About halfway into Abandoned Alberta — Joe Chowaniec’s 2020 photography book documenting the dozens of abandoned communities scattered across the province — one particular image stands out from the procession of teetering farmhouses, vacant mine shafts and rusted-out pickup trucks. It’s a photograph of the Northlands Coliseum, shot by Chowaniec on a winter’s day from the opposite side of the arena’s parking lot. Once the site of Edmonton’s greatest sporting triumphs, the arena has been unused ever since the Oilers’ move to Rogers Place in 2018. The building now sits as a quiet monument to mid-’70s architecture, stripped of any reminders of its former glory and patiently awaiting its demolition by the municipal government. And although the building’s exterior is still completely intact, Chowaniec’s choice to include it among the crumbling ruins of Abandoned Alberta sends a pointed message about the impermanence of our structures.
“The city wouldn’t let me into [the arena] because they didn’t want anyone to know it was abandoned,” Chowaniec tells me, the two of us meeting at the Abandoned Alberta exhibition currently on display at the Royal Alberta Museum. “To me, that [photograph] was important because it’s abandoned and it’s going to be gone. It’s going to be gone from history and there won’t be any more pictures of it.”
It may seem like an especially bleak outlook to have on a 17,000-seat arena that hosted seven Stanley Cup finals series, but it’s a perspective that has been shaped by Chowaniec’s countless hours crisscrossing the province, photographing the remains of Alberta’s once teeming countryside. In his travels, he has come across sprawling farmhouses left to fend for themselves against nature’s creeping advance, and entire communities that disappeared soon after the coal dried up. The photos themselves contain the haunting presence of failed ambitions, promises of prosperity and the slow, undeniable march of time. But, for Chowaniec, they also possess an incredible beauty.
“People see some of the photos as sad because it looks like [the buildings are] ruined or derelict. But I see beauty,” Chowaniec says. “There’s something about them. It’s something that draws you in and makes you want to learn more.”
It was that same curiosity that first got Chowaniec started on the Abandoned Alberta project back in 2016, shortly after rediscovering his childhood love of photography. Tasked with travelling around the province during his day job as the executive director of the Environmental Services Association of Alberta, Chowaniec made the fateful decision one day to take his camera along with him on a drive through the countryside. He eventually found himself being drawn to the abandoned farm buildings he noticed on the side of the road.
“When I looked through the camera and clicked a picture, I saw something different than what I saw with my eye,” he says. That trip was the beginning of Chowaniec’s fascination with photographing abandoned farm buildings and, at the urging of his wife and friends, he started a Facebook page to document his discoveries. The page amassed over 17,000 followers by the end of 2018 (as of writing, the page has almost 50,000 followers), at which point Chowaniec received a phone call from a publisher interested in turning it into a hardcover book. Chowaniec was skeptical at first (“From my research, I [knew that] publishers don’t contact people. So I ignored them.”), but after agreeing on a title and a deadline, he dove headfirst into a project that would see him amass thousands of kilometres on his odometer and capture over 2,000 photographs. That number would be whittled down to the 132 photographs that appear in the Abandoned Alberta book, before being further reduced to the 30 on display at the Royal Alberta Museum.
“I didn’t know how many books we were gonna sell. I thought it would have been good to sell ten if we could,” Chowaniec says. “But hopefully when people flip through the book, they wonder something like, Oh, that’s cool. Hopefully, it makes them think more about some of these places.”
Chowaniec makes a point of not staging any of the photos, with the exception of occasionally using an upturned phone flashlight to create a glowing effect from inside the buildings. He also tries his best to uncover the stories of the sites he photographs, gleaning information from community archives, surrounding residents or observant followers on the Abandoned Alberta Facebook page.
“A lot of people like the history. It brings back memories,” he says. “People remember their grandparents taking them there for a dance, or that’s the church where their grandparents got married. I posted a picture the other day of a grocery store in [Bruce, Alberta] and people were telling me the names of the owners, they remember going there and buying a bag of candy for five cents — and I just love hearing that stuff. It brings people happiness and joy.”
Chowaniec is also intrigued by the stories we may never know, whose mysteries are locked away deep inside each one of the photographs. He hopes that it can be a catalyst that awakens Albertans’ curiosity about their collective past.
“For the museum to pick it up is really cool, because I think it tells us that there’s a history, right? It’s not the history that you normally see, but I hope that when people drive around and they see a sign for Big Valley, they stop and do the tour. Or do the tour at Nordegg. Or go to Rowley, which is probably the coolest ghost town around.”
The Abandoned Alberta community exhibition is free to view at the Royal Alberta Museum until January 2022. You can also follow the Abandoned Alberta project on its Facebook page or purchase the book at the RAM Shop.