edward burtynsky : oil – at the photographers gallery

10 June 2012 § 5 Comments

Last week I managed to make it over to the brand spanking new Photographers Gallery in Ramillies Street which has just re-opened after a multi-million pound renovation. The gallery boasts two big exhibition spaces which occupy the  upper floors, alongside its excellent book shop, a small print sales gallery and a pleasant cafe. Despite the fact that the whole renovation was scaled back (to a mere £9m) after fund-raising fell short this is an impressive new space which should serve the gallery – and its visitors – very well.

The Edward Burtynsky exhibition has taken over both of the top floor spaces and, despite the fact I am not a huge fan of his, is an impressive show. The Canadian photographer chronicles global industrial landscapes on, you might say, an industrial scale. Working with large format cameras he records produces images of large scale industrial works like quarries, dams and railway cuttings which are reproduced on giant colour prints, typically around 6 feet high. Burtynsky seeks to create images that reflect our times that might attract and repel in equal measure. Images that reveal the destruction resulting from our desire for progress. They are not made for easy viewing.

For over fifteen years now, since he had an epiphany at a petrol (or should I say gas) station that oil controls every aspect of our lives, he has been working on a series entitled Oil. Not an insight of great depth one could say, but since then he has worked tirelessly around the globe to document this defining material of our age, the exhibition subdivided in to sections with themes like Extraction and Refinement and The End of Oil.

What is impressive is the sheer overwhelming effect of the images. The giant images record vast panoramas in even the tiniest detail. Gargantuan rusting hulks of ships lie stranded on a beach, rows of abandoned aircraft stretch far in to the desert and piles of used tyres fill giant dumps. The images can be satisfyingly beautiful and it is easy to drift in to enjoyment of the image before one is jolted back to the realities of what is being illustrated. This is the glory of the sublime landscape yet in horrifying detail.

For an opening show this is not an innovative exhibition from a ground-breaking photographer (dare we hope for that in the future?) – it is a safe exhibition from a long-established artist. Any yet this is still mightily impressive. These are works that offer little impact viewed on the screen or in a book but in ‘real life’ the sheer overwhelming scale and detail make it essential viewing – in short perfect for a gallery. It is an excellent start from TPG and we are pleased to have them back!

Burtynsky: Oil is on until 1 July 2012 at The Photographers Gallery

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