Louis Helbig’s Beautiful Destruction: A Unique View of Our Past, Present, and Future
Ignite Channel, September 12, 2014
by Pamela Stewart
At first glance, Louis Helbig’s images are stunningly beautiful, but take a closer look. Slick Sunset is a photograph of an Alberta oil sands tailings pond filled with residual bitumen.
Louis Helbig has married his love of flying and photography and created an art form that surprises, even shocks us. His images encourage us to talk about our relationship with the earth and with each other.
Louis is a Canadian aerial photographer. His latest project is called “Beautiful Destruction – Alberta Tar/Oil Sands.” Louis started flying over the area in 2008 and he created beautiful images that belie the impression we have on the ground of the devastation we are causing the earth in our search for energy.
Louis’ project “Sunken Villages” shows us the communities destroyed by the St Lawrence Seaway in 1958. Entire towns on both sides of the border were inundated and people were forced from their homes.
Louis was born in Toronto and raised in Williams Lake, BC. He was a member of Canada’s national Nordic ski team and a Canadian champion. The aerial photographer has a BA from McGill University and an MSc from the London School of Economics. He previously worked for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs. Louis was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists in 2010. His work has been exhibited in many fine art galleries and is held in public and private collections around the world, including the Ontario Government Art Collection.
Louis and his partner, Kristin Reimer, have a new baby, Oscar. They live in Ottawa.
Louis was kind enough to spend time talking to us about his view from the air and his project Beautiful Destruction.
You are quite the storyteller with images. I love aerial photography. There is something so special about looking at earth from the air. It is a work of art.
Louis: There is something about that perspective. I guess it sounds a bit clichéd, but when we take the things we normally see and look at them from a different angle, they can suddenly resonate in a very different way for us. With the Alberta Tar Sands/Oil Sands, what I do seems to open a different angle to that whole topic, at a number of levels. It is similar for the Sunken Villages project. The only angle from which you can really photograph, see, and understand them is from the air. Seeing them underwater doesn’t work in the same way, you loose the overarching sense that puts the road or a foundation or other things that are underwater together as a whole.
How do you fly and take photos at the same time?
Louis: That’s one of the most frequently asked questions. A properly designed airplane, once it’s what we call “trimmed,” will pretty much fly itself. There are such technical challenges as vibration you have to deal with that are absent on the ground. One of the cool things about working in a dynamic environment of a moving aircraft is that you need to act intuitively and quickly. It certainly lends itself to working in the moment and there is not a lot of space for over-thinking.
With the Alberta Tar Sands, everyone knows about it but no one sees it from that perspective.
Louis: The first time we went up was in 2008. They were, you could say, hidden in plain sight. In 2008 and until about 2010 or 2011, they got very little mainstream media coverage in Canada. Despite their importance to us, whether one is for them or against the industrial development, the coverage that one saw in Canada was nowhere near commensurate to the tar/oil sands’ size, environmental impact, or economic importance.
But, there was certainly a cultural impact in the country where you had, and continue to have, this migration of tens of thousands of people to the end of the road in Northern Alberta to make their stake, and make money. They were flying in and flying out from all over the country and around the world. People who want to work and make a living all crowding into over-priced housing in Fort McMurray.
It was this cultural reality that drew me into it in the first place. At that point, most of the substantial coverage was occurring outside of the country in the International media, but not in Canada. It’s only since 2010 or 2011 that we started seeing a lot of coverage about it and that was on the coat-tails of James Cameron, who is a Canadian, but an international personality. The Keystone XL Pipeline controversy in the United States, about this thing that is essentially Canadian, helped to legitimize it in terms of having Canada’s politicians and Canada’s media begin to really explore the oil sands. It was then, maybe, that we began to own it.
That might be hard to believe now given the continual, wall-to-wall coverage now, but that is how it was.
I think it is wonderful that you have essays from some amazing contributors in the book. The images speak for themselves, but having those voices really adds depth to your book. How did you get those people involved?
Louis: It’s been an incremental process and the story of each of the contributors is different. I am amazed, sometimes, when I look at this list of people. I approached them as I try to approach my art work, that I’m trying to use my art, my interpretation of what I have seen from my airplane of the development in northern Alberta, to give people the space to think about and identify with imagery however they might. I try not to proselytize by saying it is a good thing or a bad thing, but as much as possible stand back and let people think for themselves.
I’m very impressed with the people who have made the contribution. There were some individuals who I thought would have contributed who didn’t because they didn’t want to see anything they wrote anywhere close to what their perceived opponents had written. I was a bit taken aback by that. I guess feel if someone has a set of ideas or arguments, they should have enough confidence in their ideas and convictions, especially if there are different arguments than their own. If nothing else, I find it boring to only hear the same thing in ones own echo chamber.
For me, philosophically, it’s been a very interesting experience because I had to think really long and hard as I approached people about why I wanted them to be part of this project, and why I wanted the audience for this book to be able to read their perspective.
I guess this is consistent about how I approach my art in terms of wanting people to respect people and respect what they think and feel rather than standing there and saying this is unequivocally good or bad. My own view is that I think there is some stuff that is less than desirable and there some stuff that is really desirable. Having different ideas and opinions doesn’t preclude bringing rigour to a problem. In fact, the differences might just help with rigour.
One of the things I picked up on when I first traveled to Fort McMurray is that there is incredible human drama there. There is a tension where people with an immediate relationship with the tar sands often and very clearly have conflicted feelings about what they are part of. I guess I didn’t see much of that reflected in sort of the standard industry and government lines nor in the stuff from many of the environmental organizations. But these two sides are often the only prisms through which the oil/tar sands are pushed into the public sphere.
I’ve also included the voices of some other artists. They have a way of zeroing in on the truth, on the drama in this dynamic. Maybe they are better equipped to do so than those with a particular opinion one way or the other.
I have a contribution from Charles Wilkinson, who is a documentary film director and producer out of Vancouver. He put together a documentary called Oil Sands Karaoke where he uses the vehicle of a karaoke contest at Bailey’s, a bar in downtown Fort McMurray, to effectively explore the human drama.
The other artists I sought out were a group called Architect Theatre. They had done a piece called “Highway 63: The Fort Mac Show” about Fort McMurray. For their essay they used a chunk of their script. They went to Fort McMurray in, I think it was 2008 or 2009. They spent six weeks living there and learning about the town. They began developing it at the drama department at the Keyano Community College in Fort McMurray.
I frankly think that theirs is the first serious cultural response to the tar sands/oil sands. When I first saw them doing the show at Carleton University here in Ottawa, I was so impressed with what they had done. The message that they send is one which is complicated, which I think is what all art should be at some level. What they have done is very truthful and complex and I am quite happy they are a part of it.
I am usually on the environmentalist side of things, but we do forget about the human perspective in this. It’s usually about protecting the land against the corporations, but there are the people who need jobs and those who have been displaced from their land, so it is very complicated.
Louis: I can see exactly that. It is something huge and very complicated. In trying to oversimplify it one way or the other, we see it as being an absolute environmental Armageddon or being the thing without which our entire economy will fall apart. Both of these perspectives, in isolation, are fairly meaningless. They don’t speak to what is going on and they leave so much out of the picture. They also lend themselves to conflict and alienation and don’t lend themselves to substantive discourse. I think that is really unfortunate for everyone: for those who are committed and devoted to protecting the environment, as much as for those working to build the industry. My hope is that we can do better than that.
It’s only until we have as Rick George (former Suncor CEO) puts it in his contribution, something of an “adult conversation” where we are truthful with each other about what we are doing that we can change this. We’ve made the oil/tar sands happen. It is part of our culture and it’s an outgrowth of our imagination and how we see the world. We could certainly ask ourselves some questions about that and be much the wiser for it. Until we try and find a place to put all the bits and pieces together, including the different viewpoints, we might be at a loss to substantively address the issues anytime soon.
I am fortunate to be able to put forward my interpretation of SAGD projects parked incongruously in the middle of the boreal forest, or the aesthetically captivating tailings ponds, or those surreal, huge, open pit mines with their millions of dollars of machinery crawling and scraping away at the earth. I hope my interpretation of these things allows space for different people with different viewpoints to find a wee bit of common ground.
I had a big show in 2010 at Ottawa City Hall’s public art gallery, one of the first showings of this work. People would hang out and look at the imagery for a long time and then an hour or a day later, they would come back with a friend and I would hear them explaining to the person what one or another picture meant. At first I was sort of jealous, wanting them to come and ask me, the artist, what it meant. But then a penny dropped, and I realized that they now owned that image in their own imagination, informed with their own experience. It was no longer mine.
Do you ever get people who are disturbed by your beautiful portrayal of destruction?
Louis: There are reactions like that. It’s interesting. On occasion, people are intrigued by this work, but they can’t bring themselves to buy a piece from Beautiful Destruction. They will buy something else. Most people know what they are buying and understand what it is; they revel in the contradictions and the dichotomy and having one of my pieces take them there.
People do sometimes condemn what I have done. They think I am a sell-out and find it very troubling and problematic that I should take beautiful pictures of something so horrible. Conversely, other people see my work as environmental propaganda where, it seems, any image that isn’t faux-green spin is seen as a condemnation of industry. I can’t do anything about that. For some people, the imagery reinforces their preconceptions and they don’t move.
But that is just some people. For many, probably most, the response is more nuanced, thoughtful, and imaginative, and reflects what I am trying to convey – it is contradictory – it is beautiful destruction and there is drama there that we all, in many senses, are party to.
That’s what great art should do, but this is even more polarizing because of the subject matter.
Louis: Ultimately I think there are so many layers to this story.
At one level of analysis, what is going on in northern Alberta can be seen as a continuation of what we have been doing as Europeans since the cod fishery began with the Portuguese in the 1400s. In some respects, I don’t think that the narrative has changed a lot since then. Certainly that’s how I see that Sunken Villages is connected to Alberta, because the narrative that drives these things is similar. That’s one level of analysis. There are so many other areas to reflect on this.
The first essay in the book will be that from Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. He made it very clear to me that the issues are not simple. His community both suffers and benefits from what is going on and his essay reflects that. He represents his community and people and with great integrity. My conversation with him, in his backyard in Fort Chipewyan, validated for me what I’m trying to do here, as an artist and photographer.
The image names will appear in English as well as Denesuline – the language of Allan Adam and the Chipewyan First Nation – and Cree – the language of the Mikisew Cree First Nation – the languages of the people who have lived in this area for thousands of years. Each photograph will also have its geographical coordinates so one can go on Google Earth to see where the photo was taken.
People from around the world make their home in Fort McMurray. It is a special place. A boom town, yes, but also a place where people who are working to build their community just as we all do wherever we might live.
I had never even heard about those Sunken Villages before. That was amazing and incredible to read. I don’t think a lot of people know about that.
Louis: One of the most astounding things about that story is how something that so completely dominated the public, as well as the official public imagination at the time of the Seaway construction, could so rapidly disappear from our culture and our history. There are people of a certain age who, in the 1950s and early 1960s, learned about this, across the entire British Commonwealth. Then it just completely disappeared, perhaps even more completely than the villages whose memory lives on in those who once lived in them.
I read how the water was too murky to see the sunken villages, but zebra mussels have made the water clear.
Louis: I always thought of zebra mussels as bad and as with most things when you scratch the surface, you learn that it’s not that simple. Apparently there has been a restoration of fauna in the Great Lakes system that was presumed to be almost extinct. There is all kinds of biology that has recurred again because zebra mussels have cleaned the water. Now, however, the zebra mussel is being predated by something called a Gobi fish and some of the divers tell me the water is beginning to get cloudier again. So, the cycle is playing itself out again. Both species came out of the bilges of ocean-going ships, which are there as a consequence of the seaway itself.
Your Kickstarter for Beautiful Destruction is going very well.
Louis: We are very pleased with the campaign so far. We are thrilled that it is getting all this attention with so many people coming forward to support this project by buying a book or a poster or other things. The book is going to be released in November. We are doing this whole thing without pandering to one side or the other. It is so encouraging that we are getting this response.
I hope even more people will ‘vote’ for what we are trying to do, by buying a book. Each one is a vote of confidence. Makes it all worthwhile.
I’ve looked at some of your other photos of land that hasn’t been touched by man in such a destructive way. There are some beautiful patterns in nature. What is the one thing you’ve seen from the sky that has impacted you most regarding our relationship with the earth?
Louis: No one has ever asked me that question before. I think maybe that we are simply creatures of the earth in the same way as any other organism. I don’t mean that in an over simplistic sense. What becomes clear when you fly over an urban area is just how much we and what we do is formed by the natural environment. Even in our most urban area, where we have a most concentrated impact, our activity is still formed by the way the river bank flows or the slope of the land or the climate or whatever it might be.
In that sense, it is clear when you are higher up, looking down, how much we form ourselves into the landscape as much as we might form our landscape. Where I live now in Eastern Canada, it was covered in forest and now much of it is agricultural land. You still see how the fields are formed around where a stream once flowed or other undulations of the land. I guess I see how much we merge into that landscape as much as we impose ourselves on it. I’m not so sure where it begins and where it ends. That is one impression. I am also thinking of those areas where we are largely absent, beyond the southern strip where most Canadians live; there, too, I see similarities of forming and being formed. We are formed by those spaces, they are part of us. In not acknowledging that, which I think is perhaps too often the case in southern Canada’s relationship with most of the rest of the country, we are, in fact, still defining ourselves, if only in denial. We are creatures of the space like any other organism and from the air it becomes very obvious.
Thank you, Louis! It’s been a pleasure learning about you view from above and your inspiration for Beautiful Destruction.
Hey everyone, what do you think about Louis’ project? Share your thoughts in the comment box below
By Pamela Stewart