Terrible Beauty

"Silver Lake Operations #12, Lefroy, Western Australia, 2007"
Edward Burtynsky

I am fascinated with Edward Burtynsky's work on the global impact of oil, currently on view at Hasted Hunt Krauetler Gallery. For nearly a decade, he criss-crossed the globe photographing oil fields and refineries, new car lots, and massive freeways, all of which  are presented in large-scale lushly colored prints. Some of the landscapes are rendered almost abstract, like the one above, which looks more like a painting and recalls the work of the painter Richard Diebenkorn. 

"Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada"
Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In a similar vein, the picture above by Yann Arthus-Bertrand touches on the subject of oil. While both images depict the disastrous ecological price we pay for oil, they are indisputably beautiful. As Arthus-Bertrand said of his photograph, "What you're looking at is essentially poison and pollution, yet the shot has great beauty." In both cases, what is striking at first glance is their compelling pictorial beauty. Both contain an astonishing level of detail– in Arthus-Bertrand's photograph, you can see pink flag-like devices, which are placed to prevent birds on fatally landing on the spot. It's only when you realize what you are actually looking at that the full impact of their message becomes powerfully clear. We, as consumers of oil, are implicated in these ravaged landscapes. What both Burtynsky and Arthus-Bertrand have remarkably achieved is to make such beautiful images while avoiding the trap of rendering them too aestheticized that one loses sight of their more terrible content.

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