The oil stays in the picture

The tar sands, and a war of images

Seen from above, in photographs and films by Edward Burtynsky or Peter Mettler, the Alberta tar sands appear as Earth-scale inkblots, their forests cut clear and soil scraped clean, their ink spilled into smooth tailing ponds carved out in straight lines and graceful curves. They are at once beautiful and terrifying, geometric and enigmatic, lyrical and dreadful. In a word: sublime.

Burtynsky has described his oil photographs as “a bit like a Rorschach test.” Where some see the power of human ingenuity and economic opportunity, others see environmental destruction and exploitation. It’s a sensible explanation, but it also understates the power of these images. Photographs may be open to interpretation, but they also guide it. Oil companies have long known this and have learned that some images and interpretations should simply be avoided. Not surprisingly, many have been reticent to allow photographers to...