Tuesday, November 17, 2009


While in New York recently, we took in Edward Burtynsky’s latest exhibition, ‘Oil’, at the Hasted Hunt Kreutler Gallery in Chelsea. It’s an impressive collection, put together over more than a decade, and tracing the value chain of oil from extraction to use, and disposal.

Some of the shots are simply stunning, more akin to abstract art than photojournalism. From Australian mines to Azerbaijani wells, and Shanghai car factories to LA freeways the overwhelming scale and embeddedness of oil as a feature of the contemporary global landscape is thrown right in our faces. Burtynsky’s large format pictures are simultaneously shocking and beautiful, prompting for us a strong, but somewhat ambiguous response. Yes, this addiction to oil has got out of hand; yes, our thirst for oil has ravaged the environment; but, wow, isn’t this pinnacle of modernity also in some ways just downright amazing?

Now for those of us interested in issues of corporate responsibility such ambiguity is nothing new. Balancing the good with the bad, the value creation for some with the value destruction for others, is what much of what our field is all about. But Burtynsky takes this a little further. By seeking to absorb us in the global experience of oil, by joining up the dots in ways that make us want to learn more about what we’re looking at, what we are … yes, enjoying, he draws into the debate not just business ethics nerds like Crane and Matten, but also people that might like a good picture but who might never otherwise give much of a second thought to the ‘oil problem’.

Burtynsky’s exhibition, which is showing simultaneously in New York, Toronto and Washington, is also accompanied by a book, also called simply ‘Oil’. As he says in the introduction:

“In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil and the mechanical advantage of the internal combustion engine. It was then that I began the oil project. Over the next ten years I researched and photographed the largest oil fields I could find. I went on to make images of refineries, freeway interchanges, automobile plants and the scrap industry that results from the recycling of cars. Then I began to look at the culture of oil, the motor culture, where masses of people congregate around vehicles, with vehicle events as the main attraction. These images can be seen as notations by one artist contemplating the world as it is made possible through this vital energy resource and the cumulative effects of industrial evolution.”

Growing up in Ontario as the son of a former GM worker, Burtynsky had his initiation into these cumulative effects at first hand. He has described for instance how his father’s death from cancer (and that of many of his co-workers) might be linked to PCBs in oil used in the workplace. The moral ambivalence of flying in a helicopter to take beautiful shots of the substance that likely killed his father injects an urgency into his work that makes it all the more compelling. Of course, as fellow Ontarians now, this has particular resonance for us. It’s perhaps no surprise that a Burtynsky piece hangs in the boardroom on our school … and next week the film based on his work, Manufactured Landscapes, is going to be shown in our Responsible Business Movie Night series. But Burtynsky speaks not just to his neighbours; his captivating depictions of the global culture built around oil have something for everyone. And you don’t even need to grow your carbon footprint flying to New York to see it. Click here for some large format shots at Photo District News and here for some previews from The Guardian newspaper.

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