Edward Burtynsky photographs the landscape of oil


I started my journey 30 years ago. And I worked in mines. And I realized that this was a world unseen. And I wanted, through color and large format cameras and very large prints, to make a body of work that somehow became symbols of our use of the landscape, how we use the land. And to me this was a key component that somehow, through this medium of photography, which allows us to contemplate these landscapes, that I thought photography was perfectly suited to doing this type of work. And after 17 years of photographing large industrial landscapes, it occurred to me that oil is underpinning the scale and speed. Because that is what has changed, is the speed at which we’re taking all our resources. And so then I went out to develop a whole series on the landscape of oil. And what I want to do is to kind of map an arc that there is extraction, where we’re taking it from the ground, refinement. And that’s one chapter. The other chapter that I wanted to look at was how we use it — our cities, our cars, our motorcultures, where people gather around the vehicle as a celebration. And then the third one is this idea of the end of oil, this entropic end, where all of our parts of cars, our tires, oil filters, helicopters, planes — where are the landscapes where all of that stuff ends up? And to me, again, photography was a way in which I could explore and research the world, and find those places. And another idea that I had as well, that was brought forward by an ecologist — he basically did a calculation where he took one liter of gas and said, well, how much carbon it would take, and how much organic material? It was 23 metric tons for one liter. So whenever I fill up my gas, I think of that liter, and how much carbon. And I know that oil comes from the ocean and phytoplankton, but he did the calculations for our Earth and what it had to do to produce that amount of energy. From the photosynthetic growth, it would take 500 years of that growth to produce what we use, the 30 billion barrels we use per year. And that also brought me to the fact that this poses such a risk to our society. Looking at 30 billion per year, we look at our two largest suppliers, Saudi Arabia and now Canada, with its dirty oil. And together they only form about 15 years of supply. The whole world, at 1.2 trillion estimated reserves, only gives us about 45 years. So, it’s not a question of if, but a question of when peak oil will come upon us. So, to me, using photography — and I feel that all of us need to now begin to really take the task of using our talents, our ways of thinking, to begin to deal with what I think is probably one of the most challenging issues of our time, how to deal with our energy crisis. And I would like to say that, on the other side of it, 30, 40 years from now, the children that I have, I can look at them and say, “We did everything we possibly, humanly could do, to begin to mitigate this, what I feel is one of the most important and critical moments in our time. Thank you. (Applause)

Comments 63

  • EdwardBurtynsky_2009G_480.mp4

  • Motor vehicles where a good Idea. Not great. I wont own or drive one. Anyone want to join me?

  • For some reason I dislike the square aspect ratio of this guy's prints. Maybe the 16:9 or wider aspects we see in movies and HD TV have crept into my psyche . I just need wide screen I guess.

  • this traffic vid on end is a trip basicly they seem to charge to drive on streets the people already paid for sort of a double tax so everyone has to pay for the roads in taxes but less traffic really means less people driving why is that I'm guessing the lower class that paid for the roads can't afford there new scam to rob you. I'm all for less traffic and less cars and clean air but as far as taking peoples freedom to drive when and where they paid for is wrong.

  • 16:9 is closer to the human field of vision. I did some experiments and ultra-wide film formats (>2:1) are too wide, you miss the full horizontal if the vertical fills your FOV.

  • Were the first images taken around Los Angeles?

  • I was thinking the same, however on some of these nordic countries fines are proportional to your wealth, I hope that also the case with this system if that's not the case the middle class got screwed bad time, the wealthy ones can easily afford to pay and they'll get clear roads… one more reason for them to keep taking their kids to school and back.

  • a three minute TED talk? why? he didn't say anything and we didn't get to see all of his pictures. grrrr

  • An important work, thanks.

  • Why don't they just tell the truth and say the oil companies have a stranglehold on most everything?

  • I'm completely with you on that.
    I don't own a motor vehicle and don't have a drivers license. I simply don't need any. I think that a lot of people hardly question if they really need a car or not. Once you own one you start to depend on it and it gets harder to imagine a life without it.

  • Ive gone a whole lifetime without using one! Well, as a driver. Disregarding a few driving lessons too. Okay, ive never owned a car and have a better quality of life than most folks on the planet.

  • Did this law also take away your freedom to use commas and periods?

  • Not giving a shit helps. During the winter I have to wear gloves and my face gets cold and wet. And the wind… But then again I don't give a shit. And that helps. 😀

    This helps too: watch?v=6wS5xOZ7Rq8

  • Are you on crack? Where did you get the idea that meteor will hit earth in 2012?

  • *a meteor

  • Living in Edmonton, Alberta, just southwest of the tar/oilsands a few hundred kilometres, it's difficult to hear the term "dirty oil" being used exclusively for us. Don't get me wrong, I have some problems with the way our government has approached the extraction of bitumen (tarsand), but at the same time, I look at all those images and I'm appalled at the desolate landscapes left over after people are done with them. Here, it's law to reclaim the land, and the standards are strict.

  • a meteor in 2012? where are the facts and why have i not herd of this? I watch space and science video's every day and the only one they mention is like 20 years from now and has about a 1 in 1000 chance of hitting us.

  • If only they would force the oil companies to deal with the tailings ponds. That's the economic disaster waiting to happen.

  • 3.5 minutes of video and 2.45 minutes of commercial?

  • Yah, I agree. They really need some sort of microbacterial cleaning solution or something to clean the water rather than having massive lakes of dirty water (with continual leeching into the groundwater).

  • It's despicable. You can guarantee that the oil companies will stick around until the cost/profit ratio no longer suits them, and then they'll declare that they have no money to clean up the mess that they created. We have such disrespect for our water resources.

  • Electric cars!

  • coz it's like saying the sky is blue. common knowledge

  • I expect a little more from TedTalks

  • where does the TAX go? Rothschilds?

  • boring….
    and we not running out of oil if we were noone would buy SUV's and they still are popular

  • The biggest problem I have with environmentalists is that they're against all changes that occur natural or not. Extinction is the predominant fate of all species that have ever been. massive extinctions are responsible for almost every if not every species we see alive now. Instead of discussing the "inevitable" lets be one of the species that survives it. We're not here because our grandcestors had meetings about the ice age. When it hits I'm getting a solar grill and eating photographers

  • Yup. The central bank prints money out of thin air with no underlined value to back it up which causes inflation. Then we get taxed and that money goes into the pockets of all the top bankers so they can live handsomely at our expense.

  • Great photography. Beautiful forms. Would love to see them in person some day.

  • Much too short! If you want more from Burtynsky you should look up his work from 2004 – 'Manufactured Landscapes' – amazing! It also made into a documentary of the same name.

  • faulty logic or sarcasm?

  • Of course. The first time we'll know that we're running out of oil is when common people don't have enough gas to drive….

    Obviously you are smart than the people who have to go and FIND and DRILL for the oil.

  • was his whole speech just an introduction?

  • Yeah i meant those, thanks!

  • Are you serious?

  • You mean when common people don't have enough money to drive. And that's basically what happened before the crisis.

  • Frankly, the problem with mass extinctions, IMO, is that we don't know how much we depend on other species yet. Reconstructing we naturally get from our native environment (that is, an environment like the one we involved in) is still beyond our skill, by far.

  • I'll grant you that. but there's levels of unnatural, environmentalism that we use all the time. every time we quell wild fires to preserve parks, we're screwing the natural balance every time we transplant an endangered animal to a non native area we're screwing the natural balance. We've never given concern to what's natural before we just pretend the world is a snapshot and demand it stay exactly the same except for clumsy efforts meant to help.

  • waking up from our fantasy world

  • neither. 🙂 Economics

  • actually this is always the case. In economics its called scarcity. There is never enough oil for people to drive as much as they want

  • Completely

  • i dont know where you are from but average people in Cali still can afford an SUV. So they obviously can afford gas

  • WOW knowing just what is laying just under Oklahoma makes me wonder why 45 years? Theres 20 years alone under oklahoma

  • GoldenBoughTrader- It wasn't just an ad for his photography. It was his photography that opened up this topic to him and allowed him to explore its depths. His sentiment or message isn't about buying his photography, but rather putting whatever skills we have towards a cause (in this case using his photography towards the issue of oil). He's encouraging efforts that you wouldn't normally associate with directly helping a cause, essentially saying that we all have something to contribute.

  • Agreed. It would have been better if it was longer…that talk would have been a good introduction.

  • what camera did he use?

  • the actual video lasts 03:10 minutes and the commercial another 03:11 what the hell is happening here. This was supposed to be the most interesting video of the week .

  • sometimes the length does not represents the quality 😉

  • Doc, the only thing that's "laying just under Oklahoma" is the bottom of the barrel. Even if the dregs of the Anadarko basin could be extracted in a commercially viable way, which they can't until oil sustains about triple the current cost per barrel, your 20 year figure ignores the exponential growth of the planet's energy demands. When Arabian countries are investing in solar, and T. Boone Pickens wants to put up windmills, there's a message there.

  • But you were right.

    We saw a coffee table portfolio, and a brief explanation of where he got the idea.

    Not one of his pictures depicted how much oil is left, and that's what his talk was kind of about.

  • @planetdarwin Zombies are only a matter of time…

  • As a planet we use a cubic mile of oil every year to do what we do. Since the turn of the century by this New Years day we will have used a volume one mile wide, one mile high (gasp) and 9 miles long. Nearly all of it squeezed through fuel injectors into internal combustion engines. Only the most deluded could believe that condition could continue.

  • Peak oil is a fraud to maintain monopoly control. Petroleum based economy and technology is a monopoly imposed by suppressing next generation energy technology.

  • I love seeing inspired and thought-provoking work like this.

  • Next generation energy is akin to saying 'anti-gravity' it makes a neat one phrase solution , alas in words only. Deploying any energy delivery system even magic boxes is a very large undertaking and not likely to proceed without enormous dislocations. But never fear, magic boxes do not exist in this reality.

  • @ fossilman,
    You may know what you are talking about but what you wrote in nonsense. Try agian.

  • @DAILEYericCaryUSA

    Peak oil DENIAL is a fraud to maintain monopoly control. Petroleum based economy and technology is a monopoly imposed by those paying for Peak oil DENIAL to suppress finding a way to survive peak oil. Energy descent has already begun; few recognize what is happening…

  • @DAILEYericCaryUSA OK smart guy, what are these next generation energy systems that are being suppressed? Give us the details so we can take a close look. Fossilman nailed it. It is easy to say "just do this" but in reality, it is not easy. Do you comprehend the energy contained in 30 or 31 Billion barrels of oil?

  • @Scurmicurv Unfortunately, the technologies that exist so far, only pay for themselves after 30 years or so… There is a real question if an energy infrastructure rebuild can actually produced a net energy return on energy invested. If this is the case, we have a very difficult future ahead. To avert collapse we must reduce energy consumption by 70 or 80% globally and implement a new energy system.

  • Good luck for your thoughts

  • How much good can come from an art project that results in a book of photos that 99 percent of the people that would like to see and share it can not afford it? Capitalism sucks.

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