The long abandoned Laing Farm House, located on the vast and endless Alberta Plains northeast of Calgary in Kneehill County, was constructed just over a century ago, A wonderfully picturesque building, even in its current state of advanced decay, it stands alone far from any road or access on the edge of a very scenic coulee. What a great place, where photography and history blend together.
This trip we tag along with noted medium and large format film photographer and good friend Robert Pohl. Film? In a digital world? Really? Sounds crazy. Oh, we’ve got to be part of this! Yes, let’s break out the the film camera, the first time we done it in a good dozen or more years. We have a nice 35mm rig collecting dust in the closet. Might as well bring it out of retirement.
As it turns out, we so enjoyed the film experience (Rob is on to something here), that I know we’ll be shooting it more. Not all the time, but when the mood catches us.
Emulating how Rob does it, we’ll shoot black and white. Black and white…that makes us artists! Accompanying him and a pretty darn good film photographer in her own right, is his eldest daughter, Hailey.
Our subject today is a lonely farm house, which we’ve known of for many years but for one reason or another until now had never visited. It’s a particularly pleasing one both in design and settings and since no roads lead to it, one must hike in, it’s not that well photographed. Perfect, that’s how we like it. We visited with permission.
All that remains of this farm is the house. No barn, no outbuildings, no evidence of either, just the grass, the coulee, the wind, and little else and this fine old dwelling.
Built around 1911, the two story house belonged to the Laing Family, Thomas and Rose and thier children. They raised cattle and horses – these coulees and river valleys are great for gazing and are still used as such today – and farmed a little on the flatter land above.
The family moved out of the house just after World War One, first settling in the Okanagan region of BC and later in High River Alberta, only to return to the farm in the mid-1920s. The house was rented out while they were gone. Fast forward to the 1970s, the eldest Laings have passed on and the farm and associated land sold. It appears at this time, or shortly thereafter, the building ceased to be lived in.
I’d sure love to know more of what happened in that big gap of time.
Some forty years later and the Laing house is in rough shape, but still elegant in way. It’s leaning, weather beaten and open to the elements, and likely does not have many more years left before it falls into itself. It’s mostly empty (unless one counts bird poop, in which case it’s VERY full) save for an old McClary stove found in the kitchen. A bay window looks out onto the prairies. Not a bad view.
The house’s location is both charming and beautiful, but at the same time it’d clearly be a lonely place, especially so on a cold winter’s day. It took a great deal of fortitude to live so isolated from civilization. Even the nearest neighbour was some distance away!
While we did shoot film this trip, the digital camera got a good workout. Our film rig, by the way, is a late 1980s era Minolta X700, a nice higher end consumer grade 35mm camera, along with a whole plethora of lens and accessories. We acquired it in a rather complicated trade some years back, the details of which I don’t really recall anymore, and this was the first time we used it. It sure was a learning experience and having become so used to digital, we found things a bit awkward and strange. We had to concentrate, think hard and really, really slow down, the latter a real challenge for hyper types like us.
In the end, most of our film photos were nothing great. Our camera, cranky from years of storage and lack of use no doubt, was sometimes metering wrong and our manual focusing a bit off (turns out I need glasses). Next pass, we’ll do better. The camera has been cleaned up and is working as it’s supposed to and me, I’m due to get some specs soon (and maybe a viewfinder correction eyepiece).
I bet most of you find Rob’s camera interesting. It is. It’s an Ebony brand large format bellows style view camera (the film sheets are huge) that looks old but is really quite new and even modern in many ways. Functionally though, it’s much like its older brethren. Everything is set manually. No auto anything here. Skill, real skill, is needed.
Made of wood and titanium, it’s a real piece of craftsmanship, a functionalist sculpture. To shoot one single frame require minutes and minutes of planning and setting up. Align, adjust, focus, refocus, meter, set, load, check, click…one image is captured. This takes dedication. Being a bit quirky helps too.
No lightweight, this camera and all its accessorizes and the massive tripod needed to support it, together weight a great deal and just getting it from the car to the the farm house was a lot of work. Rob does art, and the artist must suffer. You might find it interesting, but he has an even larger rig but it’s too much of a camera for most jobs.
Connie found a paper in the house. That’s not so odd, we often find old documents in abandoned buildings, expect this one showed something pretty amazing. Seen on that page was a drawing of a bellows style camera (and a description of how it functioned), one very much like Rob’s. What’s the odds? If that’s not strangely coincidental and even a bit eerie, I don’t know what is.
Hailey uses a 1990s era Hasselblad medium format camera, a relative compact model when compared to her dads. This would have been pro gear back when new. Real pro gear. Our 35mm seems so toy like now.
We are so very fortunate to shoot with people like Rob. We certainly learned a lot watching how it’s done. Why talented photographers want to hang with us is a bit of mystery, not that we’re complaining. We’re at best sloppy no-nothing hacks, with crap equipment, but I guess we do have fun and we always like to experiment and explore and learn. Maybe that’s the key. Make it fun and an educational experience.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: May, 2015.
Location: Near Carbon AB.
Article sources: Book: Carbon – our history, our heritage; Kneehill County records.
All photos were taken with the landowner’s permission.
From that first roll of film…