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Edward Burtynsky: Deepwater Blues

"Edward Burtynsky" by Sarah Milroy, Fall 2010, pp. 110-117

1. Waking up in New Orleans, I can hear it before I can see it: the Westbank Expressway, which crosses the Mississippi from New Orleans and flows west toward Texas. All through the night, beneath the window of my hotel room, the sound of it had kept me traversing and retraversing the threshold of sleep—like the roar of a hurricane, punctuated by the rhythmic slapping of tires on asphalt, a seething cataract of carbon emissions. Now, just past dawn, the cars are no doubt already broiling hot in the rising sun. Is this global warming, or just the way things roll down here? It’s 6:15 a.m. and already it’s 90 degrees outside.

As I open the curtains, the sun is almost blinding, but in the sky there’s a giant cloud the shape of a whale or some other primordial ocean creature. The underbelly is smooth and velvety, but its topside is festooned with towering cumulous dorsals, illuminated with dawn light—nature at its most transcendent and pristine.

Beneath this apparition, above the glittering traffic flow, is a giant billboard: “Boomtown Casino; Happy Hour Never Ends.” A banner attached below reads: “Gambling Problem? Call 877-770-STOP.” It’s the great American conundrum: rampant, dysfunctional excess cycling into bouts of repentance, followed by redoubled debauchery.

I have come here from Toronto to watch the Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky photograph the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, 50 miles off the Louisiana shore, a hundred miles from here: another gambling problem turned ugly. For 30 years, Burtynsky has made it his practice to record, in large colour prints, the human imprint on the natural world, photographing mines and quarries and railway cuts and, more recently, the impact of oil extraction and use around the world, from the freeways of Los Angeles to the shipbreaking deltas of Bangladesh and the oil fields of Alberta and Azerbaijan.

We love oil, and oil is killing us. Six months earlier, back in Toronto, Burtynsky had said to me: “Like all animals, human beings have always taken what they want from nature. But we are the rogue species. We are unique in our ability to use resources on a scale, and at a speed, that our fellow species can’t.” Greed, he said—the rampant pursuit of comfort, ease and sensory gratification—is part of our primal nature. But mankind is also endowed with reason. Which side will prevail?

Along the way, Burtynsky has attracted numerous accolades—from the inaugural TED Prize (in 2005) to the ICP Infinity Award to an appointment to the Order of Canada. His photography books, like his landmark volume on oil and his study of contemporary industrial China, are among the most luxurious books being produced on any living artist. A touring show that debuted last year at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., was a career highlight. But all this isn’t making Burtynsky any less itchy to get to work.

We had planned to see the spill today together, flying over the site in a helicopter—Burtynsky, his assistant Jim Panou, me and the Canadian filmmaker Nick de Pencier, from the Toronto-based Mercury Films. He and his wife, the director Jennifer Baichwal, are making a film about debt. Produced by the NFB, it will be based on Margaret Atwood’s 2008 book Payback, which many saw as a harbinger of that year’s global financial crisis—another example of miscalculated risk and collective hubris.

When I arrived the night before, though, I’d found out that our plan had changed, and I’d be grounded until tomorrow. Having soaked myself in oil-spill media for days, it turned out I’d have a day to absorb my Louisiana surroundings.

This might not be all bad. Driving in from the airport the night before, arcing past the Superdome on the freeway overpass, I’d realized this place is haunted. I’d remembered how 30,000 American citizens had found themselves corralled there like livestock after Katrina, awaiting deliverance. Now, it seems, we’re watching Climate Change Catastrophe: The Sequel. Subtitle: how corporate greed, government ineptitude and arrogance led to America’s greatest ecological disaster.

I realized, too, that I have feelings about the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a place I first learned about through the taut, athletic prose of Ernest Hemingway, whose book The Old Man and the Sea—the first adult work of literature I can remember reading—seemed to sum up the defiant beauty and wildness of the ocean, with man and nature living in balance. The old man could read every nuance of the sea, interpreting its moods and revering its creatures even as he took his place among them. Now the gulf has been despoiled at the hands of a gaggle of British twits four thousand miles away. Better that Papa blew his brains out than witness this.

2. Standing at the side of the road beside the rental van, I watch as the helicopter lifts off, with the rest of the team on board. Two and a half hours later, we will meet up at our agreed-upon landmark: an expanse of lawn beneath a huge American flag, which I can see unfurling against the blue sky a half mile down the road. Until then it’s just me, Plaquemines Parish and a full tank of gas. The man driving the fuel truck for the helicopter has told me this whole area was flooded in Katrina, but you wouldn’t know it, except for the odd derelict old house, boarded up and left to rot. There’s a new playground nearby, and a baseball diamond. Mostly people here remember how the community pulled together, not how the government up in Washington let them down. He told me faith had kept them afloat.

The greenery here is intense, the vegetation turbocharged with Mississippi silt, and open spaces here and there have been repurposed as makeshift trailer parks. The grocery store I find is half empty, its mostly barren shelves bearing a wide selection of items like ketchup, pickles, Saran Wrap. A single box of mouldy oranges sits near the checkout. I haven’t seen food this bad since I went to Igloolik 20 years ago.

Fresh signage has cropped up here and there announcing the services of lawyers willing to work on local claims against BP. Idling at a stop sign, I catch the eye of the driver of a pickup truck, his back window soaped with the words “BP Sucks: Just Not Hard Enough.” We both smile.

Louisiana has one of the highest unemployment rates of all the American states, and now the fisheries have been knocked out. Some of the fishermen have been thrown the bone of part-time cleanup jobs, jobs with health risks that are still unclear. Temporary mobile living units have been brought in to house the workers and their families, emergency response leftovers from Katrina that the New York Times reports are seeping toxic levels of formaldehyde.

At Southern Seaplane, the pilots, too, have been repurposed. Before, they had spent most of their time flying recreational sport fishermen up and down this legendary stretch of coastline. Now they spend their days flying international journalists to and from the explosion site, which everyone around here has taken to calling Ground Zero. Giant vans bearing the logos of ABC and NBC are set up beside staging platforms in the seaside marina at Venice. The new growth industries here are catastrophe witnessing and environmental rehab. There’s not much joy in it.

3. I’m overlooking the freeway again, and the molten rush-hour traffic, but this time I’m closing the curtains against the late-afternoon glare. We are all gathered in Burtynsky’s hotel room, loading up his laptop with the day’s fresh catch of pictures. I could tell earlier, when the chopper landed, that the trip had not gone well. Their faces looked hangdog and exhausted. Rough water had thrown a haze of glare over the surface, barring a clear view of the depths, and it is looking like this might be the largest invisible ecological catastrophe in American history. Some of the ocean views, though, contain traces of oxblood red, snaking calligraphic lines that play out across the blue surface of the sea.

The talk among the group members ranges from possible digital enhancements to the horror of what they had witnessed out there but had not yet captured to their forthcoming editing choices to Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, with its disorienting close-ups, the subjects revealing themselves slowly, over time. This is a group of people well versed in the framing and parsing of visual meaning.

Some of Burtynsky’s pictures from this day are aesthetic marvels, and I find myself thinking about the craggy lines of Clyfford Still, or Kandinsky’s nervous whiplash gestures and lustrous chromatic variations. You can’t help it; aesthetic pleasure is impossible to forestall, the context notwithstanding. The blue of the ocean, like Kandinsky’s, has a souped-up, unreal quality, like lapis lazuli, and a pilot would later tell us that this new colour showed up just a week ago, when the spraying of chemical dispersants, principally Corexit 9527 and 9500, commenced full-bore. The toxic qualities of Corexit has led to its banning in Britain, but here it’s full-tilt boogie. In Burtynsky’s pictures, the ocean looks like Sani-Flush.

As with his striking photographs of scarlet oxidized nickel tailings in Sudbury, Ontario—the pictures from the 1990s that vaulted him into the spotlight in Canada and abroad, inciting debate in the art world about the ethics of ugly truths revealed in beautiful ways—these pictures show us the terrible beauty of industry, inducing a kind of awe and terror at the scale of man’s ambition, and his arrogance. De Pencier’s rushes show an outwardly fanning plume of burning methane gas, a flaming chrysanthemum of satanic force. I am reminded of the imploding towers of 9/11, that grey velvet blossoming that loomed horrifically on our television screens—beautiful and terrifying, just like this.

4. It’s high noon the next day, and the heat feels like a blast furnace. We are taxiing for takeoff in a tiny Cessna 185 seaplane. Burtynsky is up front with the gear, beside the pilot; I’m tucked in behind. Looking out the window as the engine’s roar approaches full throttle, we see two snow-white egrets taking flight, flapping their wings lazily, heading out to the marshes. As we lift up, the air cools and we wheel above storage yards filled with miles of neatly stacked gas pipe. Higher now, we glimpse the profiles of the refineries that dot the horizon like the church spires of Montreal. Soon, the wetlands are opening up beneath us—not the shallow fringe one might imagine, but the broad brow of the Mississippi River Delta, which stretches out for half an hour as we fly south to the Gulf of Mexico. The marsh is a vast web of life—fragile, verdant, delicate as old lace.

Burtynsky has flipped open the airplane’s side window now, and has started shooting—leaning out the window with his Hasselblad, his shirttails flapping inside the cabin. I know what he has his eye on: the arbitrary, man-made lines that traverse the wetlands, some of which indicate the presence of underwater pipeline, others dredged to add fresh river water to the delta’s saline mix, stabilizing the ecosystem altered by the levees. Already we are looking at a landscape heavily mediated by man. But there is no sign yet of the oil we are looking for.

As our Cessna’s shadow crosses the last of the vegetation, though, we see a few of the outermost islands with their dark oily wreaths, the first to succumb. Further out, passages of dark ochre begin to be visible beneath the surface of the ocean, rusty menstrual streaks that could at first be misconstrued as mud of a darker shade. But as we continue, these stains intensify, and when I borrow the polarizing filter that Burtynsky offers me, the true horror snaps into focus: a striated underwater mess that deepens and thickens the farther south we travel.

“When you think about it, oil is just past life, compressed and condensed”—this is what Burtynsky had said to me earlier that morning, philosophizing over a plate of scrambled eggs in a diner near the Ninth Ward. “But here, it got out of control. It’s Pandora’s box.” Drilling deep, drilling dumb, we have unleashed a monster. He described a conversation he’d had with Greg Baiden, a professor of mining engineering at Laurentian University, about how human development had been fundamentally altered and accelerated by the advent of drilling—for water, for minerals and for oil—expanding our capacities exponentially. It may be our most quintessential human endeavour.

We talked, too, about the paradox of his shooting environmental catastrophes while flying around in airplanes and driving in cars, and using toxic chemicals in the photo-processing lab he owns in Toronto. We are in the grip of “collective cognitive dissonance,” he said, making excuses and engaging in “myside bias” to appease our guilt. He’s planning to buy more land to protect some Ontario forest, in an effort to offset the carbon footprint of his peripatetic lifestyle, but it doesn’t really solve the problem. Like the rest of us, he’s enmeshed in these conundrums.

Burtynsky directs my gaze to a tiny orange dot on the horizon. It’s the site, and as we approach it over the next 15 minutes, the spot grows larger, revealing itself finally as the twin flames of two emergency vessels, torching methane from their sides in giant saffron flares, a haze of smoke floating upwards. Other ships are spraying dramatic arcs of water to cool down the fiery pipes, preventing them from melting. Around them is scattered a ragtag flotilla of Coast Guard and oil-industry vessels, some of them spewing dispersant from their flanks.

At first, it looks like a scattering of children’s toys over an expanse of blue carpet, but as we move closer it takes on the look of chaos, a solution held together with Band-Aids and desperation. The sea now bears a surface sheen of rainbow slick, stretching towards us in a wide fan from above the wellhead. The day before, an undersea robotic device had dislodged the cap on the well, releasing more than a million gallons of crude before it could be refitted. Our timing has turned out to be tragically auspicious. “The dark water of the true gulf is the greatest healer that there is,” Hemingway wrote, describing how the old fisherman, exhausted from his struggle with the giant marlin, trailed his torn and bloodied hands in the ocean to soothe his cuts. Overcoming this injury, though, will not be so easy.

How was this different from what I had imagined, watching the TV news in Toronto, researching online and flipping through magazines on the flights south? First, it was clear that the spill’s impact on shore life had not, in late June, even begun to be felt. Virtually all the oil still hung offshore. Did people understand what was coming? How could they?

Second, the dispersant seemed to have moved the oil deeper underwater, where the skimmers and booms could no longer intercept it, even had real efforts been made to set them up, which was not the case. The gulf was almost entirely empty of boats, with the odd fragmentary length of boom dragged from Coast Guard vessels or strung in tiny pieces along sections of shoreline, like bits of thread dropped on an airport runway. Clearly, this was a make-work project for the TV news cameras, one of self-evident, heartbreaking futility.

Most important, though, was the revelation of what no television camera can really help us to apprehend: the magnificence and scale of these marshes and the pristine, sparkling Gulf of Mexico, upon which hundreds of drilling platforms now sit like waterbugs, scattered as far as the eye can see. One can’t register the scale of catastrophe without first taking the measure of the innocence and beauty of what has been lost. Burtynsky’s pictures help us to feel that.

This can’t be fixed. We can only hope that, finally, it can be understood. This is the miracle planet as we have blunderingly defaced it. Here, looking long, we see our writing on the wall.

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