Edward Burtynsky, Oil Spill #1, REM Forza, Gulf of Mexico, May 2011, 2011
Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s international career took off with his series of photographs taken at the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh in 2000. This series inaugurated a decade-long project examining the production, distribution, as well as the economic and environmental effects of the oil industry. Alberta oil sands, Texas refineries, California freeways, and Midwest truck rallies all appear in his large-scale color photographs, which were presented together in an exhibition organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2009.
In 2010, Burtynsky revisited his first Polaroids from the shipbreaking series, producing Pentimento, a portfolio of 10 images, the proceeds from which would augment acquisition funds for photography at the Ryerson Gallery and Research Centre, where Burtynsky first studied photography between 1976 and 1981. The Faulconer Gallery acquired the Pentimento portfolio in 2011.
Also in 2010, Burtynsky turned his attention from oil to water. His interest lies in water as an absolute necessity, but one of increasing scarcity due to environmental change, population growth, and human interference. The first images in this project serve as a bridge between the artist’s earlier project and the new one by virtue of their timely subject: the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2010. Oil Spill #1, the first in the series, shows the Norwegian cargo and offshore services vessel REM Forza in the Gulf of Mexico surrounded by oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf over the course of three months, the biggest oil spill in history.
While the artist proposes to examine the industrial, social and political control of the world’s fresh water supply in the course of the project, his Oil Spill images focus on the enormity of human impact on the open seas, and also on mankind’s ultimate lack of control over that impact. Whereas, in the Pentimento images, manual labor in Bangladesh is dwarfed by the industrial detritus of the global petrochemical complex, Oil Spill #1 betrays via the aerial view the tiny speck of mankind’s footprint on the earth but the vast consequences of even one tragic misstep.