Beautiful Destruction by Louis Helbig (photographer)

Alberta Views, June 2015, page 60


Louis Helbig took these stunning photos of the oil sands during several flights over tailings ponds and open pit mines around Fort McMurray between 2008 and 2013. The photos, collected in this massive volume—a coffee-table book that is nearly a coffee table—endeavour to show what is impossible to appreciate from the ground.

Obviously these photos invite comparison to Edward Burtynsky’s. Burtynsky’s work is characterized by patterns— the interplay of what we think of as manmade regularity with organic form—and the almost implausible immensity of scale. Helbig’s work too seeks out the sublime, that terrifying grandeur in the organic beauty of an “unnatural” environment. Many photos deliberately confuse scale, representing the oil sands without visual cues to establish its vastness.

Interspersed are essays, by individuals across the political spectrum, on Alberta’s natural resources. So we have the duelling rhetorics of Green Party leader Elizabeth May (“The importance of the oil sands is in their function as an intoxicant, hallucinogen and infectious disease agent, afflicting politicians with narrow-mindedness and suicidal tendencies”) and Rick George, former president and CEO of Suncor (“The most appealing feature of the oil sands (when discovered) was the fact that they were there to be taken”).

In one photo, a gorgeous iridescent black swirl on a sandy- coloured background is positioned above dirty black striations. One must look closer to see that the striations are a road and, yes, that speck is a bus on a road. The impressive, artistically contoured black blob is a tailings pond. Dr. John O’Connor, the Fort Chipewyan physician who has spoken out about the oil sands’ impact on human health, points out in his essay that this sort obfuscation is deliberate—even for the workers who are commuting on that bus, the tailings ponds are purposely far from sight. Images such as this make us question our perspective, make us question what we see and what we cannot see about our homegrown “beautiful destruction.”

The many other voices in this book include filmmakers, journalists, researchers and doctors. For anyone with even a passing interest in oil and gas, however, most of these essays read as simplistic and mired in their respective perspectives. The written material could have better teased at the knot of hypocrisy that we all exhibit—a deep unease about the environmental repercussions of the oil sands while being dependent, if not on the petroleum industry, then on petroleum itself. That is what Helbig’s photos do so well, and the primary reason to check out this book.

—Jay Smith is an Edmonton journalist and reviewer.

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