The new space in The Photographers’ Gallery, designed by Irish architects O'Donnell and Tuomey, has added further dimension to the gallery, and Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky currently features on the top two floors.  Having exhibited internationally for over 25 years, Burtynsky’s exhibition is entitled Oil and features three sections from a larger collection of images based on the theme: ‘Extraction and Refinement’, ‘Transportation and Motor Culture’ and ‘The End of Oil’.  Centering on a dynamic between ‘seduction and fear’ that seems to drive human interaction with the environment, Burtynsky explores the juncture between nature and industry.  He documents the conflicting and paradoxical concerns that define our experiences of the world. Although individuals are often absent in his images, he subtly implicates each of us, not only through the content, but from the scale of his images.

The radiance and clarity of Burtynsky’s images fills and transcends the gallery space. Large scale photographs act as windows into distant landscapes.  The immersive nature of each image enables the viewer to make a psychological leap from the quiet bustle of the gallery into the far-reaching oil fields of California and the expansive mudflats of Bangladesh, where oil ships are broken up and recycled.  These unfamiliar landscapes seem somehow extra-terrestrial and magnificent.  Initially the viewer might feel like a distant observer, but the lulling beauty of one image is disrupted by vividness of the next, and we are asked to examine more familiar sites: highways, factories and petrol stations.  Burtynsky creates a relational dynamic between his images, opening our eyes to the physical implications of oil production and gently reminding us of our levels of consumption.  The exhibition draws connections between us as individuals and the global impact of oil production and usage.  

One particularly striking image in Oil captures lines of parked motorbikes outside a Kiss concert.  Burtynsky is perhaps reminding us of a deeper significance of oil.  Rather than understanding it as a separate source to access and utilize when we need it, he shows how it is woven into our personal identities.  He draws attention to the way in which culture and communication is defined by oil production. Its insidious force impacts our work, leisure and even our sense of style, and in doing so it seeps into our identities; the car enthusiast, the international jet-setter, the holiday maker, the family provider, the music fan - all of these are implicated in Burtynsky’s images.

Burtynsky does not preach to the viewer; he reminds us of the problems and inevitable consequences that have arisen through oil production, but he simultaneously celebrates the ingenuity and opportunities it has generated.  So often the media focuses on our lack of concern for nature, reminding us of our ecological obligations and duties.  Statistics and facts frequently fall on deaf ears, because we are used to hearing about problems that seem beyond our control.  ‘The environment’ is a difficult subject to engage with, and at times, the sense of glamour and the sophistication of photographic production in Oil seem to dominate the exhibition. However, the quality and slickness of the images, whilst a long way from their gritty, dirty reality, act as a visual petition. The sublime aesthetic within Burtynsky’s documentary style is alluring.  Rather than reprimanding us, he leads us gradually and willingly towards global awareness of our position on the scale of energy production.  

The images question the extent to which we value the resources we consume, and generate a stronger sense of conscientiousness.  The startling power of our resources, unveiled in Burtynsky’s photographs, reminds us of the achievements and potentiality of oil production along with its risks and complexities.  Our awareness of the stages that precede and follow oil utilization might motivate us to use consume a little less.  And, like the indistinguishable pixels of his photographs, each small, seemingly imperceptible reduction might create a brighter picture of what lies ahead.

Edward Burtynsky: Oil, at Photographers' GalleryJessica Shepherd reviews Edward Burtynsky's latest exhibition, Oil, at the Photographer's Gallery in London.3