A photographer’s love letter to Edmonton

When travel was cancelled, I switched my focus towards my hometown and found a new perspective.

A suburban Taco Time in west Edmonton gets a new perspective through the lens of writer and photographer Shawna Lemay.Shawna Lemay

This First Person article is from Shawna Lemay, a writer and photographer who has lived in the west Edmonton suburb of Ormsby Place for more than 20 years. Her story is part of The Henday Project, a CBC Edmonton initiative focused on the suburbs. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

It’s a short drive from my home in suburban Edmonton to a place that feels like Arizona.

When I’m hungry for a photographic fix, I take a northbound road to a west-end parking lot where the Taco Time awaits. On this winter day, I’m hoping for snow on the cactus but instead, I find a sandy windrow — part sandcastle, part ski hill — with the restaurant’s sign rising majestically between two peaks.

When the pandemic suspended travel, it uprooted the identity that my partner and I — an artist and writer-photographer — had been creating for ourselves. In November 2018 and again in 2019, we went to Rome. That, we’d decided, was going to be our thing.

The first year, I photographed the obvious places: the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum and Trevi Fountain. The next year, we dug in and found lesser-known sights. In 2020, our plan was to head even more off the beaten tourist track to allow our sightseeing to go deeper and find more authentic experiences.

Shawna Lemay liked to find unexpected juxtapositions in Rome like this man on a cellphone at the Santa Maria Basilica in Trastevere (Shawna Lemay)

COVID-19 had other plans, and we, like so many others, stayed local.

I missed the practice of framing the world through my viewfinder. I began wondering what I would find if I photographed my city as I would photograph Rome? If I looked at Edmonton, so often described in terms of ugliness, with love-coloured glasses?

Rainy reflections: A taxi travels on a seemingly deserted Jasper Avenue in downtown Edmonton in November 2021. Two years earlier, Lemay snapped this photo of St. Peter’s Basilica mirrored in a puddle. (Shawna Lemay)

At first, the photos I took in Rome informed my pictures of Edmonton. I started downtown, photographing its people and buildings. I took photos of our Flatiron Building and the Walterdale Bridge. Instead of the Tiber, the North Saskatchewan River.

Rivers and crossings: The North Saskatchewan Rivers flows under Edmonton’s High Level Bridge; in Rome, the ancient Ponte Sant’Angelo brings people across the Tiber River. (Shawna Lemay)

Then on my travels back and forth to my home in the suburbs, other things caught my eye.

Like the electrifying interval when the golden hour heightens the orange of a Hughes Gas Station. The office of the Algonquin Motel, like a scene from a movie — sombrero, Old Milwaukee beer calendar on the wall, potted cacti in the window.

Even the surreal sense of being transported to California’s Venice Beach, thanks to the faded Alpine Motel sign on Stony Plain Road with the inflatable Muscle Beach guy on the roof next door. At a time when travel was impossible, the juxtaposition of a derelict motel and a muscle beach seemed extra amusing.

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Scenes from the commute to Edmonton suburbia: the faded sign of long-closed motel; the golden hour brings a glow to a car wash; a peek through the office window of Stony Plain Road motel; the Alberta sky at twilight adds majesty to a strip mall grocery store.

And, of course, my stalwart Taco Time, a place I’ve framed from multiple angles, in different seasons.

That mid-winter capture found some love on social media. It helps to be from here, to understand the heaps of snow in our parking lots, the sand that keeps roads driveable, the sad but comforting vibe of a strip mall.

Maybe it’s because this is the time of year that many people become snowbirds and that’s why the photo resonated, made people laugh. Is that a hill on a sandy beach in Arizona? Nope, just an Edmonton parking lot in the dead of winter.

Winter hues: The blues of downtown Edmonton in November 2020. (Shawna Lemay)

Once known as The Gateway to the North, Edmonton is a place people like to leave — or, at the very least, pass through on their way to somewhere else. Many of the photos I take reflect that, the motels, gas stations, drive-thru restaurants. The Anthony Henday Drive connects us to Yellowhead Trail toward Jasper, and to the Queen Elizabeth II highway for trips to Calgary and Banff. All roads may lead to Rome, but a lot of roads lead out of Edmonton.

When I think about my photos from Rome and Edmonton, I’ve realized that documenting a city starts from a place of looking with love. But it’s also about looking, again and again, putting in the time and effort to look hard at what’s in front of you — and not wishing you were somewhere else. Exploring the highways that lead away but remembering that these paths also take you home.

Photos, like this one snapped in downtown Edmonton in June 2021, help Lemay understand her feelings about her city. (Shawna Lemay)

Taking a photo can help you figure out who you are, but maybe the process is better suited to helping you figure out how a place makes you feel.

As I drive into my neighbourhood near the Henday, I look at the yards with their petunias, dahlias and plastic flamingos. I pass the Volkswagen van covered in stickers of places visited. I feel nothing but tenderness.

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