Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky doesn't want to convey a political message with his large-format photographs.

His exhibition Oil, currently touring internationally and set to open in Toronto on Saturday, finds great beauty among the oil fields, truck jamborees and piles of discarded tires that are part of our oil-based economy.

"I don't want to be prescriptive," Burtynsky said in an interview Tuesday with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

Viewers who are attracted to the image, then perhaps repulsed when they think about it further, are at least engaged with the art, he said.

"I have you — you're reacting to the work, you're engaging and it's far more interesting to me to work with that tension than to say 'Here's something that supports the idea that this is bad,'" Burtynsky said.

Known for his large-scale photographs of manufacturing sites and mines, Burtynsky says he was drawn to industrial processes out of awe over what humankind has been able to achieve. For instance, oil is a remarkable energy source that has enabled the emergence of a middle class and made it possible for seven billion people to live on the planet, he said.


Burtynsky shot Oxford Tire Pile #8 in Westley, Calif., in 1999. The photographer says people are struck by the scale of waste. (Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy Nicholas Metivier)

But as he captured both the ways we create new goods and how we dispose of them afterwards, Burtynsky came to feel that our consumption of resources is not sustainable.

The Toronto-based photographer says he likes art patrons to come to their own realizations of the scale of the human impact on the planet. The exhibition explores the entire life cycle of oil: from extraction through shipping and refining, to its use in transportation and the products closely associated with it, including cars and vehicle parts.

"The photographs people are constantly stunned by are the End of Oil series. I went to the largest tire pile on the planet — at its peak, it had 40 million tires  — and what happens is the tires actually create a whole new landscape:  hills and high mountains of tires," he said.

Many people have a "eureka moment" as they realize what happens to their tires, according to Burtynsky.

"People are just taken aback by the scale of the waste stream."

Edward Burtynsky: Oil, an exhibit created by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., has toured to Germany and St. John's. It opens at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Saturday and runs through July 3.


Edward Burtynsky shot Alberta Oil Sands #2 in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2007. his exhibit Oil explores the life cycle of our most important source of energy. (Edward Burtynsky/Courtesy Nicholas Metivier)