At first, the photos are hard to look at: oil swirls across water, creating a horrific tableau of the environmental disaster of the century. But upon further reflection, there is beauty in Burtynsky’s powerful photos of the BP oil spill, as if he’s seen beyond the headlines to find more layers of meaning.
The well-known photographer is featuring his recent work from the Gulf of Mexico at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto until Oct. 9. In an accompanying book called Oil, curator Paul Roth writes about the photos: “The subject is not oil. In these pictures, Edward Burtynsky shows the man-made world—the human ecosystem—that has risen up around the production, use, and dwindling availability of our paramount energy source.”
In May 2010, Burtynsky flew to the Gulf to capture the crisis as it unfolded. Perched in a helicopter, he used a 50-megapixel H4E Hasselblad camera to photograph the stunning images. It was difficult to access this area, but he knew he had to find the right angles to get his photos. After all, Burtynsky is obsessed with water.
DigitalJournal.com spoke to the photographer just before his exhibit opened.
DJ: What motivated you to photograph the oil spill?
Burtynsky: When oil appears in water, that is a calamity of errors. And I’ve worked on the idea of oil and landscape for years, so I thought it would be interesting to capture this new idea. This work will be part of my book on Water, coming out in fall 2012.
DJ: What do you want people to come away with after viewing your oil spill photos?
Burtynsky: All my photos try to carry the same ingredients. First, it’s an interesting image to look at, what people call aesthetics or visually compelling composition. But once the viewer is in there and looking around, the subject itself should be more challenging. What is going on? In all my work I toggle between attraction and repulsion, working towards irreconcilable emotions. The photographs become more interesting then and enters the realm of art in a more compelling way.
DJ: Why did you want to capture the images from an aerial angle instead of a more on-the-ground angle?
Burtynsky: I think this story reveals itself from the air. The whole water story has always been pushing me into the aerial view. With shapes and landscape around water, such as farming and irrigation, I can’t get away from it to see what’s I’m standing on when on a dirt road in farm country. But once I’m in air, these stories reveal themselves, that’s where the visual language keeps recurring.
Oil and other works by Burtynsky runs until Oct. 9 at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery(451 King Street West) in Toronto. For info, call 416-205-9000.