In my office there is a photo that sits in an old wooden frame on the bookshelf across from my desk. It isn’t much of a photo as far as it photographic value is considered. The sky is over exposed to the point of being pure white, the main subject is far too small to properly grab your attention. The print itself has seen years of abuse at the bottom of various moving boxes as it shuffled from house to house, place to place. It is scratched and faded and not wearing its 23 years of age all that well.
It is a pretty standard shot, of two grain elevators with a railway track running off in the distance. It is a scene that could have been taken in any small town on the prairies at any point over the last century or so. If you look really close you might be able to make out the word “Coaldale” painted on the elevator in the front and that would provide you with your only geographic clue.
However, if you take the photo from its frame and turn it over something new emerges. Written on the back of the photo, in simple printing it says “Dan Overes 1987”. If pictures are really worth a thousand words, that scrawl on the back of the photo would be the place to start the story.
I don’t know the exact date of the photo, but if I had to guess it was sometime in late September or early October. I was in my first semester of high school and I had signed up for a visual arts class. One of our first assignments was to take a SLR camera out around town and shoot some pictures. No pre-determined subject matter, just shoot whatever you wanted.
This was the first time I had ever handled a “real” camera. Sure, I had an old Kodak Instamatic that I had played with, but being handed a SLR was a brand new world. Even the act of loading film into it was a new experience — on my camera all you had to do was drop in the cartridge and wind it a couple of times.
Out of all the roles of film I shot and developed that semester, only three images stand out for me. The first was of water running through a “check” on an irrigational canal. That image stands out for me mainly because when I took that photo it seemed like it was a long way out of town, but not long after the town started building a new subdivision and golf course around that area, swallowing it up forever.
The second image that I specifically remember was a shot of our main street, taken while crossing the road. I remember it because it captured the sign of the old Gulf gas station which was situated on the corner. That gas station has long since been torn down and replaced with a modern 7-11. It leaves me with a sense of history to know that photo would look as dated to today’s Coaldale high schoolers as similar pictures taken in the 1950s looked to us back then.
Sadly, as far as I know, neither of those two images survive. They may be still sitting at the bottom of the box somewhere waiting to be re-discovered at some date in the future, but for now they are lost to the ages. No, only one of the three memorable images I shot still is around, and that is the picture of the elevators I first mentioned above.
I remember standing on the railway tracks, wanting to capture the twin rails of steel disappearing off onto the horizon. I remember how, even then, I really felt the power of photography and how we were documenting something for future generations. I remember trying to capture the feeling of the era, all the while knowing the black-and-white film we were using would give it a timeless look.
Those few months back in the Fall of ’87 were the only time I ever spent working in an actual darkroom developing actual film.
Now that simple shot — wrong in every photographic sense — still speaks to me across the years. It reminds me of those years in high school which were some of the best I ever had. It reminds me of my friends from that era, those I still remain in touch with and, more poignantly, those I have lost all contact with. It reminds me of driving into Lethbridge to shoot pool during our spares, of grabbing a coffee downtown and then frantically crashing into our desks in Mr. Evan’s Social Studies class before he deemed us to be late. One picture, a thousand memories…
That brings me back to today. One day a few weeks ago I was sitting at my desk looking at that picture and I decided to make a return trip to the ole hometown and try and take a modern day version of that shot. I get down to Lethbridge on a fairly regular basis, but visiting Coaldale is a rare and special thing for me.
This is how I found myself walking through the weeds heading for the train tracks in Coaldale last night. I had in my pocket a printed copy of the photo, with plans to try and line up the exact same shot once again.
It proved to be a challenge. The original photo was shot in portrait format and I simply couldn’t capture all the same key elements when I tried to shoot the same way today. Also, there was a train coming up behind me and I was pressed for time, so rather than waiting for it to pass I stood off to the side of the tracks to snap my shot.
The major landmarks were in place, the fertilizer tower to the left, the vet clinic to the right. The main rails and the side track were there, although the second side track which only had its rails pulled up in the ’87 photo was now nothing more than a pile of railway ties.
There were more street lights along the highway now and the trees had certainly grown a lot in the 23 years since the original photo. Most notably, one of the grain elevators which dominated the original photo has long since vanished, leaving just one still in place.
No, I wasn’t able to perfectly line up the shots to get an exact modern-day equivalent of the old shot, but that seems fitting. After nearly two-and-a-half decades I am not the same 14-year-old who took the original photo. I have had a third of a lifetime of experiences since then and so much has changed. At the time I took that photo I was less than three years away from leaving Coaldale and moving into a totally new era. Just as my dSLR and digital lightroom of today bears only a slight resemblence to the film and darkroom of the late 80s, so do I only bear a slight resemblence to the gawky teen standing on a set of railway tracks all those years ago.
You can get close, but you just can’t go home again…