Climate change will force humans to cut their dependency on fossil fuels or the consequences will be catastrophic. But how can we really grasp and put our consumption of oil into a relatable context? Numbers as such millions of oil barrels produced per year don’t seem to make sense to anyone outside of the oil industry. This project aims at making sense of gasoline consumption from a local standpoint.

If we travel back a tiny distance in the history of the human race, oil and its favorite derivative, gasoline were nowhere to be seen, not even imagined. The invention of steam power (powered by oil’s sibling fossil fuel, coal) defined the start of the industrial age. But the widespread use of this convenient black liquid really hit the accelerator and drove us into the modern age. Fueled by oil products, the twentieth century saw a pace of ever-increasing technological gains that could hardly be imagined by earlier generations. The widespread success of oil can make it easy to forget that that pace of things would never have happened without this energy source that is now so commonly dispensed on so many street corners. 

On the downside, the climate-shifting potential of this energy boon has been studied long before its widespread adoption. By 1896, Svante Arrheius, a Swedish scientist, understood CO2’s heating properties. He wondered when the effects of carbon dioxide would affect our planet’s climate. For context, remember that the Ford Model T debuted twelve years later, in 1908.

By the time of this writing, the oil industry has succeeded in providing consumers with an apparently wide array of choices, Exxon or Texaco, Shell or Total, Unleaded or Premium, and of course all the various exciting engine-cleaning additives. Until the 1970’s these choices also included leaded gasoline with all the damage it brought.

Long forgotten are the common streetcar systems in major American cities that were purchased by these same corporations only to be scrapped. Recently it has come out that these same industries did their own studies of climate change, which they subsequently suppressed, all this starting decades ago.

How can we take a measure of this global oil industry in a way that brings it down somewhat to a human scale? Let’s take a look at an arbitrary five-mile radius (a walkable distance). Living in the capital city of Texas, the center of the circle is within close proximity of the lovely Lady Bird Wildflower Center. How many gas stations can be found within these 78.5 square miles? At the current count, we have 47 active filling stations with another three on the way, all delivering to the consumer a powerful fuel that causes so much damage to the climate of our planet and to Life itself.

In 2021 alone, the North-West of the US and Western Canada experienced an unprecedented heatwave bringing temperatures of 116F/46.6C to Portland (Oregon) and 104F/40C reported in British Colombia, Canada, a region that many thought would be spared by climate change. These temperatures are completely out of normal range, glaciers are melting very fast.

Catastrophic flooding hit several European countries and for the first time on record, rain, not snow, fell in Greenland. Many other examples are in the news on a daily basis, showing that extreme weather has become the new normal now, and is happening around the World.  

In 1976, Juan Carlos Pérez Alfonzo (Venezuela’s minister of mines and hydrocarbons 1959-1964) stated:

“Ten years from now, twenty years from now, you will see, oil will bring us ruin… It is the devil’s excrement”.

~ Juan Carlos Pérez Alfonzo

Clinging to oil will not lead us anywhere. We humans must break our dependence on oil and its impact on public health, climate, biodiversity, and wellbeing of many people. The solutions lie ahead of us: diversifying our sources of energy, redefining mobility, transforming cities, societies, and economies for sustainability are our most important duties.

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With vision, commitment and creativity, we can take on this huge challenge and instead evolve and improve our way of life, to leave a smaller footprint behind us. Humans of today must succeed for the future generations of all living forms, as we know Earth is unique. 

About the project

This project started with the intention to develop a concrete understanding of gasoline consumption. In light of the impact of humans on planet Earth, changing societies is a necessity. Gasoline is today the core fuel for transportation.

The project also started with the vision of a book as a collection of a single black and white photograph for each filling station found in the selected area.

Why black and white? It expresses my feelings about the complex impact of gasoline on our lives. There’s no space for colors in these images, only dark tones and high contrast. To achieve this, I used Kodak Tri-X 400 pushed 2 stops (i.e. an exposure index of 1600). This film stock’s exposure latitude helps for high contrast scenes.

Pushing film increases grain. Although grain is a design element for these pictures, I wanted to keep the impact of grain in check, so medium format film seemed a good choice (grain impact in 35mm in much higher). Medium format also provides more flexibility in terms of print size: an exhibition would be fantastic!

I used my Hasselblad 501cm and a few lenses (Distagon C 50mm f/4, Planar CFE 80mm f/2.8, Sonnar CF 150mm f/4, Sonnar C 250mm f/5.6) and a couple of film backs. Some compositions required a panoramic form factor; for those, I used an Intrepid 4×5 with a 6×17 DaYi back.

All rolls were developed in my “kitchen darkroom” with Kodak HC-110 or ILFORD DD-X, Kodak stop bath and ILFORD Rapid Fixer. The chemical waste was brought for recycling to Holland Photo, a local film processing business. The images were scanned with an Epson Perfection Pro v850 and then processed with Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.

For the book, Adobe InDesign was used and at this stage, I have a couple of test prints, which are nice. The next (and final?) step is to get the book published. I am looking for a publisher in Austin, Texas.

Thanks for reading,

~ Yves

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About the author

Yves Vandervennet

I am a photographer and maker based in Austin, Texas, USA. My photographic interests focus on the natural and urban landscape, the impacts of modern society on planet Earth. Aside from photography, I also make things to support my photographic work (woodworking...

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  1. Big oil did not kill the streetcar systems in major American cities. Other factors actually were in play.
    See this wikipedia entry General_Motors_streetcar_conspiracy. They were convicted as monopolists « for the sale of buses, fuel, and supplies », but not for transit systems.

  2. Worth publishing. You’re in « good company »

    Gasoline stations have been a rich source: the 1960’s seminal work by Edward Ruscha «  Twentysix Gasoline Stations » 1963 (a book, in the Tate {Modern}), reprised in books by Xavier Aragonés of Catalan stations and by Eric Tabuchi of French stations.

  3. Loved your photos, could have done without the lecture. Any intelligent person already knows what fossil fuels have done and are doing. The rest are too brainwashed to believe you so don’t waste your breath and our time. Just my opinion.

  4. I was watching youtube channel called “Not just bikes” and I could not belive how bad US cities are for everything other than driving. Wide fast roads with no sidewaks and bike lanes and huge parking lots everywhere. Country for cars not humans