Oil as a visual theme
The effect of Burtynsky's work is astounding. After more than a century of extracting oil from the planet, our eyes are being opened. Perhaps the fact that oil itself is something rarely seen has led to a lack of awareness about it. Oil does not make up part of the earth's surface and generally remains alien to our everyday landscape. As a relatively invisible phenomenon, oil is generally a non-photographic subject, until the artist focuses his attention upon it. What Burtynsky photographs is the industry, technology and culture of oil: from the drilling sites at sea and on land, to the pipelines and network of road systems that serve distribution, to vehicles and the people who use them. By doing so he provides a great deal of visual information on a subject that is often, from an aesthetic point of view, overlooked within the world of visual art.
His stance essentially involves a similar link between industrial photography and the domain of visual art that Bernd and Hilla Becher established during the 1970s. But in comparison to the full, robust colors in Burtynsky's work, the graphic and delicate vision and typological method of the Bechers sooner brings to mind that of an archeology of industrial heritage. Burtynsky, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in the tradition of large format classic landscape photography, where the American photographer Ansel Adams is frequently considered the main figure. Like the Bechers, Burtynsky is among those rare photographers who have worked very long and consistently on a single subject - but in his case the subject is oil.