There is temptation looking through Louis Helbig’s “Beautiful Destruction” to get caught up in a rant that hasn’t much to do with the content of the work, and getting past that may require a second glance. A colleague made a short film recently wherein one character notices how it is important to have awkward conversations in order for forgiveness to take place. I believe “Beautiful Destruction” is intended as an awkward conversation. As far as photography goes, I follow Janet Malcolm’s comparison of Thomas Struth and Garry Winogrand. She commented on seeing more detail, and therefore gleaning more information from Struth’s pictures, during a recent dialog in Aperture magazine. Helbig’s pictures lack detail when compared to the photographs of Edward Burtinsky, especially when compared to Burtinsky’s “Quarries.” This is where I place aesthetic achievement in making photographs, even though the work is meant, I believe, as a point of departure for a larger conversation.
Which is not to say that there is no formal interest in the photographs in “Beautiful Destruction”. I admire Helbig’s comparison of an overhead photograph of children’s toys, and the similar pattern of a field strewn with big machines and parts; the latter in context seems like a debased form of play. This also brings to mind an art-critical comment on Jacopo de’ Barbari’s “View of Venice”. This is a famous example, one commentator wrote that images of this kind, from a godlike perspective far above, were “completely outside” the conditions of the camera obscura. I don’t want to take too much issue with the idea that an overhead map from 1500 differs from a detailed reconnaissance photograph, it is a point that is so obvious deconstructing it seems unnecessary, and the camera obscura is a distant relative of today’s cameras, but I think there is something interesting about the insight gained from a new and different vantage, and the advantage gained with the use of a camera never ceases to fascinate. Taking a different view sometimes yields productive results, changing lenses, so to speak… And I think this is the rationale of how “Beautiful Destruction” was organized, and explains how it uses different techniques and cultural perspectives to make a sort of crosscurrent of science, politics, and polemics.
I was thinking while looking at the most abstract views in the book, of bitumen slicks and sulpher piles, of land art, or “earth art”, and especially of Robert Smithson’s “Broken Circle” or “Spiral Jetty”. The destructive sublime and the picturesque turn inside out when compared to intentional works that focus attention on how a “gash in the ground” can be many things. The subjects in “Beautiful Destruction” are not dynamic in that way, they are deformations that do not result not from aesthetic invention. The camera renders the sublime, but what could be called “beauty” has more to do with the process that goes on after these subjects were captured as images in time. The valuable contribution that “Beautiful Destruction” serves goes beyond the tendency to reduce what one sees to easy explanation. Rocky Mountain Books, the publisher, continues to produce the highest quality photography books in Canada, this one is provocative, timely, and worthwhile.