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Oil Refineries#2, Oakville, Ontario, Canada,

chromogenic print on Fuji Crystal Archive paper
27 in. x 34 in. (68.58 cm x 86.36 cm)
Henry Melville Fuller Fund in Honor of Raymond G. Cote, Trustee, 2012.27

Edward Burtynsky
Canadian, born 1955


Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale photograph of the Petro-Canada Oakville Refinery in Ontario presents the enormous size and complexity of the machinery used to refine oil. The rusting sections of the ductwork and chimneys contrast with the gleaming stainless steel and blue pipes below. This view of the snaking pipes is both extremely ordered and wildly chaotic in the sheer amount of visual information presented.

The maze of pipes, valves, ducts, smokestacks, catwalks, and ladders is entirely human-made, though no people are present. However, the viewer gains clues to the enormous scale of this industrial complex from the staircases, ladders, and catwalks that accommodate those who maintain these machines. This is a landscape photograph in which almost no nature is to be found. The natural world is virtually absent, with autumn trees, so tiny as to be barely visible, in the center of the image, framed by the refinery’s metal pipes and ducts.

Context and Analysis

Oil Refineries #2, Oakville, Ontario, Canada forms part of an extended project photographed over a dozen years in various countries by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The artist has dedicated his career to photographing the vast industrial infrastructure of resource extraction, transport, manufacturing, use, and waste. His subjects include quarries in Vermont and Italy, oil drilling in Canada and Azerbaijan, car races, highways, suburbs, and finally the waste produced by our resource-hungry culture. His photographs survey abandoned oil rigs, enormous junkyards, and recycling operations full of cars, tires, and abandoned airplanes, along with the dismantling of ships for their scrap metal.

Burtynsky presents industrial infrastructure in a way that emphasizes the enormous scale of human enterprise. His images, often taken from a high vantage point, give a sense of that scale while revealing the complexity of industrial structures. If we think of them as landscape photographs, then they also suggest the scale of the environmental devastation caused by industry.

Refineries are among the largest and most imposing industrial buildings. They are designed to refine crude oil into petroleum products, separating out products such as naphtha, gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene, heating oil, lubricants, and asphalt. Typically engineered for continuous operation, refineries must transport and process crude oil and its derivative products efficiently, transforming them through applied heat, filtering, and chemical processes. Before it was shut down in 2005, the Petro-Canada Oakville Refinery produced 90,000 barrels per day—a relatively modest amount, as some refineries produce substantially more.

Unless we work in the oil industry, most of us are unlikely to see the inside of a refinery, and are unlikely to often think about the source of the gas we use. This photograph shows that process to be incredibly complex, and even beautiful—but it also implies the enormous environmental devastation caused by the technologies on which our civilization currently depends.


Burtynsky’s photographs bring to mind the focus on technology and machines of painters and photographers of the early 1900s. It is fascinating to compare this photograph with another from the Currier’s collections—Turbine, Niagara Falls Power Co. , taken by Margaret Bourke-White in 1928 (Currier, 1985.6). Bourke-White framed the enormous turbines to emphasize their scale and graphic qualities, implying a celebration of human industry. Though Burtynsky’s subject is similarly composed, his photographs also point toward the environmental devastation wrought by industry.

Written by Martin Fox


Burtynsky, Edward. Oil. Göttingen, Germany: Stiedl, in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2009.

Hayes, Brian. Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.

Pauli, Lori. Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. Ottawa, Ontario: National Gallery of Canada, 2003.

Howard Greenberg Gallery
Purchased by Currier Museum of Art, 2012

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