Edward Burtynsky's Industrial Disaster Porn

Curator's Note

Like natural disasters, industrial disasters like the BP oil spill provoke evocative media that reinforce the idea that disaster is anomaly. But what happens when industrial disaster is business as usual? Edward Burtynsky makes beautiful photographs of everyday industrial disaster. That’s the problem. 

In 1997, Burtynsky had what he calls his “oil epiphany”: he realized that the landscapes he photographed were made possible, at least in part, by oil (as was his ability to drive a car, get in a helicopter, and photograph them). Burtynsky has photographed quarries, mines, dams, and large-scale manufacturing from the tar sands of Alberta to the tire graveyards of California. In 2009, Steidl published a book that features his photographs of oil landscapes

A number of the photographs in the book are of Detroit, such as those depicting the dilapidated interiors of Ford’s Highland Park Plant. These fit squarely into the growing body of the city’s “world without us” images. I would argue, however, that these are not the only examples of ruin porn in the series. Burtynsky’s aerial views of the Canadian tar sands are what I would call “industrial disaster porn.” They document the monumentality of bitumen extraction but hide the fact that this disaster is an everyday occurrence. 

When viewed on their own, these large format, richly colored photographs aestheticize this everyday disaster and make it seem exceptional. In his artist statement for the Oil series, Burtynsky notes that oil extraction and refining contained an “interesting visual component" for him. Indeed. The most remarkable thing about his photographs might be that they are un-markable—they are difficult to locate both in time and space. These photographs reproduce many of the formal qualities of landscape painting, beautifying scenes of industrial destruction. 

Even so, Burtynsky published these images in a photo book with three thematic parts, drawing attention to the way the middle section (largely about cars) is hemmed in by the first and last (extraction, waste). By narrating oil in this way, Burtynsky suggests that auto culture is to blame for this devastation. That’s something. But it’s just one part of the larger issue: the difficulty of imagining the world after oil as something other than a pile of old tires.

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