Ghosts in the Badlands – Visiting Dorothy, AB
The first thing you notice when you step out of your car is the silence. It isn’t an empty silence though, you soon realize. You hear the breeze that pushes the empty swings in the long abandoned playground, and whips the disintegrating Canada flag still flying on the top of a nearby building, the song of the birds darting in and out of the old grain elevator, idle since the early 1950s. And if you listen and look carefully, you may just make out the whispering voices of all the long gone people that have passed through this place before you.
What is it about these desolate and decaying places that draws us in? As a photographer, the first thing that I see is the aesthetic appeal of the details: the beautiful silvery patina of age on the wood of an old house, the rich textures and colours of peeling paint in the warm afternoon sun. I take in the dramatic landscape that surrounds this isolated little settlement, imagining what it must have felt like in the days before making contact with the world beyond your town became commonplace and easy.
Once I’ve had my fill of rusted bolts and cracked and dirty windowpanes, however, the imagined narrative is what keeps me shooting, makes me slow down and look a little closer, and yields the richest photographs.
Maybe I’ll see something through the grime coating the window of the abandoned shop that gives me a twinge of nostalgia and reminds me of something I played with as a child. Maybe I’ll be sitting in the pew of one of the two tiny churches (both lovingly restored by a small group of local volunteers) and catch a fleeting glimpse of some of the couples who were married, the babies who were baptized, the people who sought the calm and comfort of this traditional meeting place in decades past.
I may find myself at the now forsaken Atlas Coal Mine, wondering how I could take a photo that would capture the image in my mind’s eye, the image that the years and years of coal dust have printed onto the walls and floors, the image of a young man who has spent the day working here, who walks out into a shaft of sun as the day wanes, and heads for home in what was once the bustling town of Dorothy, Alberta; a town populated now only by ghosts, and the stories that have been left behind, told by the buildings and artifacts – stories written in the accumulated dust of many desolate prairie decades.
If you’d like to experience Ghost Town, Alberta for yourself, join Greg Gerla and Julya Hajnocky of Studio 122 in August for a day-long, on-location workshop, featuring behind-the-scenes access to some of the most stunning sites in the area. For more information and to register, go to studio122.org/workshops