National Post – A River Runs Over It

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National Post, Friday May 27, 2011

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


National Post Avenue 2 page spread on the Sunken Villages

National Post Avenue 2 page spread on the Sunken Villages