographs like these provide a visual correlative to the recent concept of the Anthropocene, developed in the past decade by the Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen. Crutzen argues that humans are now so dominant on earth, and have changed the biosphere so profoundly, that the planet has entered a new geological era — that we have moved from the Holocene, which began 12,000 years ago, to the Anthropocene. Burtynsky and Jordan's photographic landscapes constitute a kind of gallery of the early Anthropocene.

Close Enough to Touch

In his recent work Chris Jordan has shifted scale radically, moving from the large sweep to the close encounter. In the series Midway: Message from the Gyre, which show dead birds on Midway Atoll, Jordan's aesthetic is intimate; but he remains dedicated to environmental aims, to visualizing the ends of oil. Jordan's Midway project began when he learned that thousands of Laysan Albatross nesting chicks die every year as a result of ingesting plastics; the parents fly out to forage for their newborn and gather bits of plastic — which they mistake for food — from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a gyre of trash estimated recently by the National Science Foundation to be about twice the size of Hawaii. Jordan was initially intent on photographing the Garbage Patch itself, but, as he notes, this proved impossible "because the garbage is all underwater." Jordan then searched for a way "to visualize the patch ... [to] make it comprehensible.” 

His solution was to photograph the dead albatross chicks just as he found them on the beach on Midway, closely framed and from an overhead angle, almost like a crime scene; the skeletons and feathers are in various stages of decay, and we can see in the carcasses a motley assortment of plastic litter. The power of the series lies in the disturbing juxtapositions of the rapidly decomposing corpses of the dead chicks and the plainly recognizable and still sturdy bits of plastic — bottle caps, printer cartridges, toys, et al. — petroleum-based products that somehow ended up in the stomachs of sea birds on a Pacific atoll some 2,000 miles from the nearest continent.

Chris Jordan, from Midway: Message from the Gyre, 2009–current. [Photo via Chris Jordan Photographic Arts]

Because Jordan's Midway series is more personal, scaled to the human body, it places the viewer close enough to touch, and be touched. At the art and environment conference, Jordan told the audience that his goal was to make viewers feel grief — "to allow our hearts to be broken in a way that might be transformational.” He then leaves the interpretation and analysis up to us, in the hope that his photographs will facilitate “a kind of cultural self-inquiry.”    

It seems somehow right that Jordan should trust us — trust our reception of his work; as I noted at the start, I've long felt that artistic intention matters less than viewer reception. Yet now I can't help but feel uneasy. Yes, perhaps all the artist can do is to create images and objects and experiences that provoke us into new ways of thinking and feeling. Still, I find myself desperately wanting Jordan’s and Burtynsky’s art — all the art of the Anthropocene — to succeed even beyond this; and by succeed, I mean that I want it to be the physical evidence that sparks environmental action and change, the Silent Spring of the early 21st century. For if these works do not inspire action, there seems the alternate possibility: that contemporary environmental photography will become a form of confession, a substitute for action, maybe unwittingly a vehicle for hardening or anesthetizing us as the images are repeatedly viewed. I worry that the aesthetic experience might be the end of the story.

To what degree can photographs like Burtynsky’s Oil and Jordan’s Midway circulate as fine art images — making the usual circuit of galleries and museums — and at the same time be enlisted as evidence in environmental writing and politics? I’d like to see more experiments along these lines. Burtynsky and Jordan deserve a broad audience and environmentalists need all the persuasive images they can get their hands on. In the end I retain faith in the power of images to reshape attitudes and perceptions. We can ask a lot of art, and it can set the scene; but we do need words to complete the story.