Beautiful Destruction By Louis Helbig
Reviewed by Julie Houle Cezer
There is no disputing that Beautiful Destruction by aerial art photographer and Glebe resident Louis Helbig is a weighty tome. The result of some seven years of research, writing and editing, its subject – the oil/tar sands extraction project in northern Alberta – is immediately recognizable as a matter of importance by anyone interested in the environment and the economy in Canada. And to get literal about it, at 300 oversized pages, the book demands serious attention and commitment on the part of the reader, not to mention a table or floor space on which to appreciate a full spread of the beautiful images. Offset by ample white space, these photos encourage the reader to sit with the experience and the book. Seen again and again, these images grow on you.
In the first part of the book, stunning abstract compositions richly displayed on high quality paper seem easy on the eye, provided, of course, that they are viewed without reference to meaning or context. As the photos that follow depict the expanse and detail of the mining and industrialization of the boreal landscape, the reader quickly realizes that this is not simply another artistic coffee table book. Rather, this is also pictorial documentation of the transformation of a unique part of Canada’s environment. In an area slightly larger than Greece, this project is being spearheaded by some 100 oil companies aiming to unearth an enormous deposit of bitumen to bring to the energy market.
Welcome to the Lower Athabasca Region in northeastern Alberta, a remote reality to most of the population of Ontario. The region is home to the area that industry identifies as the Athabasca Oil Sands, where crude bitumen is surface-mined using excavators and monster trucks. Upgraded into diesel and crude oil, the processed bitumen’s byproduct, laced with heavy metals, is held in extensive toxic tailings ponds.
When Helbig sighted this industrialized landscape for the first time in 2008 by flying over the area, he found the experience “overwhelming,” likening it to “travelling to a distant country, exotic, bizarre and otherworldly” (p. 280). Reflecting on Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel’s statement that “any landscape is a condition of the spirit,” Helbig asks how the oil/tar sands project was allowed to happen, querying what the existence of such an industrialized landscape in Canada says about the society and culture forged along the country’s southern corridor. A reader might ask, will the recent plunge in oil prices and the ripple effect on the country’s economy awaken people to the reality facing this and other resource-rich hinterland areas of Canada? Or, alternatively, will they continue to be part of a largely “unimagined” Canada?
As for Helbig, his response to first contact was to jump headlong into more research, extended visits, photography and exhibits, all the while trying to understand what he was witnessing without adding his own interpretations. Eventually, he seemed to decide that in Beautiful Destruction he would make a place for human voices but, by design, counter a common tendency towards polarization of opinion. Within the parameters of his photographic coverage, he would intentionally make a space for differing insights and perspectives, unencumbered by commentary or crosstalk. The result suggests a print agora in which public declarations flow from the writer’s engagement in the art. On closing the back cover, a reader might suggest that extending this forum to electronic media may yield even greater activity and interest in the subject.
What the reader now encounters in the book are some 15 essays by very different stakeholders – opponents and proponents of the oil/tar sand projects as well as those grappling with the complexities and contradictions of embracing both environmental and economic imperatives. All of those invited – the industrialists, politicians, journalists, environmentalists, activists, artists and a physician – started by viewing the same draft photos, were given editorial independence and no access to others’ content. Their voices provide historical and contemporary context as well as a glimpse of a human dimension in this largescale drama.
The essays are a welcome addition to the flow of photos that can create a sensation of disorientation and a thirst for insight and human-scale points of reference. As a prospective reader, you are invited to consider the perspectives of Chief Allan Adam, Dr. John O’Connor, Elizabeth May, Megan Leslie, Francis Scarpaleggia, Bill McKibben, Duff Conacher, Gil McGowan, Eric Reguly, Rick George, Ezra Levant, Greg Stringham, Jennifer Grant, Architect Theatre and Charles Wilkinson. May their contributions, combined with the images, inspire you to pursue more research and generate reasoned discussion about the oil/tar sands.
Julie Houle Cezer, a former editor of the Glebe Report, has been following Louis Helbig’s career in aerial art photography since 2010.