Shaunavon, Sask., photographer reflects on book 16 years in the making, shooting NEOWISE comet –

After years of traveling to secluded areas to visit abandoned buildings, finding himself stuck in snow, with flat tires and cracked windshields, a Saskatchewan-based photographer says it was all worth it.

Shaunavon’s Chris Attrell was able to combine two of his passions — photography and history — when creating Forgotten Saskatchewan, a 16-year project that concluded last year when the book was published. 

“Saskatchewan’s been the jackpot for this, because it’s so remote in some places and there’s so many cool buildings like grain elevators,” Attrell told CBC Radio

His personal favourites were the one-room rural schools he was able to find. In one instance, he found a school that still had the desks inside.

Attrell said he also loved the rural churches he found. 

Attrell described the churches he found as the social networks of the day for rural communities, where people would learn the daily happenings when they attended on Sundays.  (Supplied/Chris Attrell)

He found the farmhouses he discovered often had sentimental value to those who owned them, or whose families used to own them. 

“You do get that sense of what life was like back in those days. Like imagine 1951, you didn’t have internet. Most of them didn’t have phones, heat, plumbing, that’s the stuff I try to imagine,” Attrell said. 

Shooting NEOWISE

Attrell has recently turned his attention to shooting the NEOWISE comet, which is a collection of ice and debris collected from our solar system. He’s created a how-to guide of sorts. 

“In Saskatchewan, you get really clear skies without a lot of light pollution,” Attrell said. 

He said he’s mostly spent time in the southwest part of the province shooting the comet, using the knowledge he built while shooting Forgotten Saskatchewan

Capturing the comet isn’t that difficult. The hardest parts are staying awake to do so, and operating cameras in the dark while dealing with mosquitoes. 

Attrell said anyone looking to photograph the comet needs to use a tripod and needs to know how to operate their camera in manual mode, rather than an automatic or pre-set mode. 

“You have to shoot a long exposure, probably 15 to 30 seconds long, in order to capture it because it’s dark out,” he explained. 

“And then of course, you have to know how to set your aperture, probably to 3.5 and an ISO of like 3200. If you can do that with your camera and in focus, you’ll be able to get a great shot of the comet.”

For those who are stable enough, he said he was able to pull off a shot of NEOWISE with his cellphone.

He noted that moonlight could affect people’s shots and said now is a good time, as it’s starting to fade away. 

The NEOWISE comet can be found 90 minutes after the sunset in the northwest part of the sky above the horizon. After your eyes have adjusted to the dark, Attrell said the comet is visible to the naked eye.

‘It never gets boring’

When Attrell started his work that culminated in Forgotten Saskatchewan, he said he was still living in Banff, Alta.

He said he would frequently visit the land of living skies in the spring and summer months and eventually moved to Saskatchewan in 2006. 

‘Sometimes when you’re at these places, if you could just tune out all the other stuff going on around you, you can almost imagine you’re stepping back in time,’ says Chris Attrell. (Supplied/Chris Attrell)

Attrell said his decision to move to Saskatchewan was driven in part by his work on the project and also because houses were much more reasonably priced than they were in Alberta.

He said he had a lot of fun with the project, despite all the times he ended up with broken or cracked windshields, flat tires, and numerous tows out of deep snow from roadside assistance — something he said is necessary for those pursuing photos in rural Saskatchewan.

It was all worth it for Attrell, though.

“It never gets boring,” he said. 

“It’s not just about photography. You meet the most interesting people, you hear the most interesting stories, and you find the most fascinating places in Saskatchewan.”