Publications - Photo Essays & Articles - by Louis Helbig

Boulderpavement (Banff Centre for the Arts), Oct 2012

Preston Catalogue, Oct 2012

Prefix Photo, May 2012

Journal for Activism in Science & Technology Education, Spring 2012

Onsite Review, Sunken Villages, Spring 2012

Athabasca University Aurora Interviews with Leading Thinkers and Writers, May 2012, March 2012

Ethical Consumer (UK), Sept/Oct 2010

New York Times, May 2010

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BOULDERPAVEMENT: Art & Ideas, Issue 8 - November, 2012
The Murmuration Issue

A Publication of the Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, Canada

Industry - Louis Helbig PORTFOLIO - Artist Statement

Industry occupies an extreme space in political as well as social discourse, often stuck in the oppositions between right and left, the environment and the economy, the rural and the urban. This presents a particular challenge to the artist: how to avoid one’s interpretation of “industry” being pigeon-holed into the limited imaginative and intellectual space between opposed camps, stuck in platitudes and predictable polemics?

In my aerial photographs of industry in rural and urban Ontario, I try to diminish these oppositions, looking at both the acres of space industry takes up in our landscape and also the beauty of its forms and aesthetic.

My partner, a university lecturer, doctoral student and companion on many of the flights during which I take my pictures, teaches about and practices restorative justice in the classroom – in particular how to create safe and supportive learning environments not by the creation of politically correct spaces where differences are quashed, but rather by creating ones where differences of opinion are respected and substantive debate encouraged. I hope that my interpretation of industry does something similar, creating space in the viewer’s imagination where reflection, reason, and dreaming all become possible.

The tools of my trade are fairly simple: an antique airplane and a camera. I also bring personal experiences to my practice. Growing up in rural British Columbia, I remember what riding a logging truck feels like and what the insides of a sawmill look like. Now making my home in Ottawa, I know what life in an urban and bureaucratic area feels like as well, but I try my best to understand the oppositions and contradictions between them.

I believe that oil and water can mix in our imagination if we give our imagination reign to do so. (My project “Beautiful Destruction” on the oil sands in northern Alberta, has verified that much.)

Much too often, single-minded silo-like thinking underlies development and execution in industry, but this doesn’t mean industry can’t be understood on different terms. In fact, I’ve come to believe that as long as one can’t make that jump out of silos, to where the aesthetic holds court in our imagination, we will forever be held captive by false polemics and contradictions. This serves us poorly, encouraging us to see the world as a dull, beige space when it is definitively not. boulderpavement

 © 2012 Louis Helbig


Preston Catalogue, Number 12, Stripped, October 2012

The View from Above

Mother Earth's canvas as seen from high above through the lens of Louis Helbig - Aerial Art Photographer.

The imagery is often complex and contradictory. One critic has described his work as teetering between documentary and abstract. He has both been commended and criticized for how he depicts various subjects, finding beauty in the mundane as well as the controvesrial. Here is a selection of our favorite views.

4 full page spread

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Prefix Photo 25 Land and Sea May 2012

A Publication of Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art

Sunken Villages
Louis Helbig PORTFOLIO

Prefix Photo is an engaging magazine dedicated to contemporary photography and related arts. Characterized by innovative design and outstanding production values, Prefix Photo consists primarily of portfolio and essay sections, providing a complement of intelligent texts and breath-taking visuals.

Each issue of Prefix Photo presents the work of Canadian photographers, both emerging and established, alongside that of their international counterparts.Prefix Photo seeks to represent the breadth of practices and concepts, old, new, or as yet unimagined, which surround the transformation of light into image. Prefix Photo creates a space in which the notion of photography is open to infinite possibilities of change, development and growth.

Featured in this issue:
Edward Burtynsky
Scott Conarroe
Susan Dobson
Andreas Fogarasi
Pascal Grandmaison
Louis Helbig
Catherine Opie
Louie Palu
Allan Sekula


Journal for Activism in Science & Technology Education, 4(1). (Spring 2012)

Art versus Mediocrity, Imagination versus Fear: Can we take our heads out of the Tar Sands and put them in the classroom? by Louis Helbig

An academic article referencing Huxley and Orwell in suggesting the use of art to invigorate Canada's moribund and mediocre civil and political society of which Canada's approach to the oil/tar sands is a poster child. more


On Site Review 27 Rural Urbanism Spring 2012

art architecture urbanism landscape culture infrastructure

The Lost Villages
Article and Photography by Louis Helbig

In the St Lawrence River lie the Sunken Villages – Maple Grove, Mille Roches, Moulinette, Sheek’s Island, Wales, Dickinson’s Landing, Santa Cruz, Woodlands, Farran’s Point and Aultsville. Sixty-five hundred people once lived in these places, now under the waves of a 50km stretch of water. They lived and loved, worked and played, were born and were buried; little different, in their time, than people in any other Canadian community. Little different, save for the misfortune to be near the mighty Long Sault Rapids, a significant barrier between the ocean and the Great Lakes. As part of the modern St Lawrence Seaway project, between1954 and the explosion of a coffer-dam, broadcast on national radio on Dominion Day 1958, the rapids were silenced – first by draining, then by drowning. All the small towns near the rapids were dismantled, sometimes moved in bits and pieces, trees cut down and the remainder burnt or bulldozed before the St Lawrence was flooded. The water rose over three days and nights, the inundation was absolute; the water murky and opaque covered all from sight, except a few places where one could, and still can, wander knee-deep down old streets.

I knew nothing of this. In September 2009 – from my little airplane – I saw the oddest thing: the familiar pattern of a house foundation in a most unfamiliar place, the blue-green water of the St Lawrence. My imagination was surely making things up, reading meaning into a familiar pattern. Very real, and very surreal, scattered here and there under clear, aquamarine water were stark foundations of houses and barns, the subtle curves of roads, the shadows of bridges, the oval of a quarter-mile horse track, locks with gates closed or ajar, the outlines of entire towns.

The beauty and solemnity of what is under the St Lawrence between Prescott and Cornwall is primordial, instinctual and universal. Rising water finds ample space in our creation myths: Noah’s Ark, Turtle Mountain or Atlantis. The Sunken Villages are equal to any narrative of annihilating flood anywhere real or imagined.

On the route between Upper and Lower Canada, and between Canada and the United States, the Sunken Villages were amongst some of Canada’s oldest communities of European descent. In New France, LaSalle built a fur trading post at the base of the Long Sault Rapids (which became Dickinson’s Landing), its cultural legacy is the large Franco-Ontarian population in eastern Ontario. Loyalists settled here in the 1780s, marking Canada’s fealty to the British crown as distinct from American republicanism. In the War of 1812 local militia, allied with Tyendinaga Mohawk warriors and Canadien Voltigeurs and Fencibles in support of British Redcoats, successfully defended themselves and a nascent Canadian identity against a much larger American force. This battle and the Battle of Chateauguay, fought south of Montreal a few days before, are probably the two most important battles and victories to define Canada’s modern existence. The Battlefield of Crysler’s Farm – where between 3,500 and 5,000 troops engaged and 133 lost their lives – is presided over by a ‘wandering’ official monument first erected in 1895 at the battlefield and then re-erected, in the late 1950s, on higher ground nowhere near it.

Canada must be the only country in the world that could summarily bury and shuffle into obscurity one of its most important battlefields. While there is some awareness of Chateauguay within and outside Quebec, Crysler’s Farm lies with the Sunken Villages almost entirely forgotten. It requires little counterfactual imagination to understand what the consequences of losing either would have meant. Montreal would have been sacked, the tie between Upper and Lower Canada would have been severed and Canada, as we know it today, would likely not exist.

Full article here.


Aurora Online Interview, May 2012

Athabasca University Aurora Interviews with Leading Thinkers and Writers

For more than 25 years, Athabasca University staff have been speaking with academics, educators, song-writers, and literary notables about their creative processes and latest projects. The collected interviews offer new insights into over 100 Canadian and internationally known thinkers and writers including Leonard Cohen, Pierre Berton, William Golding, Timothy Findley, Guy Vanderhaeghe, John Raulston Saul, Susan George, Helen Caldicott, Paolo Freire, Francis Fukuyama, Elizabeth May, John Kenneth Galbraith and many more. Moments in time, the interviews remain relevant to today's reading public interested in tracing an essayist's development, or for academics seeking new entry points into a writer's monographs, research, and reflections.


Aurora Online with Louis Helbig: Aerial Photography, the Tar Sands and Imagined Landscapes

Interview by Dr. Mike Gismondi

I came across Louis Helbig's images on the web one Sunday morning, about two years ago. Sitting at my kitchen table, I called him up to express my admiration for the photographic work. Like Peter Gzowski's old CBC Morningside radio show, he picked up the phone in his kitchen and we talked for a couple of hours, swapping perspectives on the political, cultural, and environmental issues swirling around the tar/oil sand developments. We hit it off, exchanging ideas about the beauty of industrial landscapes and the loss they also represented. We exchanged hope that his photographs might provoke a broader critical conversation about what was happening in northern Alberta.

This interview took place in late 2011. Louis and his photographs had been discovered. We talked about the public reaction to his images of the tar sands, and we chatted about the direction his new work was taking.

I hope that you share my delight with the sharp perspectives of this creative aerial photographer, who is passionate about nature, and questions the heavy footprint we are leaving on the Canadian landscape. Louis read over the Aurora transcript and selected some of his photographic images to illustrate his thoughts and responses to our questions.


See full interview here

Occupycomwebpicture, March 2012

Beautiful Destruction Photo Essay inaugural edition/launch

Louis Helbig is a commercial pilot and self-taught photographer who shot the Alberta Tar Sands in the summer of 2008 and the winter of 2012. Helbig’s images are disturbing and contradictory in their rendered beauty of a subject that is so controversial and environmentally destructive. The genius of his work is in his ability to hold the mirror up, forcing us to confront the seductive appeal of our fossil fuel addiction.

“The Alberta tar sands are a place of superlatives, a place of awesome beauty and destruction,” Helbig said. “They are a kaleidoscope of contrasts, colours and patterns keeping time with the seemingly unstoppable movement of machinery, smoke and effluent. Their scale is otherworldly, the details peculiar and surreal.

“In exhibiting this imagery I have discovered that my interpretation of this controversial subject seems – more often than I could ever have predicted, or hoped – 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 tar sands, as with its pipelines, are of our creation, a human project, with all the contradictions and drama inherent in 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.”

Born in Toronto and raised in Williams Lake, British Columbia, Louis Helbig is an Ottawa-based artist and photographer specializing in aerials. His work has been widely exhibited and published in Canada and around the world.

His background includes professional roles within public, NGO and private organizations in Canada and abroad including the Government of British Columbia, Foreign Affairs Canada, CUSO and Sharp Wings. He has an MSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics and represented Canada as a member of its National Cross Country Ski Team.



Ethical Consumer (UK) (September/October, 2010) Louis Helbig's Destruction from above (two page photo essay).

Louis Helbig’s striking images offer a new perspective on the environmental disaster that is the Canadian tar sands.

These incredible images were captured by self-taught Canadian aerial photographic artist Louis Helbig, during a journey across Canada in an antique aircraft with his partner in 2008.

Teetering between documentary and abstract, Helbig’s photographs of the Canadian tar sands reveal something more about this environmental scandal than words ever could. Helbig’s imagery is often complex and contradictory. He has been both commended and criticized for how he depicts his subjects, finding beauty in the mundane as well as the controversial.

Helbig considers the visual images to speak truth to power in Northern Alberta. The tar sands and their development seem suspended in a web of misinformation, half-truths, spin and outright deceit as different parties with various points of view and vested interests attempt to manipulate public opinion. Our problem might, in the end, not be that the tar sands are good, bad or ugly, but that they are allowed tooccur essentially without real examination or substantive debate.

New York Times. (May 19, 2010) FREAK Shots: The Oil Sands, Freakonomics, the Hidden Side of Stephen Dubner

"Photographer Louis Helbig has been photographing Canada's oil sands mining (featured in a Freakonomics contest last week) for several years, with fascinating results."


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