Edward Burtynsky Full Interview Transcript

Alistair Henning (AH): First of all, thanks for taking the opportunity to speak with me. The subject of this interview is the ‘Oil’ show that’s opening at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Why do you think it’s important that ‘Oil’ be shown in Alberta, and how did this show come about?

Edward Burtynsky (EB): The show kind of evolved over time. After working on the idea, collecting information on it back in the mid-90s, around ‘97 I started to actually pursue thinking about oil and the landscapes it’s created photographically. Where did it begin to define such a ubiquitous and invisible force of oil. ‘Cause we don’t really see it. It’s kind of like blood in our veins. If we do see it, it’s a problem. Usually. As has been evidenced by the Gulf, and by the Michigan spill and things like that. We don’t like it going outside of its parameters but when we move 90 million barrels of that stuff a day, something goes wrong somewhere sometime. But the idea was, photographically, to begin to look at the landscape of oil. The culture of the automobile, and how cities evolved and all that. I kind of saw, at the core of progress was this energy source. So I began to look at oil and the industry itself. But also at its consequence, look at the kinds of things that we have been able to achieve both through our cities and infrastructure as a consequence of having this vast energy resource, a gift from the past. That idea began even in early-90s mid-90s. The correlation between CO2 and global warming and fossil fuels wasn’t as ... there were rumors and rumblings about it but it wasn’t front-page news or it wasn’t common knowledge. So it wasn’t really because of that that I began, I was more interested in the fact that everything I was photographing I felt was for the grace of that energy that comes from oil and fossil fuels. To me, it was a way to begin to step back from the things I was doing in mining, quarrying, all those things and start to look at the other key ingredient to all of that scale, which was the internal combustion engine, its mechanical advantage and the cheap and reliable source of fuel were key to that human development. So that’s really I began.

To go to your other question, I’ve shown the work in areas ... I think the fact that the show’s gone to Saint John, Newfoundland, and Washington, it’s going to Edmonton, other locations as well, Toronto, to me it’s showing the work in large urban centres and particularly centres in which oil is certainly a large part or important part of the economy of these areas, these cities. That, to me, was an interesting way to engage with the museum and with the public, and the ideas around it. To me it’s interesting when teh work starts to create dialogue and that the visual language is I think a very compelling one to begin to try to understand the world that we’re creating, and the consequences of that creation.

AH: So it sounds to me like you’re saying that whatever urban centre this is shown in, by virtue of being an urban centre, we are all complicit in the kind of processes that are on show in the show.

EB: Absolutely. In no way is the work positioned or conceived as an indightment,  saying ‘you bad’ ... it’s too complicated an issue. To me that’s not a useful discussion as far as I’m concerned. To me it’s more interesting to begin to tease out and untangle the kind and complexity that being engaged with this energy source. I think that any species will expand as far as it possibly can within the energy envelope that’s afforded it. And when the energy envelope begins to contract, so does that expansion. So I think it’s interesting that this discussion doesn’t happen more publicly and more intensely that somehow there’s this kind of hope that the oil is going to hold out, and that’s not even talked abou the CO2 issue, which is the fact that there’s going to be enough of it to deal with the expansion in China and India and the rest of the world, Asia in general and the continuing expansion in Russia and the West and all that. And, that there’s going to be enough to deal with all of that growth and sustaining the loads of energy. And should anything interrupt that flow of 85 to 90 million barrels a day, we’re in big trouble. How do we get our food then? We saw $150 a barrel, and there are other things that cost as well. But usually when we get a really expensive fuel cost you are immediately followed by recessions or by cutbacks across the board, governments and everything everybody dials back. We have this condition where our economy, our growth is dependent on a lot of this stuff being there all the time at a reasonable cost, and if anything changes – and I can’t see how it’s not going to get more expensive as demand continues to increase and supplies continue to decrease and the cost of producing a barrel of oil gets more and more expensive and the energy it takes to create energy becomes more and more energy- intensive. When we first discovered oil I think it one barrel of oil was producing 100 barrels of oil and now we’re one to ten in general around the world and if you look at the oil sands it’s one to three. When we first discovered it was one to one hundred, the oil sands are one to three, when it gets to one to one ...

AH: It sounds like a complicated issue and you’ve just done an excellent job of demonstrating that. You’re well documented as being fairly equivocal towards the conditions portrayed in photo series whether ‘Manufactured Landscapes’ or even ‘Oil’. Why is it important to you to take more of an equivocal stance rather than to come down strongly in favor of one position or the other when it comes to issues like this?

EB: Well quite frankly I think that when you look at coming down on an issue, if you look at it, one might say taht it’s happened in the past and it’s like this, it’s the environmentalists against the big bad corporations. And I don’t think that narrative has worked very well. I think that there are other ways to portune and it means engaging everybody in the conversation, it means understanding the reality of it and the complexity of it versus trying to simplify it. We have to be careful what we wish. If we say that oil companies are bad, and what they provide is something that’s destroying our planet, well there may be truth to ‘destroying the planet’ but if the company wasn’t BP or Shell or Encana, it would be somebody else. Somebody’s going to do that line of business, whether it’s Exxon. It’s not that something’s going to do it. Somebody’s going to provide that product for the marketplace because there’s a demand for it. So I think the question becomes how do we begin to get more accurate information to people. Something that come closer to the truth. What are the reserves? How much is going up and what’s the effect it’s having? Trying to actually become more educated as a population about the risks involved, and about the choices that we have. And you know, where do we go from here? I think that’s a much more interesting discussion than to draw lines and throw rocks at each other. I don’t think that ends in anything useful. So if I’m equivocal it’s because I think it’s a complex issue. It’s not ‘bad guys versus good guys’. I think it’s a question of ‘how do we become more intelligent in our discussion about what it is we’re facing?’ In supplies, and in the consequence of burning this much fossil fuel. And the conversation has to go global: it has to include India, it has to include China, it has to include Indonesia the United States and South American Eastern Europe, all those places. Copenhagen 15 was the beginning of discussing carbon, putting a price to carbon, which I think would be a very smart thing to do. It would be a way to ‘polluter pays’ and put a real cost to the consequence and using that cost and finding ways to successfully begin to conserve and alter our energy sources and begin to put it into more renewable, promising ways which we can get around without burning fossil fuel. There’s lots of alternative energy sources, and the sun is certainly a perfect example. But there’s wave, and there’s geothermal, and there’s wind and all that as well. We know that there are solutions around us but we just somehow, whether it’s the powerful forces of corporate lobby groups that are preventing governments from being able to act in the long-term interests of the population. I think that’s also an interesting conversation to be had. Who’s the decisions as to why there’s ... you look at America and you look at Washington. Obama who came in with a green agenda is having to throw it all in. He’s being blocked; blocked by whom? Why are they blocking him? I think that, to me, is the more interesting conversation. But again, I think saying that these are the bad guys and these are the good guys, I don’t think it’s a bad guy good guy thing. We’ve evolved into this place.

AH: Fair enough. Well it sounds like you do perceive that there’s a lot more nuance to the discussion. And also too, in the various projects you’ve worked on, it seems like you’ve highlighted the more average human element, whether it’s workers invoved in that. There’s the sense that it’s everyday, relatively ordinary people’s lives who are participating in this, they may not necessarily be decision makers but they rely on these industries to survive.

EB: Absolutely. I think we’re all living in a city, just our existence means that we have a carbon footprint, our food, our getting to work, our sitting in a heated or cooled office with the light on. We’re all partaking in a way of the fruits of this source of energy. It does involve each and every one of us. The argument of saying ‘I don’t want to hear about it, it doesn’t concern me’ is a very dangerous position to take.

AH: As you have travelled around to many different locations on this project, has regional variation in terms of the handling of this product lept out at you? Was there anything in particular that you feel would be fair to generalize about oil extraction in Alberta versus someplace else in the world, for example?

EB: If you look at Saudi Arabia where they’re producing 11 million barrels a day and shipping around the world ... Alberta’s at one and a half million a day. I just think [in Alberta] it’s a much tougher way to extract it and a much higher carbon footprint to get it out the door. So it creates a whole set of complex conditions and a fairly radical intervention into ... We’re mining for oil, basically. It’s an open-pit mining operation for oil, for a lot of the oil sands. Right now it’s the largest geoengineering surface project on the planet. BEcause it’s so sprawled, so vast. So taht chances a lot of things. It changes the boreal forest, it’s changing the amount of water that’s being diverted, as well as the water quality. So there’s a lot of issues. There’s even social issues. Where it’s a boom and bust situation, and so socially it’s hard for people to find workers who will work for $20 an hour to flip burgers because when it’s really booming it’s really booming. You’ve created lopsided conditions both in the environment and with the society, the people engaged in it. It’s a very complicated issue, and getting more complicated by the day. It’s an unconventional force and it’s different than pumping a hole and drilling it out of the ground. It’s scraping the topsoil and digging into the oil and mining it. Very different, and very intensive. So certainly brings a lot of question to bear. What’s this process? We all know what the value is, it’s oil. What about the costs? Are they being properly factored into the equation? Those are things that can be brought again into the discussion about that source of energy, and what it means when you step back from it, and try and project this activity over the next 30 years, what will Alberta look like? Is that what Alberta wants? Is that what Canada wants? Is that what the world wants? These are tough questions. We know that there’s a lot of discussion about it right now. But I think that discussion’s healthy. Looking at the whole situation’s healthy. I think that it needs to be a bigger public discourse. I don’t think it’s something that needs to be shied away from or hidden. I think it needs to be put on the table and looked at carefully and understood as to what are our options, and how can we proceed in an ethical, moral, conscious way towards a sustainable future. That’s the discussion that is happening all around the world in our boardrooms and governments and everything. It includes other industries so I think it should include the oil industry. Everyone else is looking at it, in many different circumstances. So I think it’s time to have that discussion and keep having that discussion

AH: Exactly. So just changing tack somewhat, in your past comments about photography you have commented that you’re looking for ‘the contemplated moment’. What does that mean to you, as opposed to say the famous ‘decisive moment’ of Cartier-Bresson. How would you frame the contemplated moment in this oil series? What would you say that is?

EB: Well I think the difference is Cartier-Bresson is looking for fleeting moments. Our eyes don’t even look at the world that way. It’s only the camera that can splice out that 1/250th of a second fraction where some event occurs in front of the camera, often involving subtlety of motion and people and circumstances and distribution and things like that. That was the thing that he perfected with the decisive moment and what street photography often went after. I approach the subject where you slowly arrive at it, and you frame it and you reframe it, and you think about it, and you shoot it in different light. To me the real challenge is to find a place to stand that somehow I can put a frame around it and make it something interesting to look at, something that makes us consider the thing in front of the camera, and possibly consider why I’m taking that picture and not that, or why am I showing this and not that. I think it’s a whole different way of approaching it, and part of what the large format camera did over time for me, it allowed me to, you know, tripod, and the camera. One foot this way, even in a vast landscape, looks a little different than one foot over this way. So for me it became finding the spot where the tensions of the surface of the image, and the composition, and the color, and the light, and the texture, and density, and tonal scale, all that has to come and work together so when you get in front of the print there’s a moment where the image is part of our world but it somehow transcends that and becomes a metaphor I think for bigger activity, for greater way to think about who we are and what we’re doing and how we’re changing that landscape, how we’re altering it in our human design and after our own image and after our own ideas. And so to me that has been the core of my work for the last thirty years, is to create a compendium of images, not just of oil but of mining, quarrying, urban buildouts, but at the central pivot point of everything is that we’re designing a world, and we’re changing the planet. We’re a runaway species, and we’re changing the planet. How are we changing it in ways that could be not to our benefit, that have consequences? I hope that as an amalgamation of all the work that I’ve done, that it does point to the concerns of an artist, and a citizen: as a father of two children, I also look through the world in those eyes. And I’m concerned about their future, as I think is anyone who has children or who has concern for the future should be looking at. So sustainability has become at the core of my thinking, both in my personal life, trying to do the right things that way and also in the way in which I make my work and the way in which my work engages with the world. It’s all become of a piece in the last ten or fifteen years of my life.

AH: Fair enough. So how would you describe the level of intentionality in any one of your images. Is everything pre-planned down to the last minutia, or is there room for accidents?

EB: There’s always room for accidents, and there’s a lot of subtleties in the moment and all that. So no, I think for sure it’s not like ... but at the same time there’s a lot of research and I need to have a whole bunch of criteria I need to check off before I move myself to a certain part of the world and try to do something with it. Research, and understanding of the subject, and trying to charge that thing I’m photographing with as much information and ideas, why this place and not that place? So I do try to load as much into the image as I can, not only in terms of subject matter but also in terms of appearance. The form and the content, I like to be equally present, have equal force so that the image itself, the power of the subject itself, and the subject of the image, are both at play and there for the reading for those who choose to look at it.

AH: End to end, start to finish, how long would you estimate it would take you on average to finish one of the images in this show?

EB: Well different ones are different. It’s a tough question. In some ways, some images have taken years for me to get to the image, to make it. Other ones I’ve been able to go and capture in a couple of days. So it depends. It depends on how complicated, if I’m looking to get in to have access to a place, that can take me a year and a half. So it’s a year and a half to get access. Then I get it. Then I’m there for three days, and I do the work in three days. That’s not really the time consuming part; the time consuming part is often getting in.

AH: Recently there’s been some discussion, a fellow online Bert Stabler claimed in a magazine that art photograph is hemmed in by the three P’s: painting, poverty, and Pentax. Do you feel this is generally true, and is this something you have personally confronted?

EB: The three P’s? I haven’t read this: poverty ... ?

AH: Painting, and Pentax. I guess in the sense that a lot of a lot of photographers are influenced by or in the shadow of painting; that people tend to concentrate subject-wise on poverty, or these kind of abject social conditions, and that technology, which he used Pentax as an alliterative figurehead for, very much influenced people’s thinking and processes when it came to the kind of work they produce. Obviously this is a big discussion, but just very briefly I was just wondering if such concerns had influenced your thinking, or your growth as a photographer.

EB: I would say I’m still a little fuzzy about what all that meant. But nonetheless, I think photography is a ubiquitous medium. Not everybody picks up a brush and paints with it, whereas I think everybody from a kid upwards has picked up a camera and taken pictures. So that it’s something that’s as ubiquitous as writing. For me, it’s a medium, and it’s a question of how the tool is picked up and how it’s engaged, the ideas around its engagement. So whether you’re a painter exploring a new area and it’s representational or abstraction, or you’re engaged in a process of a kind of personal pursuit and narrative, you can just as easily pick up a camera and do it with stills, you can pick up a movie camera and make films, you can get on your word processor and write plays or novels or whatever. These are all enabling vehicles and languages in which we can enter the mediation between the world of ideas and reality, the way in which we tell our stories. I see photography as one of the choices one has to transition a set of ideas about ourselves and the world into a medium that is easily understood by many and that can bring meaning and communication in a bigger way. I don’t know if that answers it, but I see the medium as having that power of the ability to make us understand, and see something about the world, to analyze it and deconstruct it and  to digest it in ways in which being in front of it in the real world isn’t somehow as powerful as a well-made photograph of that same event.  

AH: Speaking of which, are you ever surprised by how things look on film as opposed to when you’re standing there?

EB: All the time. All the time. That’s the magic of it.

more in Arts Feature     |     posted Sep 27th, 2010 at 12:29pm     

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