Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has spent most of his career training his camera lens on huge structures — shipyards, dams and highways — to make us think about the ways in which humans have tampered with nature.
In 1997, Mr. Burtynsky had what he calls his “oil epiphany.” The photographer realized that the subjects he had pursued for more than two decades “had been made possible by the discovery of oil and the progress occasioned by the internal combustion engine,” as he writes.
That awakening led to his series of imposing color prints on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Simply called “Oil,” the exhibit of 56 photos pays tribute to the freeways, suburbs, fast-food joints, cars, motorcycles and planes made possible by the fossil fuel.
Though the focus is oil, not much evidence of the black, viscous fluid can be found in these pictures. “It’s like trying to photograph something that you never see,” Mr. Burtynsky says. “We don’t see crude oil. It’s like blood in our veins. It runs through our body, but if we see it, there’s a problem usually.”
Rather than document the devastating effects of tanker oil spills and petroleum fires, he photographs the places where the liquid fuel is extracted, refined, distributed and consumed.
Mr. Burtynsky captures some of the same urban sprawl as architect Peter Blake did in his groundbreaking 1964 book “God’s Own Junkyard.” The photographer pictures subdivisions, parking lots and jumbled signs, but in contrast to Blake, makes even the ugliest landscapes look beautiful.
Through his lens, huge piles of discarded car engines, oil filters and tires become textured fields of colors and patterns that resemble abstract art.
Some of his most arresting pictures focus on the most banal settings: a shiny metal pipeline snaking through the Canadian woods, the concrete spaghetti of a Los Angeles freeway interchange and rows of Volkswagens neatly lined up on a Houston auto lot.
Pictures of Canadian oil refineries, shot as if advertising their pipes and chimneys, recall the mechanistic precision of Charles Sheeler’s 1920s paintings of Ford’s River Rouge plant.
Through the artistry of these large-format shots — some taken from helicopters at dawn and at dusk — Mr. Burtynsky gets us to realize how much of our world has been shaped by our dependency on oil. He wants us to admire infrastructure and industrial might but recoil at the same time from the pollution and consumption implied by the pictures.
That strategy of contradiction only partly succeeds in the exhibit. It works best when the landscape is empty and seen from afar, but falls flat when it comes to people-filled shots of the Talladega Superspeedway and a truckers jamboree in Walcott, Iowa. Even though these events are oil-dependent, they appear wholly celebratory rather than distressing.
The darkest, oiliest pictures come at the end of the exhibit. They mostly show the process of breaking up huge tankers for scrap metal in Bangladesh.
These images of hulking ships’ prows on shore are the only photos in the exhibit to include people engaged in work related to the oil industry. One of the more captivating, “Recycling #2,” focuses on three men posing barefoot in the black muck.
Mr. Burtynsky’s more typical views of vast oil fields, housing tracts and highways are taken from high above the landscape to suggest the remove of an anthropologist surveying the grand artifacts of a doomed civilization. Take a hard look, he seems to be saying; this is the world before the oil ran out.
WHAT: “Edward Burtynsky: Oil”
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday; through Dec. 13
ADMISSION: $10 adults, $8 seniors and students, free for military and children younger than 12
WEB SITE: www.corcoran.org