On This Day in 1859

America Entered the Oil Business With its First Big-Money Strike

On August 27, 1859, entrepreneur Edwin Drake struck oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania, sparking a “black gold” rush across America, that transformed global industry and catalyzed the arts and culture over the next century-and-a-half. With there barely an industry today not running on crude, the black stuff and its impact has been the subject of iconic imagery ever since. While the dynamic geometry of early Modernist Charles Sheeler's photographs captured the beauty within America's heroic nascent industrialization, more recently Edward Burtynsky's macroscopic lens has offered us an epic view on manufactured and post-industrial landscapes across the globe. Last year, the ecological collateral of petroleum was controversially rendered in Steven Meisel's Vogue Italia shoot of an oil-drenched Kristen McMenamy mimicking a distressed Gulf of Mexico seabird after the BP disaster. Perhaps the most poignant meditation on the subject, however, is Richard Wilson’s “20:50” installation that filled the basement of London’s Saatchi Gallery with oil to create a spotless black mirror, offering a troubling yet mesmerizing mass from which it was hard to turn away. As a reflection of modernity, it is worth remembering famed oil-heir John Paul Getty's quip on the secret of success, "Rise early, work hard, strike oil.”

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