'Recycling #2, Chittagong Bangladesh, 2001' by Edward Burtynsky is in a new exhibit exploring oil and opening this weekend at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. ((Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy Adamson Gallery/AP))

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky's first exhibit of 56 large colour landscapes chronicling the impact of oil made its debut Saturday at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery of Art, less than a block from the White House.

The show can't help but carry a political zing.

"Edward Burtynsky: Oil" opens at the privately funded gallery as the U.S. Congress is struggling with a climate bill that could include a "cap and trade" system to reduce greenhouse gases. Critics say it could drive up energy costs.

"We hoped that there would be something going on around oil," curator Paul Roth said of the museum's plans for the exhibit beginning two years ago. "At a certain point, we realized, 'No, it's Washington and it's oil. There will be something going on.'"

The show, sponsored by Scotiabank, will be on view at the Corcoran through December, then will travel to Canada and other destinations through 2012. Corcoran officials also expect a smaller version to travel in Europe.

Burtynsky spent 12 years exploring the subject, following past projects on mines, quarries and farming. The images are divided thematically to show how oil is extracted from the earth and how it drives transportation and development.

It ends with a frightening thought — the end of oil.

Some of the most striking images depict the abandoned, rusting oilfields of Azerbaijan in 2006, where the earth has been tapped dry.

'Oil epiphany' in 1997

The Toronto-based artist, the son of a General Motors production worker, said he had an "oil epiphany" in 1997 and was compelled to learn more. The exhibit was conceived when George W. Bush, once an oil businessman, was still the U.S. president.


Burtynsky says he likes to photograph 'something that you never see.' ((Steve Carty/CBC))

"I thought whoever the new guy is will have to have a different perspective, you know?" Burtynsky said. "Otherwise, America is in trouble."

His images include a pristine forest in Alberta, sliced by silver oil pipelines; massive oilfields with dozens of derricks pumping in Belridge, Calif.; and car-centric cities from Texas to China.

"It's like trying to photograph something that you never see," he said. "We don't see crude oil. It's like blood in our veins. It runs through our body, but if we see it, there's a problem usually."

Rather than show oil spills, though, Burtynsky tackles the demands for oil and its consequences. One scene from overhead depicts a Las Vegas suburb with man-made lagoons and waterways, showing the surrounding Nevada desert.

"We make these worlds where we manufacture waterfront property to get more money for these houses," he said.

Other scenes are darker. In Bangladesh, Burtynsky photographed massive oil tankers resting in black, toxic mud where barefoot workers break down the ships for scrap and salvage any leftover crude.

Some photos show the massive oil industry in Canada — the second-largest oil reserve after Saudi Arabia — with its oilsands in Alberta.

Used helicopters, hydraulic trucks

Museum director Paul Greenhalgh called the images an "apocalyptic display of what humanity does to the landscape," likening the photographs to artworks produced in the early 19th century in Europe "when the landscape was being ripped up by the first phase of industrialization."

Burtynsky said he rented helicopters and hydraulic trucks and stayed mostly on public roads to capture his images, though he did have a brush with the FBI.

About a week after he photographed oil refineries in 2004 from a helicopter over Pasadena, Tex., he got a call from investigators.

"You know, it would be better if you let us know when you'd be doing this," the agent told Burtynsky.

The artist replied: "I didn't think to call the FBI."