06/25/2012 03:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Big Picture: An Interview with Ed Burtynsky

It's often impossible to fully understand the big picture of industrialized development from the limited perspective of the consumer. Each day most of us in the Western world go about our business, driving to and from work, using plastics made from petroleum, enjoying foods shipped in from thousands of miles away, without a thought of the very resource that makes this all possible -- oil.

The impact of oil has consistently reappeared in the work of Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky for well over a decade. Burtynsky's photographs often soar into the air, freeing us from our limited perspective, offering us the ability to better understand the scale and impact that this material has on contemporary life. It is only through this expansive perspective that we begin to understand the magnitude and consequence of our complicit actions. Recently, DailyServing founder Seth Curcio was able to speak to Ed Burtynsky by phone about his current exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, titled Oil. During this conversation, we learn how Ed's research has altered his own relationship to oil, how he uses scale and perspective to shape our understanding of the industrialized world, and what lies ahead of us with the future of oil.

Alberta Oil Sands #6 Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007 / Courtesy of the Artist

Seth Curcio: In the introduction to your book Oil, you said, " In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that all the vast man-altered landscapes I had pursued for over 20 years had been made possible by oil..." Since that time you have spent a decade and a half documenting the impact of oil consumption globally. How has this ongoing project shaped the way that you interact with the world, especially in regard to oil consumption?

Ed Burtynsky: At that point, I had spent 16 or 17 years trying to find the largest events possible around mining and quarrying. I was interested in places that we had collectively engaged, and that illustrate scale. I realized that the scale that I'd been photographing could only have been achieved through the combustive engine and a readily available fuel, such as oil.

These ideas led me to consider the things that are around me, from the fuel in my car to the road that I am driving on, to the plastic container that was in my hand. They are all produced with oil. As I started to look around, I asked myself what's not oil? and that became the more interesting question. It was at that point that I began to close the chapter on mining and open the chapter on the oil landscape. That started my research representing the extraction and refinement of oil, the urban worlds and events produced as a result of oil, and the end of the line -- the final entropy and physical result of oil consumption.

Oil Fields #22 Cold Lake, Alberta, Canada, 2001 / Courtesy of the Artist

Through this I was fully aware that I was involved in the consumption of oil too. You simply cannot live life in the modern world without the usage of oil. We are all, in some way, participating in the material and resource. But, I'm always trying to find ways to mitigate my own consumption and impact. I planted a forest in 1985 and have since cared for it as a gesture to offset my carbon usage. I've always been careful to purchase fuel-efficient cars, and each time I fly, I purchase from offset companies. It is always my hope to be able to offset my usage through these means.

Highway #5 Los Angeles, California, USA, 2009 / Courtesy of the Artist

SC: As an individual, our limited perspective often prohibits us from seeing the larger picture of our impact on the planet. Literally, shifting our perspective to 1000+ feet above the ground can drastically change how we see the world. For me, this was strikingly evident in the expansive aerial photograph Highway #5, Los Angeles, California, USA. Can you talk a little about perspective and access as it relates to your work?

EB: When you stand at ground level, a real hierarchy begins to form. Everything in the foreground of the picture becomes dominant and hides everything behind it. The middle just becomes irrelevant at eye or ground level. But, then I realized that as you move up a bit, things begin to reveal themselves and you get a real sense of the relationships between the foreground, middle ground, and background. The descriptive power of the elevated point of view becomes so much more interesting than the view from the ground. From this point, you really get the chance to understand the scale of the landscape or how much of something is there, like how many cars are backed up behind you or how many planes are parked together. You get to see and really understand scale from the elevated viewpoint. And for me, that is a way that I can describe the system in which we organize certain things on such a large scale.