what is petrography?
Petrography is literally petroleum-photography: the creation of images through the interaction of sunlight and the heavy petroleum product known as bitumen, which is the main source of the vast supplies of oil in Canada’s Athabasca tar sands region. This new, yet also very old, process of image-making was begun (or more accurately, repurposed) by Warren Cariou in 2014, using bitumen gathered from the banks of the Athabasca river, not far from his home town. Warren has now created a series of images depicting the effects of oil sands industrial development, using Athabasca bitumen itself as the medium.
Petrography: seeing through oil
The image at the top of this page, “Suncor Viewed from the Athabasa,” is a photograph created by the action of sunlight upon tar sands bitumen. I gathered this bitumen in 2013 on the shores of the Athabasca River, not far from the gigantic heavy crude operations that have for decades been transforming the environment, the economy and the culture of Canada. At that time, I had been writing and making films about the devastation that tar sands production had brought to the Aboriginal communities of Alberta and Saskatchewan, but I had decided that I wanted to try something new in my approach to this toxic, valuable and fascinating substance: I wanted to work directly with the tar material itself, to create something out of it. My plan was to undertake experiments inspired by the earliest history of photography, with the hope of creating images of the Athabasca tar sands mines that were made with the tar itself. This practice, which I have called petrography, is an embodied attempt to utilize petroleum as a medium of representation—to see the world quite literally through a film of heavy crude oil. I hope the resulting view will give us new perspectives on the pervasiveness and the symbolic potency of petroleum in contemporary culture.
But how could oil make a photographic image? Is there some trickery involved in this?
The answer to these questions is as old as photography itself. When Nicephore Niepce created what is now known as the first photograph in 1826 or 1827, the active ingredient in his experimental process was a substance called bitumen of Judea. Since my undergraduate years I have been fascinated by Niepce’s discovery, and so I suppose it was inevitable that I would at some point make the connection between bitumen of Judea and the heavy oil that lurked in the ground near my home town. Could it be, I wondered one day, that the bitumen in the Athabasca tar sands was the same kind of substance as Niepce’s bitumen of Judea? And if so, was it possible that Athabasca bitumen could be used to make photographs?
At first this was little more than idle speculation, and I didn’t really imagine that I would be able to do such a thing myself. But as I began to delve deeper into the history of Niepce’s work, my curiosity got the better of me and I sent an email to Dr. Dusan Stulik, a Senior Research Scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute and one of the world’s experts on Niepce’s photographic process. I asked Dusan if my idea had any chance of succeeding. He responded immediately, and I was surprised by his enthusiasm. Within hours we were talking on the phone, and he was explaining the photosensitive properties of bitumen.
“This should work, definitely,” he said. “All bitumens are photosensitive to some degree. What you’ll need to do is experiment to find the proper exposure time and the right thickness of your bitumen mixture.”
And so, with Dusan’s encouragement and invaluable advice, I began my quest to recreate Nicéphore Niepce’s photographic process using bitumen from the tar sands. It was a long and uncertain journey, aided by the research skills and cameraderie of my wonderful research assistants Teddy Zegeye-Gebrehiwot, Sabrina Mark and Ryan Duplassie. During the research phase of the project, we were particularly helped by the scientific papers of Dr. Jean-Louis Marignier as well as many texts, videos and archival materials presented by curators at museums such as the Harry Ransom Center, the Getty Museum and Musée Nicéphore Niepce. We also learned from the work of some contemporary “alternative process” photographers who have posted accounts of their practices online. There were many failures and setbacks in our experiments, but in June of 2014 we had our first small successes, and as the summer progressed we were able to improve our process until we had a small number of "keepers". By the end of October, there were enough of these keepers to constitute a small body of work.
The making of a petrograph
It all begins with tar sands bitumen, which by its nature contains sand and other particulate that must be removed before it can be spread on a photographic plate. After gathering the bitumen, I place the material in a pot half-filled with boiling water, and I boil that mixture for hours, periodically skimming the tar that rises to the surface of the water. After days of this painstaking work, I have collected enough bitumen for a summer of petrography. At this point the tar is a very thick consistency, significantly thicker than roofing tar, and it smells exactly like the toxic wasteland from which it came.
Once I have the tar, I follow Nicephore Niepce’s practice as outlined in his Memoir on the Heliograph. I mix the bitumen with oil of lavender, and then I spread a thin coating of this mixture on a highly polished metal plate. I have experimented with many kinds of metal and I have found that mirrored aluminum yields the best images. I then heat the coated plate to a temperature of about 200 degrees F, which “sets” the bitumen-lavender oil mixture into a semi-hard surface that is reminiscent of a photographic emulsion.
After the plate has cooled, I make a contact print by placing a digital transparency of my chosen image on top of the plate and then leaving the plate in direct sunlight for approximately 16 hours. (For anyone familiar with recent practices in alternative process photography, my transparency is much like a “digital negative” used in palladium printing, except that it is not a negative: the image is a positive.) Obviously, this step is very different from what Niepce did when he created the first photograph, which was exposed in a small purpose-built camera. My choice to make contact prints is based on practical considerations. It is extremely difficult to produce an image using a camera rather than a contact print, and in fact I am not aware of anyone who has successfully done this since Niepce himself. Even if it could be done, the exposure time with Athabasca bitumen would be many days, possibly even weeks—and I am simply unable to leave a camera for such long periods in the places where I want to make a petrograph. By using a contact print method I am able to create petrographs taken from many different perspectives, including aerial shots and images of moving subjects.
Once the contact print has been exposed to about 16 hours of direct sunlight, the transparency is removed and the image is developed using a mixture of kerosene and lavender oil. When this developer is applied, the parts of the bitumen emulsion that have received the most sunlight remain intact, while the parts that have received less light are progressively dissolved away. The result is a golden coloured monochrome image that is not so much “black and white” as it is “shiny and matte,” with tiny dots of material dissolved away to create the half-tones of the scene. The developing stage is a critical one, and many petrographs are ruined at this point, when the action of the developer on the surface can cause the image to lift, melt or distort. On average, only about 30% of petrographs remain intact through the developing process. Those that do survive this treatment are then set aside in a well-ventilated area for about two months in order for the kerosene to fully evaporate and the bitumen emulsion to harden. At this point, the petrograph is finished and ready for framing and display.
Viewing the petrograph
Like Niepce’s first photograph, petrographs are extremely difficult to reproduce photographically, and in fact I would say they cannot be adequately captured in a single still image. One reason for this is that petrographs are essentially imprinted on mirrors, just as Niepce’s first photograph was. The highly reflective surface of the metal plate underneath the emulsion means that viewers see not only the image itself, but also darkened, petroleum-coated reflections of their own surroundings, and even their own faces. Each viewer’s particular and ever-shifting point of view is inevitably a part of the petrograph. In addition, the image within the bitumen medium is only visible from certain viewing angles, much like a dageurreotype. From some points of view, the petrograph looks simply like a plate smeared with an undifferentiated dark substance. The viewer must move side to side, or up and down, to find the image as it emerges in the play of reflected light from the surrounding space. The petrograph can also change from a positive to a negative image depending upon the levels of light and dark in the reflected background. Thus the petrograph is evanescent and multi-layered, its primary image always overlaid with fleeting glimpses of the viewer and his or her surroundings. It is a medium that places us, and our contexts, upon a screen of petroleum.
The images on this page and in the gallery are in a sense only approximations or renditions of the petrographs, each seen from one particular angle. Gif files such as the ones at right give a better indication of how the play of lighting affects our experience of the petrograph. Still, even this is not the same as viewing the petrograph in situ, where the viewer sees reflections of the particular surroundings as well as his or her own face.
No two petrographs are the same, even if they are created from the same digital transparency. This is because the medium itself introduces unpredictable elements into the process. The bitumen is unrefined and therefore not entirely consistent from one application to another. The coating of the bitumen-lavender oil mixture is often slightly thicker or thinner from one petrograph to the next, and the exact level of heat is also difficult to control (the mixture turns darker with higher temperatures). Often, small bare spots arise spontaneously on the mixture when it is being heated, or motes of dust land on the plate and bond with the mixture as it is hardening. When the image is being developed, it can be affected by the directional flow of the developer on the plate, by the ambient temperature, and even by wind. Although this unpredictability has created some frustration in my attempts to systematize and refine the process of petrograph creation, I have come to embrace it as a necessary and vital part of the medium. I like to think of it as the tar's contribution to the image. I can't make the tar do something it doesn't "want" to do, but that doesn't have to be viewed as a drawback or limitation. Instead, the tar's contribution is what makes each iteration of an image visibly unique. And I like how this disrupts the idea of artistic intention and reminds us that the medium always has a great deal of influence on the way an image is created. In my Phd thesis on William Blake's invented printing techniques, I described his relationship to his medium as one of struggle but also collaboration. I feel the same way about my engagement with the medium of petrography.
Sometimes, the unpredictable aspects of petrograph production can lead to serendipitous happenings that resonate in new ways with the meanings of petroleum in our culture . For example, when I was developing the petrograph, “Strip Mine Horizon to Horizon,” which depicts the devastated landscape of a tar sands mine, a small fly landed on the still-wet plate and became stuck fast in the medium. The fly died almost immediately (not surprisingly) but its corpse remained visible on the surface of the plate. I could have picked it out with minimal effect on the image, but I decided to leave it there, because it had become part of the image’s meaning. It reminded me of the ducks that died in Syncrude’s tailings ponds in 2008, and the prehistoric animals that were trapped and preserved in the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, not far from one of the world’s first sites of industrialized oil production. It also reminded me of the other, supposedly more intelligent, organisms that have gotten themselves similarly entangled in the glittering promise of oil.
the toxic medium
I came to a new understanding of the bitumen as soon as I began to work with it in close quarters—its smell guaranteed that it could no longer be an abstract concept. “This is toxic shit,” I remember saying to myself on the first day of our petrography experiments (which we conducted indoors, for that one time only). I had already known that the tar smelled awful, and that the air around the tar sands plants was a miasma of headache-inducing vapours, but somehow I hadn’t bargained for the ongoing foulness of my chosen medium, as a problem I would have to contend with every time I worked with it. I had imagined that the lavender oil would cover the smell or neutralize it, but in fact the opposite happened: the lavender oil made the tar more volatile, magnifying its stench, and when the mixture was heated up on the plate to create the hardened emulsion, it became almost unbearably acrid and offensive. I remember feeling light-headed and headachy for hours after that first session. After that, we moved to a much better-ventilated area and I began to insist that my assistants and I wear respirators while cooking the emulsion and developing the plates.
Fortunately, when the petrographs are dry, they no longer give off any smell. But every time I make more of them, my initial sense of pleasure of at creating something new—and being able to muck about in the tar like a child—is tempered by disgust, caution and a bit of worry. What am I releasing into the world in order to create these images? What am I taking into my own body?
Of course, many artistic processes involve hazardous materials, so my ambivalence is probably not an unusual reaction. The bitumen mixture is likely no more dangerous than oil-based paint or any number of other common household chemicals. But I am hypersensitive about this, first because I simply hate the smell of it and second because I have learned a lot in the last few years about the toxic effects that petroleum can have in the environment.
Yes, oil is toxic. We all know that. We have all smelled gasoline and diesel and jet fuel—and each pungent scent is a kind of knowledge. We know what happens if you leave the car running in the garage. We understand that petroleum is dangerous, and yet we use it virtually every day. Why would we do that? Of course it’s because of the things it enables—the wonders it makes possible. We live with the potential for toxicity (and we do our best to repress that knowledge) because we feel that the benefits outweigh the dangers. I am interested in that measurement of risk we all implicitly make in our daily lives, that knowledge-but-not-acknowledgment. It is where my art has always been situated, at least in relation to petroleum. I believe that this ambivalence about energy—fearing its negative consequences but needing its magic—is endemic in contemporary globalized culture.
Most artists, activists and scholars who engage with the politics of petroleum are focused on its negative consequences—and for very good good reasons—but sometimes they tend to forget the role of pleasure in all this. Aesthetic pleasure and other more elemental kinds. The pleasure of playing in the mud, for example, or the pleasure of stepping on the accelerator and feeling a surge of acceleration. If we didn’t derive multiplicitous forms of pleasure from our relationship to petroleum, we would find it much easier to disengage from it now that we have a better understanding of how dangerous it is, not only for individuals working in close proximity to it but also for much of the life on this planet. My project touches on the pleasure side of that relationship in some ways, despite my narratives of fear, disgust and caution regarding my interactions with the tar. I enjoy making the petrographs, and I think that sometimes, from certain angles, they are beautiful, though at other times they look like visual abominations—simply like filth smeared on a plate. It is in that play between the beautiful and the repugnant that petroculture oscillates.
The oil companies in the Athabasca region practice what they call “remediation” of the massive disruptions that their industrial development has caused in the boreal ecosystem. Remediation in this sense derives from the word “remedy,” and it suggests that the companies intend to fix the damage they have done—by rebuilding the ecosystems after the strip mining and bitumen processing is finished. It is a laudable goal, but I fear that this kind of remediation is less about remedy and more about the media and public relations—that it is a strategy of what I would call “re-mediation,” not fixing the damage but covering it up with a thin simulation of what was there before. Turning the land itself into a kind of landscape painting, a façade of nature. I am sure there is more to it than this, and that the practice of remediation is doing some good in the environment, but still I worry that it is being marketed as a cure-all for the incalculable damage that is being inflicted. The message of corporate remediation is essentially that we can have the beautiful and useful things that petroleum brings us, and we don’t have to worry about the ugly side. Those toxic residues can be soaked up, the drained swamps can be reinstalled, the lakes can be rebuilt and purified.
In opposition to that kind of thinking, I see petrography as an alternate mode of re-mediation, one that reveals rather than covering up. It doesn’t purport to remedy anything, but it re-mediates by diverting a small amount of bitumen out of the commercial realm of the energy industry and repurposing it into a medium of representation, one that continues to remind us of the toxic as well as the pleasurable aspects of our relationship to petroleum. By showing us our environment and ourselves reflected in a sheen of oil, I hope that petrographs might serve as mirrors of contemplation in the age of petroleum.