'Hauntingly beautiful': Rural Sask.'s abandoned buildings captivate photographers

·3 min read

Chris Attrell preserves what others leave behind.

The Saskatchewan photographer has spent the better part of 15 years doing so, often criss-crossing Saskatchewan's back roads in a white Cadillac Deville to find lost buildings and overgrown front yards. Those subjects have inspired hundreds of portraits of abandoned places, charting family histories decades after people left their homes.

Attrell sees history and people where others may simply see an old car, an empty kitchen, or a sagging porch.

"That’s what I try to give people in my art: a sense of what it must have been like," he says.

The old, unwieldy subjects can make for slow work. Owls nest in attics and bedrooms. Abandoned yards are home to hidden water wells. Rusty nails sprout from collapsed sheds. Shotgun shells and liquor bottles litter living room floors. Walls can be covered in graffiti.

Attrell attributes some of the chaos to rural trespassers looking for easy entertainment. He ignores it, instead imagining a family gathered around a Christmas tree or a tube television. He thinks of a young couple walking across a now-overgrown front yard with a newborn, a grandparent passing away quietly in their sleep upstairs.

Without the stories in his head, all that's left is the furniture and the floorboards that nobody stripped.

Attrell's fascination with abandoned rural settings began when he first visited Saskatchewan from Alberta 17 years ago as he drove past the ghost towns dotting Highway 13. Attrell found himself wondering at the stories behind the abandoned buildings.

“Why did these people leave? Entire towns, gone. Half of them on Highway 13 weren’t there anymore, or (there was) almost nothing,” he says.

He moved to Shaunavon, a town near Highway 13, in 2006 and began shooting abandoned structures in the area regularly.

Capturing photos of abandonment works best in the fall or winter. Instead of long stretches of clouds and canola fields, Attrell prefers bare trees and bled-out colours of aged wood.

“There’s a hauntingly beautiful look to everything that you can’t really capture in summer,” he says.

Though rural photography was a common pastime, Attrell's use of night skies and minimal photo editing have drawn attention online.

“A lot of people have been exploring ghost towns for some time, but he put it out there and made it cool,” says Leanna Jenkins, a photographer who takes lessons with him.

Attrell worries the influx of photographers seeking to capture images of forgotten Saskatchewan in the last decade may cause some abandoned places to lose their allure, particularly if people are not respectful. In one case, the owner of a site Attrell frequented tore down an abandoned house because a different photographer was conducting unauthorized tours around the property.

Attrell, for his part, always asks permission before going onto private property for a shoot.

Jazzy Pearl, a Saskatoon photographer who used to take classes with Attrell, similarly believes abandoned buildings are special and deserve to be well-treated.

“(These buildings) are all crumbling apart. Not useless, but (they) have no purpose anymore and they’re sitting still there. (They're) a remembrance of what once was there, of the people who were there. You know nothing about them," Pearl says.

“It’s like being in a living museum where you can appreciate peoples’ lives and how they lived."

Years after he first wondered why people left those abandoned homes on Highway 13, Attrell is slowly getting answers. Some of the former residents of the those homes have contacted him after seeing his photos. Many are elderly, and seeing the photos brings them back to standing on their front porches and playing as children in now-abandoned kitchens.

For many homeowners, what they remember about their lives along Highway 13 is "the silence, the stillness, the nothingness," Atrell says.

"Once they became adults they moved to a town or a city and they haven’t experienced that since. So when they see the pictures, it's like they can go back and feel it.”

Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix