Media & Reviews: Print Media about Louis Helbig
"a must-see" Toronto Now
"a trendsetter" Ottawa Citizen
"Helbig's high art reflects our challenges" Glebe Report
"Nominated best visual art exhibit of 2010." Ottawa Express
"Louis Helbig has been photographing Canada's oil sands mining for several years, with fascinating results." New York Times
"There are people out there ... who are fascinated by the monumental impact of human activity on our landscapes and show it to us with an artist’s eye." Toronto Star
"An airplane may not seem like the most obvious place from which to photograph underwater foundations, but for ... Louis Helbig, being 1,000 feet above his subjects is the perfect vantage point." National Post
"Helbig's photos are not riddles; they are literal representations of the landscape, but in them he finds patterns, both natural and man-made, that toy with the eye of the viewer. Even when it's obvious what the image is, they prompt other images in the mind." Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa Sun, Now Open, with Denis Armstrong (Sept 20, 2012)
Ottawa Sun entertainment reporter Denis Armstrong interviews Louis Helbig about FestivalX at Alteriors Contemporary Furniture, the site of his Exterior. Interior. Alterior. exhibition for Ottawa's 2012 Photography FestivalX. It is one of Denis Armstrong's recommendations of things to do in the coming days.
Ottawa Citizen, Style Magazine, Justyna Baraniecki (Sept 22, 2012)
Our trendsetter search turned up a typically modest bunch of people who awaken our senses of sight, of sound and of taste. On the following pages, meet the creative folks who make Ottawa much more than the sum of its parts.
Spend hours talking to Helbig, and you’ll still feel as though only minutes have gone by. The photographic artist shoots his scenes out of his airplane, somehow achieving a grand, painterly quality. Viewers must step a little closer to see that the scene isn’t a painted swirl, but rather an oil well in Alberta. Style asked Helbig what Ottawa needs right now: “There’s a need for intelligent, critical commentary… It’s the process of talking about (art criticism) right now, that actually helps me put my work in perspective. It is, in fact, only through having that kind of dialogue that you can grow.”
article (including bands: Silkken Laumann, Fevers, Fire and Neon, & Sound and Lion; visual artists: Karina Kraenzle, Tony Fouhse, & Louis Helbig; chefs/restaurants: Arup Jana @ Allium, Steve Mitton @ Murray Street, & Brelanga @ Whalesbone Oyster House; and, blogger Kelly Brisson)
Louis Helbig’s high art reflects our challenges
by Julie Houle Cezer
Originally from Williams Lake, British Columbia, Louis Helbig is a Glebe-based aerial art photographer. A child of the sky who fondly remembers joining his father in flight as a youngster, Louis has qualified as a commercial pilot but has chosen to fly privately over the last twelve years. Having decided to pursue art full time just six years ago, Louis has been able to use his trusty two-seater airplane as a platform and “window office” to shoot landscapes from a different vantage point. His vision statement for the 2011 exhibition at Exposure Gallery in Ottawa sheds some light on his fascination with re-envisioning the world from the air.
“Although aerial perspectives afford great sweeping views, they also afford the opposite. Removing context provokes wonder, thought and reflection. Communication is more about what one takes out than what one leaves in. I usually fly and photograph by myself in a 1946 Luscombe, a machine that is itself a study of design, function and simplicity.”
His best known projects are “Beautiful Destruction – Alberta Tar Sands,” and “Sunken Villages” depicting from the air and through the water, the cultural remains flooded by the St Lawrence Seaway. His work has been exhibited in Canada, the United States and Europe and is held in collections worldwide. He has been published in a range of periodicals and publications in North America and Europe.
The large format prints of the images depicted on these pages were taken in the summer of 2008 and the winter of 2012. The winter images, on display for the first time, are being exhibited in Almonte, ON until April 12, 2012. In the 2008 images when there was still little public debate or discussion about the exploitation of the Alberta tar sands, Helbig could more easily avoid being influenced by media coverage on the subject because there was so little of it
Helbig says he was struck by the contrast between the tar sands evident influence over Canada’s culture, economy and society its non-presence in our institutions. On the one hand, there “was the buzz at Tim Horton’s everywhere about the jobs and money in Alberta, the migration of tens of thousands to Fort McMurray from all over Canada.” Not only was there little media coverage, but “mainstream political parties avoided it, Canada’s environmental organizations were essentially absent, and industry, if it deigned to respond to criticism, deflected by raising the flag of western alienation.”
To be sure, Helbig wanted to approach the subject matter as an artist, meaning he wanted to avoid bringing preconceptions to the task. Ultimately, after his photographic forays aloft over the industrial landscape, he described the tar sands as a place of “awesome beauty and destruction.” It’s a “kaleidoscope of contrasts, colours, and patterns keeping time with the seemingly unstoppable movement of machinery, smoke and effluent.” The mining operations are “other worldly” in scale and “peculiar and surreal” in their details. As a first-time visitor to this world, he ended up with footage and imagery that is both abstract and documentary in style. Drawn to the “interplay of colours, forms, lines, oil, water and light,” the artist’s eye could appreciate the beauty and the contrasts as phenomena separate from the many contentious issues associated with this mind-boggling place.
He found that by trying to create a neutral place without editorial comment that he has been able to “transcend the shrill polarities that have encumbered the issue. The art seems to provide a space for some viewers, whatever their opinions or preconceptions, to reflect and engage their imaginations, themselves and each other.” The art certainly launched debate and reactions among people in other parts of the country who might never have had occasion to see northeastern Alberta or the expanse of bitumen mining first-hand.
With a degree and professional experience in economics, Louis Helbig certainly has the analytical tools to comprehend both the complexity and the impact of the tar sands project on the country and beyond. So, while circumstances and intention allowed him to approach his first aerial visit with “fresh eyes,” in subsequent years the controversy has slowly heated up and the important issues that it generates have been subjected to greater scrutiny and explored in greater depth by the media and scientists. He applauds having much more discussion and debate in Canada. “Whether one is for or against it we’ve got to get real about what we have and what we’re doing and not let others in Europe or the US do the thinking for us. Canada is America’s single biggest supplier of oil, mostly from the tar sands. We’ve joined Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria and Norway as petro-states. They all have policies and objectives they’re trying to achieve with their oil, we don’t. This sort-of-kind-of-happened; in place since 1967, the tar sands became the world’s largest industrial project as a direct result of a 1995 industry/government collaboration called the National Declaration of Opportunity.”
Helbig emphatically states that he embraces “the very recent blossoming of substantive debate about and media coverage of the tar sands and its many related and complex issues. It has, unfortunately, not always been so. Now, for the first time, we have a real, substantive and Canadian debate. It centres around the Northern Gateway project, a pipeline proposed to connect the tar sands with Kitimat, BC and Asia’s markets. This debate is colourful, complex and profoundly important. The tar sands, as with its pipelines, are of our creation, a human project, with all the contradictions and drama inherent to that. They are as good and bad, as beautiful and destructive as we are as human beings. I hope my art opens a window on that.”
Since his first encounter with the tar sands, Louis Helbig has always wanted to return. Nearly four years after his initial journey, opportunity knocked in the form of a family trip out west in early 2012. Somewhat apprehensive about the effects that familiarity and knowledge might have on his artistic integrity, he has discovered to his relief and delight that he had simply shifted his focus. The winter images shown on this page reflect less of a preoccupation with documentation and more of a focus of zooming into this subject matter finding patterns and abstractions that he thinks may “offer a better understanding of the whole than traditional imagery.”
All of the photographs in this article are on exhibit in large format until April 12 as part of the “Beautiful Destruction” show that is taking place at two venues: the Corridor and Chamber Galleries at the Public Library and Mississippi Mills Admin Building in Almonte, ON. For more information or to contact Louis Helbig please go to louishelbig.com or beautifuldestruction.ca, call 613 263 0264 or email.
After many years of working in government, NGOs and educational institutions, Glebe resident Louis Helbig, decided in 2006 to devote his time and energy to his art photography practice. Julie Houle Cezer finds it informative to check in periodically with this mind-expanding project.
Photographer gets bird's eye perspective on Lost Villages
By Erika Glasberg
LONG SAULT – Ottawa-based photographer Louis Helbig had no idea that he was flying over a piece of history, but when he realized what it was, he made sure to capture it on digital film.
In September 2009, Helbig went flying over the St. Lawrence Seaway with his plane and noticed something odd.
"A couple of years ago, I was flying along with my little airplane and I wasn’t looking for this and all of a sudden I noticed what appeared to be a foundation and I realized it was underwater and I wondered, “what is that,” he said. “I curved around back and fourth a little and I found a road and foundation and then I realized what I was flying over.”
Helbig was flying over the Lost Villages.
It was a feeling of melancholy that he experienced as he thought about the history of what he was flying over.
“Knowing and feeling what was down there before and knowing what the foundations and rocks and landscape represents, it was moving.”
Helbig shot a few photos with his digital camera and then made his way back home to see what he had shot.
“Often times, my first impression of a photograph and sometimes when I get back and sit in front (of the computer) and looking at the photographs I can get disappointed, but this time was the exact opposite,” he explained.
“The impact was actually stronger when I had the time to actually sit down and go through and take a look at what I had just taken a photograph of, it was so moving. The effect was more profound than what I thought.
Photographing from the air has allowed Helbig to gain a different perspective on art and photography and is one of the reasons that he enjoys it so much and decided to create a project titled the “Sunken Villages” project.
“(Aerial photography) gives you an incredible perspective to work from and what’s really special about it is that you can remove context and just focus on very specific things and by removing the horizon you can move right into the essence of the object and it’s sometimes becomes really abstract.”
Since his first discovery of the Lost Villages, Helbig has returned to photograph different parts of the villages multiple times and has gained some valuable input and knowledge from the members of the Lost Villages Historical Society.
“One of the revelations for me is going down to the Lost Villages Historical Society in particular and meeting members of the Society, and in fact becoming a member myself and learning about those places,” he said.
“What intrigues me is to hear from all sorts of different of people. (The art) causes people to reflect and remember and to think about what was once there and their own very personal story. That’s the layer of this whole thing that’s been the most humbling. The imagery has acted as a catalyst and has brought people out of the wood work and getting feed back and personal stories that is the most gratifying part of this work.”
Helbig encourages anyone who has lived in any of the Lost Villages to contact him with their stories.
To see the aerial photography up close and personal, guests can visit the Ontario Power Generation Visitor Centre on March 24 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
For more images or for print information visit www.sunkenvillages.ca.
Read the original.
Evocative images captured from the air
By Ellen Moorhouse
Industrial waste is usually out of sight and out of mind, just like our household garbage, once it’s abandoned curbside or dumped down a chute.
There are people out there, however, who are fascinated by the monumental impact of human activity on our landscapes and show it to us with an artist’s eye.
Toronto-based photographer Ed Burtynsky has earned international renown for his large-format images and his documentary Manufactured Landscapes, which reveal the huge scale and terrible beauty of tire dumps, oil extraction, engineering projects, mine tailings and effluent — even the factory floor — when seen through his creative lens.
Aerial photographer and Ottawa resident Louis Helbig ( www.louishelbig.com) is another who has found inspiration in industrial dregs and destruction, documenting the patterns he sees from his winged perspective.
I met Helbig at the Interior Design Show in Toronto last month standing beside the one image he had on display there. It was light, almost sunny, with yellows in a river delta pattern on the left and a block of white demarcated by a sharp diagonal edge on the right. It appeared abstract, but the title “Sulfur and Snow” suggested something quite other.
In fact, it shows what Helbig estimates using Google Earth to be a 15-acre (6-hectare) corner, or about 3 per cent, of the largest of three piles of sulfur extracted by Syndcrude’s Mildred Lake upgrader in the Alberta tar sands. In all, these stockpiles, configured like step pyramids, cover some 903 acres, (about 366 hectares), a graphic reminder of the bitumen’s high sulfur content . Also at Mildred Lake are tailing ponds, including one held in place by what is considered the largest embankment dam in the world.
Helbig describes the tar sands operations as an “unbelievably huge and surreal place.”
His limited edition photograph, mounted and priced at $3,500, was big at 40 inches by 60 inches (about 1 by 1.5 metres), the largest size he sells. It’s part of his tar sands series called “Beautiful Destruction” ( www.beautifuldestruction.ca).
He takes his photos with a digital Nikon 300 from his own little two-seater plane, a 1946 Luscombe, which he starts by manually turning the propeller, just as you would crank an old Model T. As a boy in Williams Lake, B.C., flying with his father, he became fascinated by aviation.
With a master’s degree from the London School of Economics, Helbig used to hold down what he describes as a paper pushing bureaucrat’s job in Foreign Affairs in Ottawa, but abandoned that for his art, which combines two things he loves: photography and flying.
Environmental organizations find his tar sands images too beautiful for their purposes, but Helbig believes these photographs help initiate a vital conversation.
“I’ve learned that the imagery can engage,” he says. And engagement, Helbig believes, is needed for the nation to grapple with the complex tar sands issue.
“This huge thing was happening and there was no reporting of it,” he says of when he first started photographing the sites. “It was not reflected in the mainstream media and was not part of the political process.”
Information was, however, percolating at another level, through Tim Hortons across the nation, resulting in a migration to Fort McMurray for jobs.
Helbig is encouraged now by emerging discussions, fueled by the Keystone pipeline debate south of the border and the hearings for the Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, B.C., in which the First Nations are playing a critical role.
A couple of years ago, as he was winging his way back to Cornwall, Helbig happened upon another subject that fascinates him. He glimpsed what appeared to be a house in the river, but then realized he was looking at the remains of towns, foundations and roads, flooded by the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1958.
The water, in recent years, has become crystal clear, Helbig says, thanks to invasive zebra mussels. He captures the ghostly patterns of those lost hamlets in images, awash in blues and greens, producing a series called “Sunken Villages” ( www.sunkenvillages.com), yet more reminders of our altered landscapes.
His “Beautiful Destruction” series is now on display in an exhibition in Almonte, about 50 kilometres southwest of Ottawa. It runs until April 12.
Read the original.
In parntership with Canadian Wildlife Federation come see Louis Helbig exhibiting "Canada's Altantis: Sunken Villages in the St Lawrence River in Ottawa at Francecos (857 Bank) Sept 30 - Nov 1, 2011.
The Sunken Villages Story July 1, 1958 is remembered as Inundation Day in the Cornwall, Ontario area. At 08:00 a controlled explosion tore open a coffer dam and four days later an area that had once been home to over 6,500 people in 7 villages and 3 hamlets - some dating back to the 1700s - disappeared under the waves of Lake St. Lawrence, part of the newly created St Lawrence Seaway.
A feat of unprecedented industrial accomplishment, the St Lawrence Seaway, was the largest industrial project of its time. It eliminated the massive Long Sault Rapids to generate hydro-power and open the Great Lakes to ocean-going vessels. Completed in only four years it was a source of great national pride. It was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth and Vice-President Nixon in 1959.
Some buildings were moved, some graves exhumed and the monument commemorating the 1813 battle of Crysler's Farm, by which Montreal was saved from American invaders, moved to higher ground. Bridges, old locks and canals were left to be buried; all else was leveled, razed to the foundations, cut to the stumps, burned and bulldozed. Except for a few bits that breach the surface, all disappeared under the murky water of the St Lawrence River. Until today.
The zebra mussel made this art exhibition possible. In the past few years the water has become crystal clear and the Sunken Villages have reemerged, visible once again. Ottawa Outdoors Magazine
full page article in AVENUE Section
A River Runs Over It, Photographer takes to the skies to uncover St. Lawrence's 'lost' villages.
By Angela Hickman
An airplane may not seem like the most obvious place from which to photograph underwater foundations, but for photographer Louis Helbig, being 1,000 feet above his subjects is the perfect vantage point.
Helbig started flying 12 years ago, and shoots his photos out the window of his 1946 Luscombe, a little two-seater. When he first encountered a group of sunken villages along the St. Lawrence River, Helbig was heading back from Cornwall, Ont., where he had planned to photograph a First Nations’ barricade — a shoot he says didn’t work from the air. Empty-handed, Helbig was taking his time as he flew back home to Ottawa, when suddenly something caught his eye.
“In my peripheral vision, on the side, I saw a house,” he says. “And I thought ‘What’s a house doing here, in the water?’ And then I had to do a double take.”
That house led Helbig to discover entire villages that were levelled, burned, razed to the foundations and flooded to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway, a major industrial project that opened in 1959. Fifty year later, the previously murky water was completely clear thanks to the work of zebra mussels, making the “lost” communities the perfect candidates for Helbig’s aerial photography, now on display as part of Toronto’s CONTACT Photography Festival.
Because the buildings were removed in preparation for the Seaway flooding, Helbig’s photos have a surreal, two-dimensional quality to them, and due to the varying levels of colour, it can feel like you’re looking at an up-close etching of a shipwreck rather than at an aerial view of an old dairy barn’s foundation.
“I think that’s the power of doing this kind of work from the air … you can really muck around with perspective,” Helbig says. “So many of the cues that we might otherwise have, such as a horizon or other things that would tend to tell us how big something is, are removed, and that adds to the disorientation that occurs.”
In the year following his first sighting of the villages, Helbig flew to the area eight times to photograph the foundations, church yards, roads and locks that lay crystal-clear below the water of St. Lawrence. The flooding covered seven villages and three hamlets, displacing about 6,500 people, and the enormity of that history almost overwhelmed Helbig.
“When I left that museum [Lost Villages Historical Society] I felt that I couldn’t do justice to all that was there,” says Helbig, who is a trained historian. “I sort of had a brainwave in the next hour or so when I realized, you know what, I don’t need to try to put it all together; what I need to do is put something up that draws forth the stories from people, whatever those might be.”
Beautiful Destruction, Helbig’s previous large-scale aerial photography exhibit about the Alberta tar sands, did just that; people were intrigued by the photos and excited to talk about them. Helbig hopes the same thing will happen with his new Sunken Villages exhibit, and would like to present the photos again, alongside stories and memories from people connected to the lost communities.
The Seaway project, says Helbig, “was the biggest industrial project of its time … and nowadays what’s going on in Alberta is the biggest industrial project, possibly in the world.”
But, Helbig adds, there’s more to his photos than industry and a changing landscape; there are cultural and personal implications as well. “It reaches into something else.”
Sunken Villages is on display at Toronto’s Canvas Gallery until May 28, when Helbig will host a talk about the exhibition starting at 2 p.m. For more information, visit sunkenvillages.ca.
Feature: The Way I See It, by Paul Gessell, Photos by Tony Fouhse
Award-winning photographer Tony Fouhse takes portraits of the five other local photographic artists whose work inspires us.
THE AERIALIST LOUIS HELBIG BORN: TORONTO, 1964
BACKGROUND: As a child in Williams Lake, B.C., Helbig developed many passions – including photography, with an old Voigtlander bellows camera, and flying, alongside his pilot father in a 1946 wood and fabric Aeronca Chief. As an adult, Helbig felt stifled at the Department of Foreign Affairs. He fled the bureaucracy in 2006 and pursued a career in fine-art aerial photography.
GREATEST HITS: Even the New York Times took notice of Helbig’s Beautiful Destruction series about the Alberta oil sands. The abstract-looking aerial views were exhibited at Ottawa City Hall last year.
INSIPRATIONS: Helbig’s ability to create beauty is often compared to that of Canadian superstar photographer Ed Burtynsky. But Helbig says he was most inspired by another Canadian legend, Freeman Patterson, old copies of Magnum photography books, and the author John Updike (“He painted pictures with words.”)
HIS WORKS: Helbig largely sells to individuals. This year his line up of exhibitions includes a show at Exposure Gallery in Ottawa (which runs until March 15), at Canvas Gallery in Toronto (in May) and, at a time yet to be fixed, COEXIST Gallery in Tokyo and Muszeum Historii Fotografii in Krakow, Poland. Current projects include aerial views of villages flooded in 1958 by the St. Lawrence Seaway project and, some day, Arctic scenes. See the website www.louishelbig.com.
Note: other featured photographers included: Justin Wonnacott, Jennifer Dickson, Geneviève Thauvette, and Darren Holmes.
Who knows what adventure lurks in the hearts of mild civil servants? Louis Helbig had a career in the federal public service, and with NGOs or other policy groups, but beneath the ordinary life of Ottawa was a taste for nature, for the outdoors. Helbig expressed it in vigorous ways; he was a member of Canada's national cross-country ski team, and he was a bush pilot. And now, five years after leaving the public service, he is reaching great heights — literally — as a photographer of our landscape.
Helbig, a B.C. native with a degree from the London School of Economics, pilots his own vintage aircraft around Central Ontario and Quebec. He shoots photographs from 1,000-or-so feet up, and the results are intriguing, and often beautiful.
"Removing context provokes wonder, thought and reflection," it says on the artist's statement posted to the wall of Exposure Gallery in Wellington West, where Helbig's new exhibition, Aerial Abstractions, now hangs.
That bit about removing the context is key, for it leads you to see the land, and the things upon it, in ways that are different, and unusual. "It's the mystery, or questions that I want people to ask," Helbig says. "What is it? How did you do that?"
We're standing before a sequence of photos of ice breaking up in the Ottawa River, between Gatineau and Orléans. It looks like a long sequence of ice slowly breaking up, as if Helbig flew over time and time again, but in fact it's essentially the same scene shot in quick sequence as Helbig's plane made one pass. He explains, and still it takes me a moment to comprehend that what I'm seeing is not the movement of ice, but movement of the camera.
Helbig's photos are not riddles; they are literal representations of the landscape, but in them he finds patterns, both natural and man-made, that toy with the eye of the viewer. Even when it's obvious what the image is, they prompt other images in the mind. Wave Pool and Cots is immediately obvious as precisely that, a giant wave pool and dozens of carefully arranged sun cots, all empty of people. Yet the tight horizontal crop of the photo makes me think of a Japanese fan, pulled tightly together and ready to be flicked open in a moment of drama or seduction. A pile of tailings (or something) at the Stelco Steel Mill looks exactly like a sand dollar, a curious mollusk that can be found on the beaches of Atlantic Canada.
Another photo, Shawville Thaw, shows a ragged band of snow across two fields. From 10 feet away, it looks like Helbig has torn a swath from the photo, exposing the white paper beneath. Only when closer do I recognize it as snow. Helbig laughs, delighted. "I would never have seen that," he says, and tells me that another gent, the day before, had seen it as a slap of white paint.
He takes great pleasure in the interpretation of viewers, what they bring to it, because he doesn't see what they see. We look at Snow Geese in Field One, which shows hundreds of mostly white geese in a green field of sod. I note that enough geese face in one direction to create a vague sense of lines of white from bottom right to top left, while their shadows create intersecting lines of black, from upper right to lower left. I have to remind myself that these patterns occurred naturally.
These shots are all taken where the seasons meet and change. Helbig goes up in his plane (a 1946 Luscombe) and looks for those places where the converging seasons create scenes that are transitory, "foreign," as he puts it.
The images do seem foreign, and then they become familiar. Context removed, wonder provoked.
What: Photographs by Louis Helbig
When & where: Exposure Gallery, above Thyme & Again at 1255 Wellington St. W., to March 15
"Ottawa-based artist and aerial photographer Louis Helbig will discuss his latest work, entitled Beautiful Destruction: Alberta Tar Sands Aerial Photographs at the RA Photo Club at 7:30 p.m. today. Originally photographed in August 2008, images from this project are now being exhibited and published internationally, as well as being sold as limited edition prints. More than 10,000 people saw the exhibit when it ran at the Ottawa City Hall Public Gallery this summer. Helbig will discuss different aspects of Beautiful Destruction, ranging from the creative to the political"
"Beautiful Destruction: Louis Helbig's aerial photographs of the Alberta Tar Sands, right, will bring to mind the work of Edward Burtynsky, though Helbig seems less focused on industrial degradation and more interested in naturally occurring (so to speak) and esthetically appealing patterns. His photo of oil run off held by floating booms in muddy water looks like the wings of giant birds, swooping gracefully."
Crumbling earth, oil, and toxic water encapsulated within the faulty restraints of a tailings pond, unfathomable magnitudes of bitumen, rich hues of poison, piles of sulfur, heavy metals gushing out of a metal pipe. All this portrayed as beauty? Combining both his talents as photographer and pilot, Louis Helbig has created "Beautiful Destruction"a photo exhibit featuring aerial photographs of Alberta's Tar Sands, currently showing in Ottawa. Helbig's exhibit offers emotionally conflicting images that oscillate between the beauty of the visual and the atrocity of the large-scale industrial project. This, he explains, is the result of his effort to delve into more serious subject matter. "While it's nice to take pretty pictures I wanted to do something that was more politically compelling, more topical."
Helbig's photos deliberately blend the lines between reality and artistry. In his photos, the residual bitumen is confused with a painter's brushstroke, and an alluvial fan laden with oil is mistaken for the shimmering roots of an ancient tree. The swirling shades of copper mix with the blue tinge of oily waters, reflecting a late summer's sunset. The viewer is dizzied into a fantasy world of dreamy hues and glistening colours; photographs become nearly impossible to identify from their true form. "It seems to engage people. They get drawn into the art as well as the aesthetic and then it opens a place to think about, to reflect and to identify with the imagery, however they might do that," said Helbig.
But the massive scale of this environmentally devastating endeavour shakes us from this dream world. The sheer extent of the industrial project becomes undeniable. A Greyhound bus is dwarfed by the immensity of a tailings pond, the Tonka trucks tearing up the boreal forest appear minute, a lone sailor is unidentifiable in a sea of oil, and a sound cannon (used as noise pollution to deter migratory birds) is dwarfed against the immense backdrop of bitumen slick.
"What I find most compelling is what the whole project says about Canada, and Canadian institutions. It's a bit of a deja-vu in terms of natural resource exploitation," noted Helbig, citing the depletion of cod fisheries in Newfoundland as an example. Helbig's photographs also resonate with the number of social issues inherent with the project, including the housing conditions of the numerous migrant workers and the artificial landscapes that are created around these areas.
Helbig's exhibit colourfully aestheticizes the tar sands project, while still vividly portraying the environmental destruction the tar sands project has caused. A photo of a misty evening near Fort McMurray captures the serene beauty that is the boreal forest, evoking an honest and sincere depiction of the land. This is contrasted with the horrific scenes of open-pit mining that take place once the so-called "over-burden" is removed. In this way, Helbig plays with the senses to truly engage the viewer. "The purpose of the exhibit is to have people reflect and think and that is way more powerful," said Helbig. "That reflection, that philosophical space or imaginative space or emotional space, that speaks to us as individuals, as a community, our human spirit, and that's really powerful."
L'exposition de Louis Helbig, à la Galerie d'art de l'hôtel de ville d'Ottawa, est étrange. À l'entrée, la photographie intitulée Highway 63 Bitman Slick montre, au dire du panneau explicatif placé quelques mètres plus loin, un voile de bitume résiduel s'élevant au-dessus d'un autobus. L'épreuve surprend d'abord par l'actualité de sa thématique, soit les sables bitumineux, mais aussi par sa perspective presque surréelle, et qui place le témoin devant des détails qui lui sont étrangers.
L'autre épreuve qui l'accueille: Alluvial Fan, une grosse masse dorée, brillante, texturée à souhait, et qu'il jurerait pouvoir toucher. Aussi attirante que de l'or.
Le parcours se poursuit. Residual Bitume laisse perplexe (le goudron arbore-t-il vraiment cette franche couleur bleue?), tandis que des prises de vue aériennes de paysages industriels font voir l'immensité prodigieuse de l'entreprise pétrolière albertaine. Le tout reste à la surface du sujet, la photographie jouant le rôle d'un écran protecteur qui, tout en documentant, épargne de la réalité tangible de ces lieux: l'odeur âpre du goudron, la pesanteur de l'air, les nuages de poussière...
La pièce la plus saisissante, au détour d'un mur: Tonka Trucks, dont l'éclairage matinal révèle cinq camions à benne affairés au prélèvement du bitume minier. Vus de loin, minuscules comme des babioles d'enfants, c'est à travers eux que le spectateur comprend, thématique et titre de l'exposition en tête (Beauté et destruction), que le jeu est certainement dangereux.
L'artiste étant pilote d'avion professionnel, il propose au visiteur des points de vue privilégiés, et introduit un sujet dont personne, malheureusement, n'a encore fini d'entendre parler.
À voir si vous aimez / Guy Lavigueur, Bertrand Carrière www.voir.ca
Aerial artist Louis Helbig finds beauty and destruction in the Alberta tar sands
Stretching out across a pockmarked wasteland of broken earth, a toxic pond glistens with shimmering blue colour, the swirling chemical patterns resembling the abstract flourishes of a painter's brush. It's one of the many images captured by Louis Helbig, an Ottawa-based photographer and pilot who took to the skies in 2008 to document the controversial and environmentally destructive tar sands projects of Northern Alberta. The results of Helbig's aerial photography are on display now at the Ottawa City Hall Art Gallery in Beautiful Destruction, a series of shocking, beautiful and surprisingly affecting images.
As for what drew the B.C.-raised artist to the unusual subject matter, Helbig says it was really about finding something that was inspiring both artistically and culturally. "I'd taken a lot of pictures of 'pretty things' and I had a desire to photograph something of a little more consequence," he says. "The tar sands seemed to be an unbelievably huge project but had very little coverage of it. Certainly there was no coverage in proportion to its size or in terms of its real-time cultural significance for our country."
And while one would expect the aerial photographs to feature dark, industrial images of blackened earth and smouldering refineries, they are in fact strangely colourful works, from the dusky orange and red hues of a spewing effluent pipe to the lush brown and earthly pastels of a toxic bitumen slick. For Helbig, however, the images capture only a fraction of the scope and power of the tar sands themselves when seen up close.
"Flying over these things was a very strange experience," he says. "It's overwhelming in its massive scale, but also overwhelming in its minutiae, with all of these different elements at play, and looking down you get this sense of inertia and movement and momentum. As an artist, I just tried to respond to the imagery as it came at me without really knowing what it was."
Given the recent BP oil spill, Helbig's work is a fitting and timely artistic reminder that raises questions about society's relationship with the environment. In this sense, Beautiful Destruction is an exhibit that dares its viewers to find meaning in images that are shocking in both their beauty and the destructive forces they so eloquently capture."
Imagine a world of swirling technicolour among unearthly vistas of an unfathomable scale, without any obvious signs of flora or fauna. While it seems like a description of a fantastic land like those of Tolkien or Star Trek, photographer Louis Helbig exposes these landscapes as those of the Canadian hinterland in Northern Alberta. His exhibition, which is now showing at the City Hall Art Gallery, consists of a series of disorienting and almost whimsical aerial photographs of the Alberta tar sands.
Helbig had never been to the tar sands when he decided to embark on this project in 2008. He says that he had seen very few images of the tar sands and deliberately kept it that way until he flew over them in the summer of 2008. "I avoided looking at images of the tar sands. I didn’t want preconceived notions of them so that I would be able to see them unfiltered,” says Helbig.
When he took off on his first flight and soared above them he says what he saw was a gargantuan and surreal place. "When you separate the issue that surrounds the tar sands they’re unbelievably beautiful, the colours that came at me were absolutely mind-boggling,” says Helbig. The first thing that came to his mind was Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. For Helbig flying over this bizarre, exotic landscape was very disorienting and he says that the natural thing to do is reach for some cultural touchstones to make sense of his disorientation.
To pay tribute to the surprising beauty that he found in the destruction of Northern Alberta’s once pristine Boreal forest, Helbig titled his exhibition Beautiful Destruction.
One of his motivations behind the project was the lack of substantive dialogue about the impact the tar sands is having on Canada’s environment, economy, and culture. "In Canada the debate is limited to caricatures of us vs. them, Calgary vs. Toronto, industry vs. the environment,” Helbig says. “With this exhibition I wanted to create a this space where people can reflect, relate to it, and debate it in order to get away from the stupidity.” What he finds worrisome is that the major tar sands debates are happening outside of Canada, in Europe and the U.S. and that these debates are beginning to define Canada’s international reputation.
The tar sands, says Helbig, should not be such a divisive issue because they affect all Canadians. He says what all Canadians should find disturbing is the non-critical stance of the government towards their exploitation. "Why are the industry’s message and the government’s message the same? There’s no oversight and industry gets too much run over things. When our public officials are in the pockets of industry all Canadians should be concerned,” Helbig says.
Aesthetically, Helbig’s choice of aerial photography to document the tar sands landscapes defies the imagination. “It’s a really unique way to see things. These perspectives of familiar things make you go wow!” He says the scenes disturbing beauty come from the jarring combination of colours, forms, lines, the play of oil, water and light.
That combined with the massive scale of the images provides observers with a truly surreal experience. To truly grasp the immensity of the landscapes Helbig includes miniscule points of reference that might be a dock, pumping station, boat or truck.
Beautiful Destruction will be on display at the City Hall Art Gallery until September 26. It was selected to be exhibited at the gallery by a jury of artists from the community.
Alberta's tar sands are an "environmental disaster," but the bigger problem is Canadians' lack of interest in finding an appropriate balance between environmental stewardship and economic gain, says local Ottawa artist Louis Helbig. "The two main parties are avoiding the issue like the plague, the provincial Alberta government is acting as a shill for industry and in the environmental community it only became fashionable a.."
"Photographer Louis Helbig has been photographing Canada's oil sands mining (featured in a Freakonomics contest last week) for several years, with fascinating results."
“Calming but confrontational, gorgeous but scary. An eye-opening look at the Canadian landscape reminiscent of Ed Burtynsky or Andreas Gursky.” - Betty, Toronto. Visitor of Beautiful Destruction Exhibit
The darkroom I entered on West Queen West was not quite like a photographer’s red light heaven nor was it like a typical West Queen West space. Yes, photographs hung for viewers to process and yes, the room was Tim Burton-esque but this room was a little different. Well-lit, crisp and unfamiliar photographs decorated the unpolished walls. Rustic and whimsical furniture cobwebbed the corners but in serene Pottery Barn neutrals. This room wasn’t faithfully dark, it was eye-open-ing and calm. It was Komo Design, home to Ottawa photographer Louis Helbig’s Beautiful Destruction exhibit of the Alberta Tar Sands’ ruin and awe. With many aerial photos displaying neutral scenes of unnerving tar ponds and mammoth construction sites, work fit in well with its surroundings.
As part of the CONTACTphotography festival, Beautiful Destruction called attention to the environmental and political arena the Tar Sands are mining in. pond bird deaths of 1600, government and business spin, Greenpeace activism and generous jobs for Canadians make the issue wholly controversial. interviewed the humble Louis Helbig to ask him about the adventures he encountered while cre-ating his work and what viewers can appreciate behind his National Geographic-like photos. by Rochelle Grabenheimer
Q: What is the beauty behind the Tar Sands?
LH: It’s a place that defies the imagination. When my partner Kristin and I flew there we were kind of dumbfounded by what we saw. For some people it reminds them of Apocalypse Now, 19th century poetry about the industrial revolution or Lord of the Rings. If you can push aside what you’re seeing, be uncritical, it’s an incredibly beautiful place.
Q: How much of yourself have you put into this project?
LH: Um, way more than I ever thought. It has become the focus of my life; it has become my most important project. I was drawn to it because it is such a big issue and I thought I had a knack for aerial/industrial photography. The Tar Sands are a big thing, it’s the biggest thing in Canada. It’s the biggest construction project in the world, it’s changing our country. Before I went there I tried to avoid reading about it, seeing other pictures, tried to avoid preconceptions. Just wanted to absorb it, photograph it for what it is visually, with an open mind. After I’d taken the photographs I tried to fill in the gaps; address my ignorance of what I pho-tographed. So that’s also been a part of the process, to sit and research, read, look things up on the internet, talk to people and figure out what I was looking at. Just what is that thing I’m looking at, is that a tar pond, an upgrader, an open pit mine? What does it mean?
Another thing people find puzzling is that I’m not really absolutely against what’s going on up there. I’m from a small town out in B.C. and my father had a logging truck, if I was dead set against what’s going on up there I would be a hypocrite, I think. What bothers me profoundly about what’s going on up there is that we aren’t talking about it. What we do have is spin about the Tar Sands development that is manufactured by communication types on the industry and government side as well as from the envi-ronmental movement. Tied in with that, a little bit, the Canadian media is lazy here, they don’t really go in there and report on the story. They tend to get a quote from one side like Greenpeace and then Syncrude or Suncor. Of course they say two things that are diametrically opposed and get two easy sides of the story but the context, the substance of the story is missing. We’re not taking [this issue] on ourselves like a responsible democracy and that bothers me. We should have a discussion.
Q: Was flying your own antique plane to Fort McMurray [to take pictures of the Tar Sands] the original plan?
LH: Not really. The original plan was to drive out West for a wedding and rent a plane in Alberta but my partner Kristin kind of said, “But we have a plane, don’t we? We can fly out, can’t we?” It sounds exotic but the plane isn’t worth very much, in money anyway. The plane is an antique and it has a range of four or five hundred kilometres, depending. If we have a tail-wind we can get from Ottawa to Toronto in one go but if we don’t, we have to land somewhere and get gas. Once we decided to do this we had an incredible adventure. When we landed at small airports that sometimes weren’t close to town so we had to hitch-hike; [we] met lots of great people. Flying an antique plane into Fort McMurray was a little tricky because my airplane lacks a transponder. It’s a very basic plane from the 1940‘s, there’s a lot of traffic and a transponder is needed. We needed to get special permission to land there.
Q: Tell us why you produce aerial photographs?
LH: That’s one of the things I do, aerials, but I don’t think you can really capture the sense of the place, both in its magnitude and its detail on the ground, even if you’re allowed to access it [from] the ground. Apparently, the Tar Sand operators make you sign waivers if you go on site…if you take a photo on the site you’re not allowed to use them except for private use. Maybe there’s a certain level of censorship that goes on. From the air there are no restrictions.
Q: How do businesses and organizations react to your work? How do environmentalists?
LH: There’s been a positive reaction from a lot of environmental organizations. I’ve also had one of the companies call me about buying photos for an annual report, or something. But the most gratifying responses are from people I do not know, have no relationship to me who come, look at the work and respond to it. You can tell they are responding to it, you can feel their response, the honesty. It’s almost like just by looking at the pictures and…appreciat-ing the beauty of it, that people’s imagina-tions are open to what they see and then in turn, it opens them up to asking questions, filling in the blanks for themselves of what they’re seeing. People just look at it and go, “Wow, this is beautiful. How can it be so beautiful, when it’s so ugly?” It’s especially powerful with those who might not even think about these things most of the time. I try as much as possible to not be too pre-scriptive about what I say and I also try to talk about the positive sides of it, the jobs, the living people are making. There’s a great tension in the photos, in the issue.
Q: One of your concerns was that the Tar Sands was discussed by too few members of the general public. What message might you have for why people should engage in this dis-cussion and in your work?
LH: I think we have a duty as citizens to be concerned about the world around us, to be concerned about the welfare of oth-ers, the environment and public accountability. If we don’t do that, others will do it for us. I think what we have in Alberta to some great extent is two levels of govern-ment, federal and provincial that are not protecting the public good or maybe, better put, have very narrowly defined the public good. There hasn’t been any real discussion. It was a bigger issue in the American elec-tion than in our last federal election. Are we really a superpower if we don’t talk about it, take responsibility, are not transparent, are not accountable, pussy footing around the National Energy Policy and other ancient arguments from 30 years ago instead of talking about what we’re really doing now? Right now it’s the US that is defining the Tar Sands for us, banning imports of dirty oil in California, sending shock waves through the Canadian political establishment. Are we Canadians ever going to grow up?
To see and hear more about Beautiful Destruction, visit www.beautifuldestruction.ca or www.louishelbig.com
Worth Seeing. Beautiful Destruction Alberta Tar Sands Aerial Photography by Louis Helbig.
Row of dump trucks loaded with bitumen ore between Syncrude's North Mine and the Mildred Lake upgrading refinery. Can you see the buses?