Photographer Louis Helbig is archiving aerial views of Canadian villages drowned by the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway on his website Sunken Villages. The photos are haunting and gorgeous, almost emerald-like, but often difficult to read. Outlines of houses and roads barely emerge from the silt like scenes from a dream by J.G. Ballard, resembling flooded stage sets in the water that, in some photos, are lazily criss-crossed by boats.
The shot seen above, featuring a "barn with octagonal silo," or the photo simply described as two buildings in Riverside Heights—an overly optimistic name for a town that now finds itself underwater—exemplify the dreamlike nature of the scenes.
Some of the lost architectural features of the region are now SCUBA-diving attractions, Helbig explains.
"Two Buildings Riverside Heights" by Louis Helbig.
Helbig relays the extraordinary history of these villages on his site, including a brief introduction to the dispersed former residents who still refer to things like "Inundation Day" as a perverse local anniversary.
"Down Altsville East to West" by Louis Helbig.
"The St. Lawrence Seaway was the largest industrial project of its time," he writes. "A feat of unprecedented industrial accomplishment, it eliminated the powerful Long Sault Rapids and opened the Great Lakes to the ocean-going vessels of its era. In the rapids' place, Lake St. Lawrence became the headwater for a massive hydroelectric dam."
"Doran Point Buildings in May" by Louis Helbig.
The project began purely by accident, while flying over a body of water and looking down, spotting the outlines of architecture in the shallows below:
The first path began in the air in late 2009 when, flying over the St. Lawrence River, I spotted, quite by chance, a rectangular outline in the clear, blue-green water. At first I didn’t quite believe what I thought I was seeing—I had never heard of such a thing as houses, let alone whole communities, under water in Canada and the United States. A few turns later, I found a road and some more foundations; the entire thing snapped into place with a sidelong glance at the dam in the distance between Cornwall, Ontario, Canada and Massena, New York, USA.
Deciding both to memorialize and, in a sense, to warn others about the experience of loss these artificial floods have led to, Helbig's project is both abstract and documentarian—and, even better, it is currently on display at the Marianne van Silfhout Gallery at St. Lawrence College, so you can see the photos in person.
"Lot 3317 E. Campbell Property" by Louis Helbig.
The show closes on November 2.
"Downtown Aultsville" by Louis Helbig.