A new photo show depicts altered landscapes and old buildings

ART by Gregory Beatty

Photo by Don Hall

Don Hall: Structures And Artifacts
Mata Gallery
Until Aug. 1

When I visited Regina photographer Don Hall in his studio, he was still finalizing the exact composition of his show Structures And Artifacts. He had a lot of material to work with. Photographs I saw included shots of a grassed-over rifle pit at the Battle of the Little Big Horn historic site in Montana, ice-fishing shacks on Crooked Lake near Melville, “the World’s Largest Tomahawk” in Cut Knife, a weather-beaten ranch sign near Cypress Hills, potash rail cars with graffiti on them, a brick smokestack from a torn-down factory in North Dakota, and a shot of the postmaster at Yellowgrass standing in front of his store.

Born in Humboldt in 1951, Hall studied photography after graduating from high school and has worked as a professional photographer in Saskatchewan for 40 years. Recently retired from his position as manager of the University of Regina’s photography department, Hall is exhibiting Structures and Artifacts at Mata Gallery until Aug. 1. I spoke with him about the show last month.

How would you describe the work in Structures and Artifacts?

There’s some portraits of people I’ve encountered when I’ve been out photographing, but it’s mostly landscapes taken in the last two years. I’ve done some road trips into Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. So it’s pretty much the western plains. That’s the landscape I’ve always been interested in. I also have an interest in the settlement of the west and how that history is connected to the landscape.

We think of the Prairies as this vast, empty wilderness. It is vast, and it’s mostly empty, but it’s not true wilderness.

The plains have been altered probably more than any other landscape, so it’s pretty hard to photograph a natural and pristine landscape. That’s part of what I’m interested in — not so much the natural landscape, but places that have some presence of human activity.

What process did you follow to take the photographs?

Some are from when I’ve been doing commercial assignments. I’m travelling around the province, and spot things on my way to do something else. We usually do a few road trips every summer too. If we have time we’ll take side roads or pull into towns and wander around the main street.

One of my first one-person shows at the Dunlop in the 1970s was called Main Street Photographs. They were about architecture, and being able to look down the street and see the landscape in the distance. That’s something I’ve always liked about smaller communities. You have a greater sense of the environment — you can actually see the horizon, and what’s beyond the towns.

Looking at the photos now it seems like a lot of the communities you visited, it’s not like they’re outright ghost towns, but they have aspects of decline and decay.

First the farms go, then the towns go. It’s kind of sad because they represent all these failed hopes and endeavours. What’s left are the buildings, so there’s this sense of melancholy. When you photograph spaces like that, and artifacts that had a specific purpose in the space, there’s always a narrative that’s developed.

Do you play a role as a photographer in creating that narrative?

I’m not really developing a narrative. These spaces have a special quality and character. Ideally, when someone looks at the photograph that will be conjured in their mind. They might be somewhat ambiguous, but whoever’s looking at them can develop their own narrative about what the space is about and what might have been going on there.

Do you regard these photographs as nostalgic?

I think of myself primarily as a documentary photographer and I think of these images as historical documents. Part of the reason might be because I’ve worked with a lot of archives over the years, so I have an interest in historical photographs. But they do document a particular space and time. I don’t see them as being sentimental, but there is an element of nostalgia, which I don’t see as a negative. A good part of my youth was spent in smaller towns. You always photograph what you know. And I do have nostalgia for being in the rural landscape and smaller communities.

Not all the photographs are of the Western plains. Some are set in Mexico and Cuba. How did those happen?

They’re from our travels. I’ve only been to Cuba once; it’s an amazing place. Havana’s probably the most exotic city I’ve ever seen. The architecture is incredible. There’s Spanish Colonial, Art Deco from the 1920s and ’30s, there’s even some mid-century Modern — and that’s pretty much where it stops, outside of some Soviet influences, but they’re not very interesting. Some restoration work is going on, but a lot of it’s not in very good shape.

You spoke about growing up in small-town Saskatchewan and photographing what you know. When you were in Mexico and Cuba, did you have any sensitivity about not wanting to put any presumptions on the people, architecture and artifacts in the spaces?

Being a tourist in those environments, these are pretty much topographical descriptions of spaces and objects. I don’t claim to have any sort of insight into what the culture is about. I’m there for a week or two, so it’s pretty much me describing a space and time.