PDN Photo of the Day

Spilling Oil, Drop by Drop

Fabian Oefner’s recent series “Oil Spill” grew out of his interest in iridescence, that shimmer of color caused by differential refraction of light waves that changes with the angle its viewed from. His first exploration of the phenomena began with studies of giant bubbles, which captured the swirls of color that appear briefly on their surface. For “Oil Spill,” Oefner worked on a smaller scale, photographing drops of gasoline (or petrol, as he calls it) as they fall in water and form round shapes, often with a black void at their center. The resulting abstractions suggest anything from distant galaxies to human irises to cellular structures, all in vivid rainbow hues. The artist tells PDN about his project and his process in an edited interview.

PDN: How did you become interested in this subject?
Fabian Oefner: The particular reason I was interested in petrol was that I saw an oil puddle at my feet and I thought, ‘That looks quiet interesting.’ I thought of recreating the effect in a controlled environment, and seeing what kind of results I could achieve. [To make the images] basically it is a black board made of wood covered with a thin layer of water. On top of that, with the aide of a syringe you add the petrol,  and as it hits the water it spreads into these fine looking structures and forms.

PDN: Does it always make that round shape with a hole in the middle?
F.O.: The round shape is made by the way the petrol is added to the black board. The black circle in the middle, I cannot tell you exactly how I did that—it’s sort of a work secret. But because of the black circle, you get that round shape all the time. So you control it, but then again it’s surprising where the holes exactly appear. To me it’s a lot of fun because I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I just prepare everything and then point the camera at it.

PDN: Do different kinds of petrol make different-looking images?
F.O.: All mineral-based substances, like petrol or other oil-based substances, create the effect. As the layer of petrol starts to evaporate, it gets thinner and therefore the colors start to change. It usually starts with blue and green and then turns into warmer colors like orange, yellow, and then disappears again. The whole thing takes maybe 20 seconds before the colors disappear again. The light is really crucial because the colors only appear if you light it properly. The ingoing angle and the outgoing angle and the camera have to be at the right angle. It’s a lot of experimentation. As a matter of fact I didn’t even use a camera when I started, I just played around with the materials, with the petrol and the light, and saw how I could achieve different results. I liked the circle shapes the best. [When I began recording them] I made maybe 500 images and only released 10. The real difficulty in this project is to select the best ones.

PDN: What were your criteria for picking the best ones?
F.O.: Well first of all, I took the images in February, and then I let them be for two or three months and didn’t look at them at all. [The break] sharpens your eye and you feel like you can make a selection more clearly. It’s difficult to tell what exactly what you’re looking for—it’s a gut feeling.

PDN: When you came back to them, was it clear which ones you wanted to pick?
F.O.: From the ten images, I would say eight were really clear. I had a strong feeling that they look tremendously beautiful, and other people might like them as well. There’s always one or two question marks.

PDN: It’s easy to read into the images and compare them to pictures of space or eyes—is that something you intended?
F.O.: It’s not what I see, but love when people tell me what they see, because there are so many different ways you could look at the images. It’s one of the things that makes them fascinating. You can ask for a rational explanation of what it is – it’s a bit of petrol on a small piece of wood, but then again it could be a gigantic star explosion or like you said, the earth from space. I like that.

PDN: There’s also the associations that belong to petrol itself, as a commodity, as driver of global politics and climate change—is that meaning part of your thinking about the series?
F.O.: I think the visual quality is in the foreground, from my point of view. But then I don’t think the artist’s point of view is the most important point of view, when it comes to these works.

Related Stories:
Like Oil and Water
Toxic Rainbows in the Gowanus Canal
Edward Burtynsky: Ecomomies of Scale

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Fine Art


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