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Crude Exposures: Photographing Oil in the "American Century"

Fri, March 31, 8:30 to 10:00am, The Drake Hotel, Superior

Session Submission Type: Panel


The extraction, trade, and consumption of oil dramatically changed American lives and landscapes in the 20th century. This panel explores the intersection of the photographic representation of that transformation with discourses of family, community, and nation at three moments of crisis in the United States. It suggests that many of the century’s material and ideological transformations are inextricably linked to each other and to the ascendancy of oil.

Emily Roehl examines how “oil infrastructure, labor, and domestic life” intersect in a photo story from the Standard Oil Company photographic project, which produced public relations images under the direction of Roy Stryker during and after World War II. The project illustrates the oil industry’s efforts to naturalize its role in American life by visually linking its transformation of the land to “intimate spaces of home and affect.”

Pollyanna Rhee explores how images of the 1969 Union Oil Company spill near Santa Barbara, California, disrupted the community’s self-image as a “climatic and aesthetic haven.” Distressing photographs of land and sea devastated by oil “destabilized Santa Barbara’s sense of place” and forced its residents to confront their dependence on offshore oil infrastructure, which had contributed to its social and economic success at great environmental cost.

Caleb Wellum uses the EPA’s “Documerica” photography project to query the state’s uncertain representation of oil during the 1970s energy crisis. Photographer John Messina’s assignment on a Louisiana fishing community threatened by oil infrastructures illustrates how Documerica’s nostalgia for a rural, pre-carbon past prevented it from grasping the centrality of petro-modernity to US society and, therefore, to an effective environmental politics.

As a panel, these papers explore how the production and circulation of oil transformed local land and waterscapes and how different interests photographed those transformations to construct or disrupt narratives of place and progress.

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