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Photographer turns lens to impact of oil on the world

You probably don’t think about the oil that makes your personal transportation possible whenever you start your car — or pull up to the pump to refuel.

Neither did photographer Edward Burtynsky. Until the moment, when he stopped at a gas station — and had an “oil epiphany.”

The result: more than 50 large-scale photographs shot around the world, over a 12-year period, that focus on everything from drilling oil to demolishing the giant tankers used to transport it.

To say nothing of the (sub)urban sprawl automobiles make possible in, among other places, Las Vegas.

Opening Friday at UNLV’s Marjorie Barrick Museum, “Edward Burtynsky: Oil” offers striking images — and undeniable food for thought — as the award-winning Canadian artist and photographer explores what he calls “a key building block of modern civilization.”

For better — and for worse.

Unlike depictions of untouched, pastoral places, Burtynsky’s images often capture the opposite: territory forever altered by oil production, whether it’s stark metal pipelines snaking an otherwise empty field or miles of piles of discarded tires creating their own hilly geography.

And at the end of the (pipe)line, in Chittagong, Bangladesh, laborers earning pennies a day demolish hulking, obsolete oil tankers, working barefoot in sludgy water — and risking injury from metal shards as dangerous as military shrapnel.

“It’s easy to forget the connection between these landscapes — the ones in our everyday lives and the ones in these photographs,” Burtynsky says in an email interview. (The TED Award winner will lecture on “Oil” at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2 in the Barrick auditorium.)

When Burtynsky first began taking photographs, in the late 1970s, his work “was heavily inspired by abstract expressionism and the artists of that movement,” he writes. But “it wasn’t long, though, before I realized that my work was missing something.”


At that moment, “my rethinking of the content of the landscape image took hold,” Burtynsky reflects. “I decided to take my art form from the place that was pristine to the place where humans undeniably intersected into those landscapes.”

Those places include Las Vegas, which figures in four of Burtynsky’s photographs, all part of the exhibit’s “Transportation and Motor Culture” section. (Areas devoted to “Extraction and Refinement” and “The End of Oil” round out the exhibit.)

In one image — taken from an omnipotent, above-it-all vantage point — lookalike houses surround Spring Valley High School in the foreground of the photograph, while the Luxor pyramid hovers in the distance. Another shot offers an aerial view of the Lakes planned community.

Along with housing developments, Burtynsky also captures a view of a local industrial park — surrounded by parking lots full of cars.

“From the air I saw that the same patterns were emerging in both small and large scales,” he observes, “and the scenes reminded me of a computer circuit board, a reference that I then tried to coax out of my images.”

The Southern Nevada shots “are especially significant because at that time, nearly 10 years ago, Las Vegas was the fastest growing city in the United States,” Burtynsky adds, so the images “also now serve as a conversation with a moment in history.”

The “Oil” exhibit comes to the Barrick Museum from Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art, which presented it in 2012.

Burtynsky’s 56 “Oil” photographs are part of the Reno museum’s Altered Landscape Photography Collection, which focuses on “land use and the changing environment,” according to David Walker, NMOA’s executive director. “The point is to look at our human impact on the global landscape,” including “our dependence on natural resources such as oil.”

Looking at the images, viewers may be struck by the contrast between the vivid photographs and the sobering reality they reveal.

“The images are beautiful, but what they depict — it’s not so pretty,” notes Alisha Kerlin, the Barrick’s interim director, as she surveys the “glowing” large-format color photographs. (In part, that’s because there’s no glass, or plexiglass, separating the prints and the viewers, so “you’re not staring at a reflection,” she explains.)

Scrap metal parts, shown in close-up, could double as squiggly, oily bugs. Grounded military jets bake in the Arizona desert. A spiraling freeway ramp could be anywhere — until you notice the pagodalike structures at its edge, identifying its location in Shanghai, China. Stork-legged oil derricks tower in Baku, Azerbaijan — and mechanized grasshoppers dig for oil in California.

In these and other photographs, Walker says, Burtynsky “doesn’t really express a strong opinion one way or another” about oil’s impact on our daily lives — and our planet. Instead of “good, bad, right, wrong,” the photographer captures “the clearest image possible.”

As a result, Walker concludes, “we are left to contemplate what’s going on.”

Read more stories from Carol Cling at reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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