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There Will Be Oil

‘We don’t see crude oil. It’s like blood in our veins. It runs through our body, but we never see it,— Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky said.

Burtynsky’s exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is a sweeping artistic examination of the cost and consequences of our heavy reliance on petroleum as a source of energy — with very few pictures of oil itself. “How you photograph something you can’t see became a very compelling idea,— Burtynsky said.

The 56 large-scale color photographs show in remarkable detail landscapes and cityscapes transformed by petroleum and the vehicles that guzzle it.

“At a certain point in 1997, I had what I called an oil epiphany, when I looked at the scale and speed at which all of this expansion was happening,— said Burtynsky, who has spent the past 12 years traveling around the globe, focusing his photography on the theme of petroleum.

“This exhibition is an examination of one of the most important subjects of our time,— said Paul Roth, the Corcoran curator of the exhibit. “It is rare that any artist has ever devoted so much energy and so much time and so much focus and concentration on a single subject — let alone one so important in all of our lives—

The photos also link voracious human consumption of oil with an auto-centric lifestyle, showing the scale of the Los Angeles highway system, the excess of the Las Vegas suburbs and the important centrality of the gas station to small-town American life.

Photographs of vast lots of gleaming new cars ready for delivery are also especially affecting — particularly in stark combination with Burtynsky’s images of large-scale industrial waste consisting of rusting airplanes, mountains of discarded tires and scrapped Huey helicopters.

Still, the most interesting works are those that deal with the drilling and refining of oil. Burtynsky’s photographs span the entire life cycle of oil — from drilling in the oil fields of Azerbaijan to the messy industrial refining process designed to turn crude into petrol to the Third World junkyards where used oil drums lay rusting.

And yet Burtynsky shows that there’s also remarkable serenity and beauty in the photos of the Alberta oil sands — the Canadian drilling sites where oil must be separated from naturally occurring clay. Other photos of oil pipelines snaking through untamed wilderness and the expansive interior of industrial oil refineries are fascinating in their own right.

“I’m hopeful that this exhibition will be the definitive exploration of this subject by any artist,— Roth said. “Context is everything. With policy being made so nearby — just diagonally across the street at the White House and across town at the Capitol — it is absolutely the best place for a show like this.—

The exhibit runs through Dec. 13. More information is available at

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