When most of us think of the oil sands, it’s mostly as an abstract concept since we’ve never been there. Well, maybe we’ve been to Fort McMurray, driven past Tar Island and up to the Highway 63 circle that gives us a glimpse of the sulphur pyramids, the tailings ponds, and the stacks that endlessly bellow into a grey sky.
That’s not the full picture. World-renowned photographer Garth Lenz has taken to the skies time and again to shoot the birds-eye view so that we could all see the grander scope of things, the big picture if you will.
Well, he sure does have some big pictures. And they’re coming to St. Albert, starting next week at the Musée Héritage Museum. The True Cost of Oil: Canada’s Oil Sands and the Last Great Forest features more than 30 of Lenz’s photographs from the projects that we all know about but few actually know firsthand.
The traveling exhibit has visited major art centres such as New York, Los Angeles, Germany, Washington D.C., as well as Banff. Museum curator Joanne White first noticed as it came through Lethbridge a few years ago. She’s excited that the day has finally arrived that it will see an audience here. It certainly made an impression on her.
“I was just really taken with the photographs. They were just stunning and really interesting in the way he juxtaposed nature with the industry.”
As stunning as the photographs might be – some even presented in large format 40″
x 60″ dimensions – our museum is not usually a place where you would find an exhibit of work that doesn’t have a direct connection to this city.
White defends the choice.
“It’s an interesting subject for this part of the world,” she averred. “We do a lot of photography exhibits. We’re interested in ‘our place in the world’ whether historical or modern, the social impact on society and all of those things… what goes on around us is part of what we do.”
That’s a fair point. There probably isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t had oil on the brain lately, even if it’s just about the price of gas.
A delicate balance
Some shutterbugs and those who enjoy a good picture might be familiar with the work of Edward Burtynsky, the Canadian photographer whose works are very similar to those of Lenz, with possibly one colossal difference. Burtynsky seeks out perfect shots to achieve a kind of poetic grace with each image he produces.
Lenz said that while he’s up in the helicopter, he prefers to let his instincts guide him so that he isn’t sitting in the sky for hours at a time.
“I’m a very intuitive photographer. I’m not photographing with what the response of the viewer is going to be. I really am photographing for me… my personal response to whatever that subject matter might be. That can really change quite quickly,” he began.
“When you’re shooting aerials, there’s not a lot of time for self-reflection. I see that really as a positive thing: that photography as a result tends to be very much free of any kind of artifice or affectation. It’s very much a true and accurate representation of the subject matter and your response to the subject matter. Freeman Patterson always said that the camera points both ways.”
Early in his career, he was drawn to shooting forests to illustrate the issues that surrounded them, industrially, ecologically, or otherwise. It’s only in recent years that his gaze has been turned more and more toward the ground and the sky, meaning to centers of oil production and to climate change.
There’s a lot of material to work with, he admits, and it’s all fascinating.
His only objective is to remain non-objective; however, he does admit to having great concerns regarding climate change and humankind’s consumption of fossil fuels. “It is clearly – according to all the major scientists – not sustainable and can’t be continued at the ever-increasing level that it has been. We do need to transition to more renewable fuels,” he noted.
“I consider myself really to be someone who straddles the editorial and fine art worlds in terms of my photographic work. There seems to be a lot of fine art photographers who are doing work with a kind of editorial background. It certainly has an effect on… how we see the world.”
He clarified that his editorialized work veers equally between the two sides of the spectrum: both in awe of the human accomplishment of achieving a magnificent enterprise as well as agape at the horrors that we have wrought upon the world.
“I think that, in a way, really reflects our very complicated relationship with fossil fuels. It doesn’t matter where you are in this ongoing debate around oil sands. We all are definitely using fossil fuels and enjoying the many benefits that they provide in our day-to-day life while at the same time we decry some of the very, very significant impacts that they bring about. We’re really conflicted in our relationship.”
Focus not on the negatives
The exhibit is about as well rounded as one could ever hope to get with such a heated topic on photographic display. Yes, we see the refineries and industrial outlays in all of their full jaw-dropping glory. Whatever green there was in these oil sands developments has long been torn out, turned and trodden over who knows how many times, leaving what can perhaps best be described as a series of dirt scars.
But that’s far from the full picture. Lenz invites viewers into the still scenic majesty of the landscape replete with colourful forests and lazy rivers. Sometimes, the two kinds of scenes are magnificently juxtaposed all in the same photograph.
Let the work speak for itself, he says.
“The exhibit does contain a good variety of work from ground level as well as the bird’s eye view, and also from the industrial landscape to the intact natural boreal forest. People often reflect… that they’re surprised by how beautiful some of the quite challenging industrial images are,” he continued.
And that’s all the point of these works: his photography reveals images that you might not expect and you can only respond with your own honest reaction the first time that you see them.
“My real hope is that, whatever your views might be on this issue, that people will come with an open mind and look at the images and take from them what they will. That’s really the role of photography. It can really communicate without words and it can be a medium which is very free for the viewer to draw their own conclusions.”
The True Cost of Oil: Canada’s Oil Sands and the Last Great Forest
Photographs by Garth Lenz
Exhibition runs from Tues., Feb. 2 to Sun., Apr. 17
Opening reception on Sat., Feb. 6 from 2 to 5 p.m. The artist will be in attendance and will deliver a talk about his work at 3 p.m.
Call 780-459-1528 or visit www.museeheritage.ca for more information.