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  • August 29, 2014

Garth Lenz’s Abstract Energyscapes

“The scale is just insane,” photographer Garth Lenz says of the industrialization he photographs in the province of Alberta. Lenz was drawn to the area because of the dramatic changes in the landscape that accompanied the development of the oil sands there and the visual variety it created.

Picture of an aerial of the MacKay River, the Boreal Forest, and a tar mine in Northern Alberta, the leaves of the trees are yellow with changing seasons and a factory creates smoke on the horizon
The MacKay River, the Boreal Forest, and a tar mine in Northern Alberta, Canada. The Boreal Forests and wetlands that surround the tar sands are the most carbon-rich terrestrial ecosystem on the planet, holding almost twice as much carbon per acre as tropical rain forests.

“Some of the tailings ponds are up to 9,000 acres, about two-thirds the size of Manhattan,” he explains. And it’s impossible to show that scale without using aerial photography, a process that Lenz had to adapt to as he began playing with abstraction in his landscape work, which focuses on the extraction and consumption of resources. “Certainly, for the first number of years that I did aerial photography, I didn’t enjoy the process that much. It was such an intense experience; I just found it so stressful. And it’s still an intense experience, but I love it. I love the opportunity to make the kinds of images you can’t really make in any other way,” he says.

Picture of an industrialized area along the Athabasca River in Northern Alberta
A Syncrude upgrader, mines, tailings ponds, and the Athabasca River, in Northern Alberta, Canada.
Picture of a mountain top coal site in British Columbia, the mountain is very green but has been clearly developed for coal production
Greenhills coal mine, Elk Valley, South Eastern British Columbia, Canada. This small valley in eastern B.C. near the Alberta border, produces 20% of the world’s coal used in steel production. After being loaded on freight cars it is shipped to a coal port just south of Vancouver before being sent to China.

His process is intuitive. “Everything happens so fast. You don’t have time to question this or that,” he says. Lenz relates that spontaneous, subconscious instinct to his love of the paintings of the abstract impressionists and expressionists. “I am very much drawn to modern painting,” he says, citing one image of a tailings pond. “It’s partially frozen and you can see the bitumen coming through. It reminds me very much of a Jackson Pollock canvas.”

Picture of a scene of spruce and aspen trees next to an aerial of a partially frozen tailings pond that looks like an abstract painting
Enlarge image for optimal viewing experience.
Left: Aspen and Spruce trees in Northern Alberta. Canada’s Boreal Forest alone stores an amount of carbon equal to ten times the total annual global emissions from all fossil fuel consumption. Right: Even in the extreme cold of the winter, these tailings ponds do not freeze completely. On one particularly cold morning the partially frozen tailings, sand, liquid tailings and oil residue create an abstract composition.

Lenz views his photographs as art rather than activism, hoping that abstracting a subject that people are typically quick to label “good” or “bad” will cause a visceral reaction that catalyzes viewers to think through issues for themselves. “You want to have a well-crafted image in good light and all the rest of it. That draws people into looking at the image. It creates a little bit of cognitive dissonance, especially with some of the more abstract images where people don’t know exactly what they’re looking at,” he says.

Picture of an aerial view of salt lake evaporation ponds near the Great Salt Lake in Utah, the colors of the ponds are red and green from the minerals that are left behind after evaporation
Salt evaporation pond clusters adjacent to Great Salt Lake in Utah. Water from the Great Salt Lake is pumped into the desert flats that border the lake and when this water evaporates, salt, potassium, calcium, and other minerals, are left behind. The colors of the ponds result from both the variations in salinity and from the algae content.

Lately, Lenz has been playing with contrasting areas developed for energy with more pristine terrain, searching for similarities in the natural and built landscapes. “Whether it’s light or certain tonal values, or maybe in one you have rivers going through a wetland [next to] roads with a tar mine, so they are reminiscent of each other in visual design. People can look at it and realize these are the trade-offs that we are making. Whether you think that’s justifiable or unjustifiable, at least look and see and make an informed decision.”

Picture of a tar sands upgrader in the winter, seen from above are buildings producing smoke or steam
A tar sands upgrader in Northern Alberta, Canada. The Alberta Tar Sands are Canada’s single largest and fastest growing source of carbon. The refining of the tar-like bitumen requires more water and energy than the production of conventional oil and produces twice the greenhouse gas.

He knows that the development of fossil fuels is a systemic issue, and that he himself is a part of it even in the creation of his work. “I’m getting up in a helicopter or an airplane to try to show the impacts of our fossil fuel consumption, and my carbon footprint as a result of trying to do that work and bring more awareness to these issues is going to be a lot larger than a lot of other people’s,” he admits. But clear-cut solutions aren’t what Lenz is touting. “I’m not really there to provide the answer. I think my role as a photographer and as an artist is to try to ask the question in the most sort of visually evocative and provocative way that one can.”

Picture of clouds reflected in an extremely large tailings pond, work vehicles, which look very tiny in comparison to the huge pond, drive around the perimeter
Disguised by the beauty of a reflection, these toxic tailings ponds are a considerable health risk. These vast toxic lakes are completely unlined and nineteen of them lie on either side of the Athabasca River. Individual ponds can range in size up to 8,850 acres.

Work from Garth Lenz’s project The True Cost of Oil is on view at 555 Gallery in Boston from September 4-October 4. See more of Garth Lenz’s work on his website.

Related Story: Boycotting Tar Sands Oil: Will It Work?

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There are 46 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. germaine fryc
    December 8, 2014

    “Not in my backyard, sight unseen, I’ll pat your back if you pat mine” and profits are the reasons govt.s aren’t doing anything.

  2. Peter
    October 26, 2014

    Great photographs! Just to put some of the comments “against” the oil sands “land destruction” in perspective. The total land area disturbed by oil sands production since the early 60’s is about 770 square kilometres, with 50 square kilometres in a state of reclamation. Leased for production by open cast methods are 4,700 square kilometres. The amazon rainforest is still being deforested at an annual rate of over 5,000 square kilometres, though down one fifth from the early 2000’s, with a total of 760,000 square kilometres since the 1970’s for pasture and soybean production.
    The oil companies must still be held to account to eliminate environmental events and to have the oil production return the land to its previous state.

  3. Lyle Catt
    October 25, 2014

    Propogating a leftist view. I don’t trust one sided views and arguments and sratistics.

  4. Jocelyn
    October 20, 2014

    I’m tired of seeing these images everywhere in many countries, but there are no actions. Something has to be done to stop this everywhere.

  5. Arun Sarin
    October 19, 2014

    Obviously politicians can enforce a stop to this carnage but they choose collectively to look the other way. Bank Accounts?

  6. K Ryan
    October 2, 2014

    Your aerial photography while striking brings tears to my eyes. Until this moment I had no real idea what industrialization in Canada was doing to the environment.

  7. Bill Archibald
    September 18, 2014

    These photos are important reminders of our impact on the environment. The oil (tar) sands are highly controversial. There is a tremendous lack of trust on both sides of the issue. Photos do tell the truth, though I agree with the commenter who said that there should be photos of the reclaimed land. However, that does nothing to help ensure that leaching from the ponds do not impact the Athabasca River. Vast amounts of river water are consumed by the process.
    The government should be enforcing a “full cost” principle with all industries, particularly the oil industry. The “full cost” of protecting and restoring the environment should be borne by the industry so that the price of the final product truly reflects the actual “full cost” of producing the oil. The “full cost” approach is essentially incorporating the principles of sustainable business practices into the business model. Oil companies can afford to do this. The government is weak and does not enforce it. Too bad oil companies do not take the lead in ensuring that the environment is not affected and maintained consistent with sustainability. By not doing so, we are subsidizing the industry. There is no reason why the industry cannot put in controls over leaching, and its carbon footprint. It is simply a lack of resolve by the government and lack of leadership by the industry. The long term damage is now being felt with climate change across the world. What will be the cost of that – what was the cost of the flooding in Calgary….? Time to wake up…

    • Michael Allan
      September 18, 2014

      Response to Bill,

      It is all about saving money. The oil companies want to make as much profit as possible, being environmentally responsible costs them money, and Stephen Harper doesn’t care about the environment.

  8. Ana Élia
    September 17, 2014

    Imagens imressionantes, pela beleza cromática, pela beleza gráfica, mas sobretudo pelo horror da transformação operada pelo homem na sua ganancia cega de energia e poder.
    Ainda bem que fotografaram!

  9. Terry Kirkland
    September 16, 2014

    The photos are stark. They reveal only a small part of this earth massacre. Reclamations efforts to date are miniscule compared to disturbed land. Tailing ponds are know to leak into the Athabasca River. The aboriginal families north of the plant suffer the consequences of this devastation and pollution. Provincial and Federal Govt’s turn a blind eye to the pollution and collect paltry royalties for the product. Hence the rush to remove as much as possible before Albertans demand a fair return for their resources. It is only a matter of time before a major dike break pollutes every river and lake to the Artic ocean. Truly a Canadian embarrassment.

  10. ijaz ul haq
    September 16, 2014

    nice photos i like them very much

  11. Catherine Huff
    September 15, 2014

    Why is it only opponents refer to the Alberta Oilsands as ” tarsands”

  12. Yasmin Abdel Monem
    September 15, 2014

    Congratulations to the photographer! I think anyone who can see & read has got the message! Yet, it is a great work of art & photography.

  13. Bruce Lounds
    September 15, 2014

    Another example of distortion. Where are the pictures of the land the has already been reclaimed? The mines are temporary and the land will be reclaimed back to a state close to the original. This is not a permanent condition.

  14. John Claasen
    September 14, 2014

    Striking images and great photos, thanks. Can you comment on the amazing contrasting shades of green in the photo of Greenhills coal mine?

  15. Dan
    September 14, 2014

    I agree that the images are gorgeous, but I am sickened by the lazy analysis. Statements like “toxic tailing ponds” and “considerable health risks” add more heat than light. What are the toxins, and to whom do they pose a health risk? How great is that risk? I presume that construction and operation of the dams were approved by the Canadian Regulatory Authorities who employ competent engineers, health and environment professionals to determine what constitutes acceptable risks. The commentary as read gives the impression that wanton environmental destruction was perpetrated by renegade operators in a regulatory vacuum. I expected better commentary from National Geographic.

    • Michael Allan
      September 14, 2014

      Dan, you presume too much. Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t care for factual science that challenges his vision of Canada as an energy superpower. There have been plenty of scientists who have spoken out against Harper’s lack of scientific research into tar sands oil extraction. All of those scientists lost their funding and then their jobs, and their reputations were ruined. Harper has given the oil companies in Alberta and those exploring the Arctic free reign to exploit the land to produce as much oil as they can. The sad thing is that Harper is actually selling the oil at dirt cheap prices to get buyers and profit as quickly as possible. If you research on any major Canadian newspaper about Harper and tar sands, you will see a very shocking story.

      • Dan
        September 15, 2014

        Reply to Michael Allen. Thanks for your correction. I erroneously presumed that Canada is a mature democracy and a developed country, where the elected government acted in accordance with the wishes of its constituents. Sorry to be so presumptuous.

  16. Rob Hughes
    September 14, 2014

    Stunning photos of stunning devastation! I worked in one of the refineries for a few months as a business analyst. I lived in town and drove 8o kms. to the refinery each morning. About 30 kms. from the plant I would develop a headache that would stay with me all day. I had to drive by those tailing ponds every day. The smell of the air was indescribable; I just knew it was not good. When I asked the Health and Safety Officer what I was breathing, “the smell of money” was the answer!

    I also visited one of the reclaimed areas. The company had, to it’s credit, returned a vast area to it original state (more or less). That said, the risk of a major environmental disaster can’t be downplayed.

  17. Sandy Z
    September 14, 2014

    Stunning images that tell a tragic story. I try everyday to decrease my energy needs. I wish everyone was conscious of their footprint and would take responsible steps to recycle, reuse or just not buy. With that said, I don’t see how we can reverse or slow down the destruction of our wild places, as shown in these images, until the demand for energy goes down. So I made a decision earlier in my life to not have kids. I will die knowing that I did my best to have the smallest impact upon this beautiful earth that provides me a place to live. I am not saying this is for everyone, I am just saying it is a choice. It is my responsibility to gather information, keep an open mind and make conscious decisions based on the best available scientific documentation at the time. I hope going forward more and more people feel the same responsibility and give the planet and our wildlife neighbors a break.

  18. Will Ramage
    September 14, 2014

    It is a wonder what we will destroy for the almighty dollar. Thank you for showing the world what we are doing to our land here in Canada

  19. Ivan
    September 14, 2014

    A picture is worth a thousand words
    fossil fuel,have the positive impact of energy on our standard of living around the world.S
    hocking reality of what we are doing to what was once a pristine wilderness. . It shows the dilemma we face in balancing economic activities against preservation.
    We have to find cheaper,stable and cleaner sustainable energy.

  20. Stephen Van Dusen
    September 14, 2014

    Fantastic images!
    May they shed light on our complicity and inspire positive change!

  21. T. Michael Loftus
    September 14, 2014

    At 57 years of age and with a wife of 42 I realize how fast we are seeing the destruction of what was a beautiful world. Living in Montana I witness the rush of the oil industry. For my wife’s future I am truly afraid.

  22. Gordon Knight
    September 14, 2014

    The worst kind of environmental hypocrite is one who does not clean up toxic dumps in their backyard before criticizing someone elses. What are you doing about the huge dumps of toxic coal ash and the pollution in streams in Appalachia? They spill out in near by rivers periodically.

  23. Michael Allan
    September 14, 2014

    Responding to Anne Ominous comments. The artist never States that carbon is a pollutant. The two examples he uses of the wetlands and the boreal forest are two examples of natural carbon storage. At no time in those examples does he state that they are polluting the environment.

  24. Michael Allan
    September 14, 2014

    These images are amazing. All art is thought provoking. People can take from these images what they want. The reality of oil extraction is that so much of what we own today and how we go about our daily lives is made possible by oil. We tend to forget that when we get idealistic and emotional about what’s happening to our wilderness. The artist mentions this point as well when he talks about using the helicopter or plane to do his aerial photography. We need to take care of our wilderness, but don’t be dillutional in thinking that we can suddenly stop using oil, it isn’t that simple. Nothing in life is ever that simple.

  25. dave
    September 14, 2014

    It is good to ask questions. It is fine to have a opinion. As a Canadian I am pleased we are able to meet our energy needs and even to help meet the needs of others through out the world. That having been said, we need to understand the costs to our land and people. This is a fine way to help us understand what is being done to achieve our desire to be and energy provider. It is our responsibility to take the information provided and make choices that will balance our needs and desires and at the same time not trade away the future of our environment.

  26. jitu
    September 14, 2014

    beautiful nature

  27. Ralph Shirts
    September 14, 2014

    Beautiful photography. However, insinuating that the Alberta oil sands are the source of impacts on our environment is irresponsible. It like a little kid blaming their sibling for making a mess. Everyone who consumes energy shares the responsibility. Also there is no balance as to the positive impact of energy on our standard of living around the world. Perhaps the photographer should have included a shot of one of the reclaimed areas as a reflection on how humans can be responsible.

  28. Jeanie
    September 14, 2014

    The photos are stunning…in their shocking reality of what we are doing to what was once a pristine wilderness. I have been in this area back some years before the gouging of the land. If these pictures are stark or beautiful as they speak to the complexity of “trade-offs”, the photos before the devastation were breathtaking in their untouched beauty. I feel an array of emotions when I see these.

  29. Phyllis Angella~
    September 14, 2014

    A picture is worth a thousand words. Thank you for providing this beautiful Art to let us ponder our methods of energy production and it’s consequences to our magnificent World. As We raise Our Conciousness to be in tune with our environment, new approaches can come to Light.

  30. Kay Edwards
    September 13, 2014

    These photo’s seriously put over the terrible impact our choices are having on our amazing planet.

  31. rubenhranilovic@gmail.com
    September 9, 2014

    admiro tan espectaculares fotografias.

  32. prashant
    September 8, 2014

    reallllllly amazing photography I like alll of these photo

  33. nay win
    September 7, 2014

    I like it photos.

  34. Munukur SridharanChettiar
    September 4, 2014

    Beautiful Photos of Nature.

  35. G.A.S.
    September 2, 2014

    Great photography with smooth environmental apocalyptic views & assumptions presented throughout.

  36. David Fung
    September 2, 2014

    These images are beautiful and thought provoking. It shows the dilemma we face in balancing economic activities against preservation.

  37. gianlabadeca
    September 2, 2014

    I like Very much this post ! Thank You !

  38. Anne Ominous
    August 31, 2014

    Your insinuation that “carbon” is a pollutant is an ignorant thing to say.

    Carbon is no more harmful than everyday rocks. Its association with CO2 and other compounds that contain carbon are no more justification for demonizing it than it would be to demonize oxygen because it’s part of hydrochloric acid.

    The pictures are great. The environmental damage terrible. But stop spreading stupid propaganda. Carbon is not, and never has been, an environmental issue.

  39. Marjo
    August 31, 2014

    Image speaks louder than words, only “blind ans deaft” couldnot understand thé dévastation!! (This is nous attact on blind ou deaft, but a reminder on people who chose mot tout sée or head!) look at thé color or thé show!

  40. robert kiernan
    August 31, 2014

    The pictures are beautiful. The poisoning of the Earth disgusting. Keeping a visual record very important.

  41. lolamarina
    August 30, 2014

    If we continue to expand destructive extractive operations such as this one, we will be judged harshly by future generations.

  42. Haili Li
    August 30, 2014

    The photos themselves are real art. For huge industry like fossil fuel, the ultimate way is to find cheaper,stable and cleaner sustainable energy. The statistic that matters the most to the policy maker are mostly budget numbers.

  43. erbPIX™
    August 29, 2014

    Very effective application of photography to create an awareness of the vastness of these operations that would be difficult for words to accomplish.

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