Sulfur and Snow, Syncrude, Mildred Lake, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Louis Helbig

By Brandon Hoffman —

Working at the Arts Centre a couple weeks ago, I was visited by Louis Helbig, Kristin Reimer, and their son Oscar. They were looking for a venue on extremely short notice to host a discussion about Louis’ new book Beautiful Destruction. I thought the title seemed familiar and, after hearing their description of their book, I was quite curious to see it for myself.

Beautiful Destruction is a stunning collection of aerial photos of the Alberta tar/oil sands, accompanied by 16 essays by prominent individuals with very different ideas. Helbig somehow managed to get contributions from extremely different sides of the national conversation, folks like Elizabeth May, Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam, co-founder of Democracy Watch Duff Conacher, vice-president of oil sands at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Greg Stringham, and Sun Media columnist Ezra Levant, to name a few.

Most of the photos in the book were taken on several trips around Northern Alberta and the boreal forest in an antique 1940s Luscombe airplane. Yes, Louis flies the plane while taking pictures. After chatting with the pair for a while, it was quite apparent these were some interesting individuals.

We squared away the rental agreement and they were back on the road. Next stop: a book signing in Kelowna. The moment they left my office, we were on Google to check out some of the photos.

Alluvial Fan, Albian Sands, Muskeg River Mine, Fort McKay, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Louis Helbig
Alluvial Fan, Albian Sands, Muskeg River Mine, Fort McKay, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Louis Helbig

The title sums it up perfectly. On purely an abstract level, the use of scale, colour, and rhythm are amazing. Flipping through the book it’s quite easy to get wrapped up in the aesthetic beauty of Louis’ work and completely forget what you’re looking at. The physical size of the book helps with this as well: it’s a monster. Just when you’re getting sucked into one of Helbig’s spiraling compositions, some subtle detail will peek out at you and remind you the enormity of the subject. Whoa, that little dot is a dump truck?

At his talk, Helbig noted that he lost a few friends when he invited members of the far-right to contribute essays to the project. But, I think by managing to get them on board he’s doing an amazing service to the cause. It’s so easy to get tucked away in our own little social spheres. We all just “like” and “de-friend” until it seems everybody is preaching to their own respective choirs. Louis and Kristen are demonstrating how great the arts can be in facilitating important conversations. If nothing else, you have to admire the guts of folks like Greg Stringham and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers for having their name anywhere near this project.

After briefly pausing in Helbig’s hometown of Williams Lake, the trio was back on the highway towards their current stead of Ottawa.


Beautiful Destruction has garnered praise from the likes of the New York Times, the Ottawa Citizen, and Maclean’s. Pick up a copy from the Open Book.



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