In October 2009, a decade-long survey of Edward Burtynsky's photographic imagery exploring the subject of oil opened at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, the inaugural venue in a tour of the exhibition across Canada, the United States and Europe. This epic body of work - encompassing depictions of the architecture of massive refineries, labyrinthine highway interchanges, abandoned drills presiding over former oil fields in Azerbaijan,monumental tankers made skeletal and strange in the shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh - weaves together multiple visual threads in a cautionary tale of our destructive dependency on this contested energy source.
Arranged thematically, the exhibition culminates in a group of images entitled The End of Oil, depicting cultures and landscapes in extremis at the tipping point of a post-petroleum society. Combining seductive aesthetics with the critical narratives of a disquieting subject matter, these photographs act as portents of obsolescence: a world without the oleaginous lifeblood that feeds our industrial addiction. But whilst these studies achieve a moral sting and visual impact that point towards a form of conclusion, the unfurling of events in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year gave the photographer license to author a new and urgent chapter.