“Beautiful Destruction” is a big book. So, too, is its subject matter and the ambitions of its author, aerial photographer Louis Helbig. Flying an antique 1946 Luscombe aircraft, Helbig photographed the oil fields of northern Alberta and Saskatchewan during the summer of 2008, winter 2012, and for seven weeks during the spring and summer of 2013.
Helbig is not a geographer, nor is “Beautiful Destruction” just a “picture book,” as its author claims. He wants the people of “lower Canada” to know the northern lands, to pull this landscape, this location, into their psyche.
To this end, Helbig—an aerial photographer, artist, and environmentalist—has assembled almost 200 of his photographs into a sizeable book. The photos are interspersed with 16 short essays—15 contributed by notable Canadians with decided points of view on the oilsands, aka tar sands, plus one by the author himself. In his own evocatively titled essay, “Elephants, Airplanes, and Fear,” Helbig argues Canadians have let a “tar/oil elephant stomp about.”
Rick George, one of the 15 essayists, views the northern landscape differently. He sees the north as a land containing 1.8 trillion barrels of crude oil, “making it the largest resource of its kind in the world.” Until the extraction began, the land itself had “little to offer the world beyond a habitat for those First Nations people and the fish and wildlife that sustained them,” writes George, who was president and CEO of Suncor Energy for 21 years.
But Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, describes the same land as “medicine for the soul.” “We did not choose the tar sands economy,” he notes in his essay. Moreover, Treaty 8 of 1899 guaranteed his people “continued ability to hunt, fish, trap.” It is plain to see, Adam argues, that “downstream development” is leading to the contamination of waterways, a decline of species, and a loss of habitat for bison and caribou. Some others among the 15 contributors agree.
Former Sun News host Ezra Levant, another of the contributors, labels Helbig’s photographs “oilsands pornography.” His essay, titled “This is what ethical oil looks like,” does not explain the label further. Instead, he argues Helbig should be grateful he is in Canada where Canadian oil “respects liberal values.” According to Levant, Alberta has the world’s strictest environmental regulations.
On the other hand, Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia laments the ruination of water used in oilsands production because, unlike agriculture, these waters cannot be returned to the rivers. Worse yet, heavy metals such as chromium, mercury, lead, and nickel, are already flowing into the Athabasca river and onwards to Fort Chipewyan, home of the Chipewyan and Mikisaw Cree peoples.
The other contributors are U.S. environmentalist Bill McKibben; director Charles Wilkinson; Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch; Green Party Leader Elizabeth May; newspaper columnist Eric Reguly; U.S. Actress Jennifer Grant; Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan; and New Democrat MP Megan Leslie.
“Beautiful Destruction” is chock-full of large, high-quality photographs. That is both one of its strengths and one of its liabilities. The book’s design has some noteable issues. For example, the photo titled “Truck and Coke Piles” is a stunning image of pile upon pile of grey and black stuff, repeating curved lines extending across three-quarters of a scratched white plane. A yellow dump truck marks its edge.
Its caption, however, like all the captions throughout, is inadequate. The text provides only a simple tag identifier, “Truck and Coke Pile,” and a location given in terms of latitude and longitude, nothing more. The caption is of little assistance to the reader. Maps to provide names and locations for the areas Helbig photographed., as well as an index to cross-reference the ideas discussed by the 15 essayists would have been useful.
The aerial photograph titled “Terex 6300,” for example, presents a mammoth vehicle heading one way down a road and another vehicle, very much smaller, beetling along in the other direction. What is a “Terex 6300?” Who knows?
At the back of the book, though, there is a bit more information. Here we find an index of the photographs, with a thumbnail version of each appearing in the same sequence as those at the front of the book. Some have expanded captions with a sentence or two of information. All have place names. “Terex 6300” was photographed at “Syncrude Aurora North, Alberta.” Its index caption tells us: “The Terex 6300AC is one of the world’s largest dump trucks.”
There are, however, no page numbers in the index referencing the location of the photographs at the front of the book. Their inclusion would have made navigation of the book easier.
The images Helbig presents in his photographs are well worth our attention. They are carefully, elegantly controlled compositions, each pattern animating the surface of the page, their saturated colours prompting our eye to linger over the imagery, then discover the subject matter. That is Helbig’s intention. The design of the book, sadly, subverts the author’s intentions and the importance of his work.
Given the pressing environmental issues facing planet Earth—pollution, climate change, the risks associated with fracking, the dangers of transporting highly flammable crude oils—a second edition of “Beautiful Destruction” is warranted and timely. But it should have maps, indexes, and informative picture captions.
Maureen Korp, PhD, is an independent scholar, curator, and writer who lives in Ottawa. Author of many publications, she has lectured in Asia, Europe, and North America on the histories of art and religions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org