Breathtaking

An abandoned church in rural Saskatchewan

Photographer Chris Attrell has been exploring Saskatchewan since 2003 to record abandoned and forgotten places with his camera and some of his favourite photos from these excursions are now on display at the Eastend Public Library.

The exhibition Forgotten Saskatchewan is presented by the Artisans Guild of Eastend and will be on display until March 30. An artist reception will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 31.

“I've been photographing these kinds of buildings for 15 years now, and it's amazing how many people are not even aware that they exist,” he said. “People ask all the time where is this. … So I'm trying to bring them back to become not forgotten.”

The 22 images in the exhibition include old grain elevators, abandoned farm buildings, rural churches that are now without a congregation, and other forgotten structures.

His work has been shown before, but this is the first formal exhibit under the Forgotten Saskatchewan theme. He will be happy to take this exhibit to other places in the province if a community or organization is interested in hosting it.

“Hopefully I can get a variety of them all over Saskatchewan, because I love doing this,” he said. “I especially love showing it and talking to retirees and old timers, because they love coming to these shows. Everywhere I go I get a whole bunch of them coming and they really enjoy it and I enjoy it. So hopefully I can get this all across Saskatchewan this year.”

The images that will be displayed in future Forgotten Saskatchewan exhibitions will likely vary from those in the current one

“I'm going to mix them up a bit, because when you go to some parts of Saskatchewan, I have enough pictures that I can have more of a local feel to them as well as a variety of my favourites,” Attrell said. “And of course, I would like some input from the place who is hosting it to see if there's some that they specifically want.”

For the current exhibition at the Eastend Public Library he decided to select photographs that are his personal favourites.

“It's a combination of they were hard to find, it was bad weather, I did a very good job,” he mentioned. “There's a combination of reasons why they're my favourites, but that's why I selected these ones.”

He has noticed a growing interest in these images of abandoned old structures since he started taking them 15 years ago. Few people were then trying to find these buildings to photograph them, but now more people are doing the same thing.

“I think it's because they've sort of forgotten about it, they don't see it anymore,” he said. “There used to be grain elevators everywhere, but now they're mostly torn down and these churches. I think there is a nostalgia, plus they photograph really nicely. It just makes it seem like a larger than life Saskatchewan. This is out there, but it is hidden. So it's like a mystery almost.”

Attrell feels it is important to have his photographs displayed in an exhibition, because they look better in real life than when one look at them on a computer screen. On a personal level there is also a sense of satisfaction to have his work in an exhibition.

“As an artist you actually take the time and care to go at the right times, the expense,” he said. “It really feels wonderful that people value it enough that you can be in a gallery. … I get to connect with the audience and there is a certain sense that I really am accomplishing something important here.”

Information on the internet has made it easier to find abandoned structures, but the still prefers to do it the old-fashioned way by driving out into the landscape and talking to people.

“Back in the days, before cellphones, it was very difficult,” he said. “I would just have to go down any grid road I could find to locate stuff. However, to find grain elevators and churches you generally go to a community that no longer exists, like a ghost town, and usually you'll find one. I did get into the habit of going to the local gas stations or local stores and asking people if there were any buildings in their area, and then if I found something, I'll take pictures of it and if it is on private property, I'll find the owner and get permission.”

People often refer to his photographs as hauntingly beautiful, but it takes a lot of effort and planning to take images that reflect a certain atmosphere.

Good lighting is important and it is usually not possible to get a good result when taking photographs in the middle of the day. He loves night photography and bad weather photography and will therefore plan to return to a place at an appropriate time.

“I'll often come back during bad weather and every place has it's own identity,” he said. “You can usually find an interesting foreground, like an abandoned car or a windmill in the background to give it's own unique angle without having to shoot the same way over and over. It does take a few minutes, sometimes as much as half an hour, to immerse yourself in the subject, to look for that angle and trying to give that unique quality.”

Attrell’s interest in photography started when he was a child and he always had a camera, but it became more than just a hobby when he was living in Banff around 2003, when he made his first photographic excursion into Saskatchewan. He became fascinated with the abandoned buildings and ghost towns of the prairies, and he moved to Shaunavon in 2006.

“When I moved to Saskatchewan I started taking the photography part more serious,” he said. “So the combination of the relationship between Saskatchewan and my camera really got me excited about turning this into more than just picture tinkering.”

He describes Saskatchewan as a living museum where one can still find old buildings that reflect the past and the history of an area.

“When I was living in Alberta, every town seemed like they just tear down old churches, old grain elevators, one-roomed schools,” he said. “Everything is cleared out completely. In Saskatchewan there's so many people that take the time and the care to try and preserve a lot of these buildings. They didn't just knock everything down.”

In addition to taking photographs he is also teaching photography classes across western Canada. The goal of these classes are to assist people to use their digital cameras more effectively and to get away from just taking photographs on the camera’s auto mode.

“There's this perception that you have to learn everything about your camera in order to do so, but that's not actually true with the digital camera age,” he said. “You can be taught in three hours how to get off auto, get nice pictures, and not have to learn all of your features.”

He prefers to do as little editing as possible to his images. The current trend towards extensive editing of images in Photoshop or other editing programs therefore does not appeal to him. Instead, his next goal as a photographer is to return to the basics by taking black and white photographs.

“When you do black and white, you really have to pay attention to your lighting, you have to pay attention to your bright and dark areas, the leading light, the composition rules,” he said. “In most cameras you can actually shoot in black and white. You don't have to shoot in colour and convert later. So that's why, when you shoot in black and white, you're actually becoming a better photographer rather than compensating by spending two hours in Photoshop to fix it.”

For more information about Attrell’s upcoming photography classes and to see his photographs, visit his website at www.anywhere.ca

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