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OCA students at Burtynky's exhibition at The Photographers' Gallery
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Burtynsky: Oil – OCA study visit

A beautiful photograph isn’t necessarily a photograph of something beautiful, someone said. OCA’s latest study visit to The Photographers’ Gallery in London was an opportunity to reflect on that simple but thought-provoking statement. Edward Burtynsky’s exhibition Oil proved once more that the tension between aesthetics and subject matter is still an unresolved conflict in photography. In that tension lies the ability of photographs to visually compel and at the same time trigger emotions in the viewer. And if there is a photographer who has managed to find a perfect symbiosis between aesthetics and subject matter, that is Burtynsky.

OCA students Jan Fairburn and Caroline Tollyfield in discussion with Gareth Dent

The exhibition is arranged on two contiguous floors. The 5th floor of The Photographers’ Gallery shows images that either revolve around the production of oil or  seem to ‘celebrate’ the socioeconomic achievements that have been possible because of oil. On the 4th floor the emphasis is on the detritus generated by an oil-dependant society. Interestingly, the lighting in the two floors couldn’t be more different; each floor has a very distinct mood that enhances the experience of the visitor. Bright natural light on the 5th floor confers on the exhibition a positive aura that matches the creative endeavour that production is – any kind of production.  The dim artificial light on the 4th floor creates a subdued atmosphere that suits the overall theme of ‘waste’.
Burtynsky’s photographs provoked insightful comments by the nineteen students who attended the study visit. There were frequent allusions to the symbolism in Burtynsky’s photographs. OCA students perceptively noticed symbolic associations, synergically building up complex readings of the photographs that made my own personal experience of the exhibition even more rewarding.
OCA student Brian Lavery taking notes for his learning log on his iPad

However, there are still aspects of Burtynsky’s work that will surely divide the public opinion. There are many beautiful images on the 4th floor that show what is essentially decay. And decay was an essential component in any image worthy of Gilpin’s ‘picturesque’ label – dilapidation was deemed to add ‘charm’ to a picture if contrasted with nature. Did Burtynsky consciously search for the picturesque in our post-industrial society?
There is also the issue of how the images juggle their documentary quality and their value as art objects. Burtynksy’s photographs seem to have been conceived for the art gallery. As such, they have an inherent ambiguity of ethos that I find rather disturbing. Many individual images could be used to support an environmental campaign and the achievements of a multinational oil industry at the very same time. How is it that these two extreme poles of function can coexist in a single image?
The most insightful comment I heard from the OCA students was casually thrown in during the informal discussion that followed the exhibition. Talking about Burtynky’s methodology and technique, in particular his choice of high vantage points from which to photograph, someone said…”is he playing God?”
Now, that’s a thought.

Posted by author: Jose
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26 thoughts on “Burtynsky: Oil – OCA study visit

  • “How is it that these two extreme poles of function can coexist in a single image?” … thought provoking question.

    • A reproduction of the print at the start of this article was on sale in the gallery bookshop for £2500. I assume Jose was alluding to this when posing his question. Perhaps the question should be “These extreme poles of function do exist within these documentary images and is it right that they should be traded as art?”
      From a wider perspective, is this a reflection of the change from a market economy to a market society where everything has a price tag and very little attention is paid to its value?

      • Good question too Richard. £2,500…in my opinion as soon as a photograph operates at that level of perceived value it starts to function like a fetish object. It becomes desirable because the prospective buyer feels that by possessing the object they may acquire some of the symbolic qualities of the object – e.g. environmental credentials. And a process of positive feedback begins. Paradoxically, I think that this process also enhances the documentary value of the photograph.
        But the problem of ambiguity of meaning remains, which I what I implied in my question.

        • Another facet of the argument I hadn’t considered Jose,thanks for making the point. If it is the purpose of Art to promote discussion, Burtynsky certainly succeeds.

        • “Many individual images could be used to support an environmental campaign and the achievements of a multinational oil industry at the very same time. How is it that these two extreme poles of function can coexist in a single image?”
          Perhaps because Burtynsky is a great photographer, his work transcends divides that are itself part of the environmental problem. To do this he needs to make money and actually £2500 per print seems quite reasonable.

  • I think the exhibition posed more questions than it answered. Ultimately it comes down to individual perception. I was impressed more by the technical quality and impact of individual images than by the collection’s documentary qualities. It is such a vast subject with so many overlaying and interlinked causes and effects that each could furnish a documentary project on its own.

  • Another thought provoking and enjoyable study visit.
    It was exciting and interesting to experience these huge photographs physically. I am often tempted to think that my 24″ screen is ‘close enough’ to the real thing but it really isn’t.
    It was helpful to hear others’ feelings about it afterwards in an informal situation like the cafe. Thanks Gareth 🙂
    Eddy and I really enjoyed the Dana Popa photographs at foto8 which we went to see afterwards. Actually I think we were a bit blown away by it.

    • Of course – I wasn’t intending to show off about this screen !! (a gift) I meant that seeing work on a very large screen really doesn’t compare to standing and moving around in front of them mounted.

  • Hi I just thought I couldn’t leave this be without commenting, I used to love Burtyksy’s work but find myself more and more dubious about it, my reason – I think it panders to the worst in us. We love to see beauty in what we would otherwise deem ugly and where environmentalism is concerned there are plenty of examples. Liz Wells puts it better than me when talking about similar imagery in Land Matters (2011) P.142 “this risks adding up to a new post-industrial and post-idealist sublime in relation to which we feel over awed and dis-empowered” In other words we get pleasure out of looking at the work but it doesn’t stimulate us to action – you have to question his intentions – I think he rides on the back of environmental issues without contributing much but making a living by selling prints for environmental credentials? (as noted above) How can we photographers do better when dealing with landscape?

    • I understand where you are coming from John and have similar misgivings. In another sphere we have moved beyond the ‘flies around baby’s eyes’ photos to prompt people to action. Maybe we still need to find the means to prompt environmental action.
      Burtynsky’s work is beautiful and massively thought provoking but I do fear that it leaves you stunned – literally unable to see what you could do to effect change in the face of the scale of current oil based system.

      • Hmmm, Burtnysky’s film Manufactured Landscapes left me feeling awake and concerned and not paralysed at all. I saw it before the photographs so it’s harder to know how the photographs alone would have affected me.
        I think I disagree John and Gareth. I feel that the beauty in his photographs leaves people free, in the sense of moral freedom, so they can think for themselves. He asks questions which I think is often more empowering than giving answers.
        And I think the contrast between the beauty he creates and the ugliness of what he is showing gives us a jolt or a brief shock which could have an awakening effect on some.

        • I think you are right Stephanie.
          The suggestion that Burtynsky should be more than a photographer, an activist perhaps, rather undermines the role of the photographer once described as the “proleterians of creation” (Allan Sekula quoting legal theorist Bernard Edelman)

      • I was not on the visit but have been to see the exhibition and have a number of Burtynsky’s books. I agree with Stephanie. Rather than being paralysed by their sublime nature, I find myself engaged by them and motivated to look further and find out more. The debate about aesthetics and subject matter is an interesting one which provokes many different responses. My own view is that for photography to make an impact it must engage the viewer and one strategy for securing this engagement is through aesthetics. I find the tension between the beauty of Burtynsky’s images and the concerning nature of the subject matter motivates me to look deeper and to think more the underlying issues. Others may of course see things differently.

  • It looks like a fascinating exhibition. From here, which I appreciate is not the same as seeing them in the gallery, it looks like Burtynsky is not unlike Epstein in using ‘favourable’ conditions and aesthetics to heighten the overall ‘package’ of his intended message. I can appreciate the ‘extreme poles’ of function and that we are unsure how to respond to a thing of beauty or repugnance. But perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps the dichotomy of roles between documentary versus art photography is very much reflective of our digust/horror of such landscapes yet, equally, our culpability for it. Or perhaps the message needs to have an inherent aesthetic beauty to find a wider audience that may reach the ears of policy makers, although I doubt it.

  • I missed the day (it was over-booked) and wonder what objections there might be to Burtynsky’s Photoshopping. If he is adding compositional elements to make his point then he is surely subverting the documentary approach but if he is using it to beautify his work then that is surely what photography is about !?

  • Most obvious is that he sharpens everything in the image so that it looks a bit fake, similar to over-done HDR. It is one solution to the dilemma of the human eye focusing where it rests vs having a giant canvas in front of you that could be in focus anywhere you look. The effect is impressive but unrealistic. You could not see the same vista in reality. Burtynsky’s images are fabulous but slightly unreal. This could seen as adding value but when you analyse what he’s done it feels devalued.
    I don’t see his treatments as beautifying the image, but even if it is I do not believe that photography is all about beauty.

    • Thanks Brian
      I did find myself questioning the colouration of some photos; it is sometimes difficult to determine real colour as that is going to depend on the ambient light of that particular time of day. However, Burtynsky never seems to overdo it and I feel the same about his sharpening. Resolution is going to depend on how good your eyes are; I like the attention to detail that Burtynsky has and want to be able to see it without conjecture.
      I guess Burtynsky is in that tradition of photographers that goes back to Ansel Adams; one might describe them as modernist in approach.

  • “Burtynsky’s images are fabulous but slightly unreal.” writes Brian
    Are not all photographs “slightly unreal”?
    See where you are coming from though … the real is being distorted for effect!

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