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Edward Burtynsky is a photographic artist whose depictions of global industrial landscapes are included in the collections of over fifty major museums around the world, including the National Gallery of[…]

The photographic artist walks us through the backstory of several images from his series about oil.

Photo #1

Edward Burtynsky: What you’re looking at in this image is they’re called jack pumps and this is in an area around Bakersfield, so if you remember the movie There Will Be Blood with Daniel Day-Lewis and he discovers oil it was in this area.  It was the Kern Oil Field actually that was discovered and it was one of the big… the beginning of the big oil boom when gushers were being hit and oil was just flooding into the landscape.  I think one of the gushers…  They didn’t know how to stop a gusher back then when they first discovered it and I think one of them created a lake that was you know they just kept shoring it up with dirt and making a dirt berm in a valley and at one point it was 90 feet of oil.  I think some ridiculous amount of I think 90 million gallons flowed out, which is actually not a lot compared to what is going in the Gulf right now when I think about it, but you know that was the beginning of the discovery of oil in America, which at that time really didn’t have any because the automobile wasn’t fully formed yet and you know the steam engine was just on its last legs.  The automobile, there was no assembly line that had started at that point because this is the very beginning of the century, so I think it was like a barrel of oil was 14 cents and it bottomed out at 10 cents a barrel, so it was you know the very, very early days and these fields are actually still producing over 100 years later to the mystery of a lot of… of oil people.  They’re not sure how it can continue producing, that there must be some slow flow from an area that they haven’t quite geologically figured out, but it must be migrating because any normal oil field would have dried up by now, so it’s a fascinating…  


Edward Burtynsky:  That is also in the Kern Oil Field, so that is also in the same area, but again, a very early where I was still shooting with film from aerials, so I started to realize that from the ground I wasn’t actually able to describe the landscape and how we harvested that resource and with oil as with the freeways, so in 2003 I also photographed the freeways in LA and it was there that I tried photographing it from the ground or from high buildings and it just did not read.  It did not tell the story and that is when I realized that I needed to get up to that you know 3, 400 foot level and the only way I could do that was with planes and helicopters, so it was really you know looking at the problem of trying to add this to the story of oil and that it wasn’t being properly described from the ground and so then I allowed… the subject pushed me up into the air so to speak.  


Edward Burtynsky: What we’re looking at here is we’re looking at one of the very, very first offshore oil platforms.  It was first developed by a Polish engineer in Baku in Azerbaijan, which was a former republic of the USSR, or Russia or what was known as the USSR and the Russians were… It was key oil.  It was like light sweet crude, the same stuff that comes from the Middle East, which is the most desirable.  It has very high octane.  Very, very sophisticated lubricants can be taken out of it.  It’s easy to process.  It’s easy to refine and it’s not as dirty in its refinement unlike sour crude, so it’s a very desirable oil, but what happened is that the fishermen would say you know I keep seeing this oil slick every time I go by this area, so they knew that oil was not that far from the surface near the Caspian Sea, so they brought in this engineer from Poland and they said look there is water just out here on the… because we can see there is an oil slick you know every day.  That must mean it’s coming.  It’s seeping.  So they referred to it as oily rocks because it’s coming out of the rocks and so this guy just went and said well the Caspian Sea is a pretty…   It’s like the Aral Sea.  It’s an inland sea and it’s very flat, so what he did is he said I’m going to build a platform so he built these stilts.  What you’re seeing on that big barge are the stilts, so they would drop these stilts.  That is the depth of the Caspian Sea and then they would put a platform on it and then they would get the rigging and go down and drill a hole with about 23 meters.  Those legs are about 23 meters long, so they would start at 23 meters and drill down until they hit oil and then they were able to cap it, so actually offshore drilling was invented in Baku and so this was…  But that process, what you’re seeing there is all abandoned, but it was still a reference to the very beginning of offshore drilling.  


Edward Burtynsky: And here we’re looking at Bangladesh and I went in search of where the old oil tankers go to die and it took me to a place called Chittagong in Bangladesh. These old oil tankers are still full of oil and crappy stuff.  You know they’ve been painted several times, so when they cut through the hulls it’s pretty nasty, so the whole environment there you know breaking oil tankers was a nasty environment, probably the worst I’d ever seen.  I’d never seen anything like it since because I mean they were working with the most rudimentary tools.  They were…  You know most of them were barefoot.  They didn’t even have cutting goggles when they were cutting through the steel with torches, just bare eyed or there was clear glasses.  And so it was really quite…  I kind of thought of it would be being able to step back into a Dickens novel at the beginning of the industrial revolution and kind of get a peak at it in today’s world, but going onto those ship wrecking yards was like peaking back to the beginning of the industrial revolution where nobody knew about safety or no one cared one bit about the environment.

Recorded June 21, 2010

Interviewed by Jessica Liebman