Two Alberta photographers use Victorian-era process to record a visual journey

Procession West exhibit shows the glorious results of non-digital photography

Jackets and Chair (photo by Robert Michiel).

A man’s suit jacket is shown hanging inside a deteriorating grain silo in the photographic exhibit Procession West at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery.

Like a companion image of a decaying piano left in the forest, the silo photo suggests the unknowable story of forgotten settlers in the Canadian West.

But leftover traces of humanity are only part of the pictorial tale that’s told in black-and-white images by Alberta photographers Robert Michiel and Robert Pohl.

Their joint exhibit also shows a land seemingly unspoiled by people — breathtaking vistas of windswept trees along the West Coast, and Prairie grasses rippling like waves under a turbulent sky.

These striking photos were all achieved through a very old process. Far from being quick-shot digital photographers, Pohl and Michiel use a deliberate, painstaking procedure associated with the Victorian era.

Their large, accordion-pleated view cameras sit on tripods and require one large negative at a time to be hand-inserted in front of the lens. Light-blocking blankets are pulled over the photographers’ heads so they can make out upside-down images, reflected on rudimentary view-finders.

At a time when digital cameras can display clear pictures the second they are taken, Pohl and Michiel — who bonded over their old-school approach — still enjoy the surprises, imperfections and experimentation that comes with methodically developing prints in a darkroom.

“The difference is in the control you have… It’s a different mindset,” said Pohl.

Michiel likened the carefulness of this approach to his respect for the landscape.

Although his knapsack weights 30 lbs, Michiel tries to tread lightly on his expeditions — unlike some tourists he observed in Utah, tearing up delicate ecosystems in their race to get umpteen digital frames shot in two to three hours.

By contrast, Michiel’s photographic process is very slow. He recalled capturing only one good image — of driftwood on Vancouver Island — from a day-long excursion that was blighted by bad weather.

The Calgary native, now based in Vernon, B.C., is drawn to the coast because of his love of the ocean, and the challenge of getting a striking image from a field of green, over-abundant forest.

Edmonton photographer Pohl tends to mostly shoot in his own Prairie environment, including old farms in Central Alberta and the badlands, and Russian settlements north of Edmonton.

“I’d like viewers to gain an understanding and an appreciation of what Western Canadian homesteaders went through,” he said — of their struggles and sacrifices to live in this beautiful, austere land.

The exhibit continues to June 25.


Northville Altar (photo by Robert Pohl).

Comber’s Beach Drift Pile (photo by Robert Michiel).

Windswept Tree (photo by Robert Michiel).

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