Culture

This librarian turned photographer takes stark, dazzling images of the Prairies

Sandra Herber braves treacherous winter weather to shoot the region’s iconic grain elevators and churches

By day, Sandra Herber is a librarian at Humber College in Toronto. But on her time off, she’s an intrepid photographer of Canada’s far-flung landscapes. Her fascination with the art form began at age 12, when her mother passed down her grandfather’s old manual Pentax Spotmatic. “I was so obsessed with it,” Herber says. “I begged my parents to let me set up a darkroom in our basement.” As an adult, she took her camera on various trips through Malaysia, eastern Myanmar and New Guinea, but it was only in 2002, when she enrolled in her first photography workshop, that she began to take her hobby more seriously.

In 2013, Herber flew to Saskatoon to snap some photos of the Prairies’ historic grain elevators, which piqued her interest for their ability to meld form and function. The vast landscape—giant flat fields, endless stretches of sky and isolated old buildings—enchanted her. “Everything about the Prairies is a challenge,” Herber says. Scattered remote communities face unreliable cell service. In the summer, the punishing heat can crest to 35° C or more, while winter temperatures sometimes plummet to minus-40. “It is not a land for the faint of heart,” she says.

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Soon Herber was going back twice a year. In 2015, she made her first winter excursion, which became a lesson in emergency preparedness. She had to plot out and download online maps for her entire route in case she lost cell service. Before she left, she also double-checked her food and fuel supplies, since there would be nowhere to stop along the way. Despite these challenges, that winter in the Prairies brought her obsession with the region into focus. “The grain elevators and any other buildings just stand out so beautifully,” she says.

In the 1930s, these small wooden elevators dotted seemingly every town and village in the Prairies, but the ensuing decades of agricultural industrialization rendered them obsolete; they were steadily replaced with larger concrete structures. Herber is drawn to the old buildings for their visual appeal, of course, but also for their importance to the Prairies’ past. (She is a librarian, after all.) On her trips, she visits other historically significant structures, like a two-classroom schoolhouse in southwestern Manitoba and a 20th-century church built by Ukrainian immigrants who moved to the region in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was one of the first things they constructed so they could have a place to gather. “Many of their descendants have moved to the cities, and that whole culture, that whole way of life, has disappeared,” Herber says. “But these buildings hang on as a memorial.”

Herber tries to scout and map out most of her locations in advance, but trees like this one (captured in 2022 in Saskatchewan) are a stroke of luck. It caught her interest while she was driving, so she quickly pulled over and got to work. “Every other tree in the neighbourhood had lost its autumn foliage,” she says. “But somehow that little tree had hung on to its beautiful golden and rust-coloured leaves.”

This photo shows what was then Canada’s oldest Prairie grain elevator, built in 1897 and once operated by Lake of the Woods Milling Company. When Herber visited it in Elva, Manitoba, in 2022, it was in the process of being dismantled so its wood could be refinished and reclaimed for other uses. Just over a month after her visit, a random spark burned the 124-year-old structure to the ground.

Only a handful of people live in the hamlet of Herronton, Alberta. Herber estimates that its population likely never exceeded 50 or 60, yet in the early 1930s, there were an impressive five grain elevators in the area. The blue-green building, shot in 2018, is the official colour of the Alberta Wheat Pool. Founded in 1923, it was one of the first wheat farmer co-ops on the Prairies and later became part of Viterra, currently the nation’s largest grain handler.

In 2023, Herber spent over an hour driving next to this Saskatchewan field, trying to find the perfect shot of hay bales. The result shows her ability to see beauty in what locals might consider run-of-the-mill. “I’m not saying that those people don’t appreciate the beauty of the Prairies—of course they do,” she says. “But maybe an outsider’s view shows you that something ordinary can be really beautiful.”

For a decade, Herber has been building her scouting map, where she pins locations that she wants to visit and colour-codes ones she wants to return to (or not). She had already photographed this Manitoba grain elevator in the summer, but she came back in 2022 to see it surrounded by snow. This photo was captured after a white-knuckle drive on the Trans-Canada Highway, plagued by four-foot-high snow drifts and plenty of ice.

Grain elevators were painted different colours depending on who owned them. Herber believes that this one, located in Saskatchewan, was once owned by Searle—hence the large, faded “S” at the top. When she took this photo in 2023, she incorporated the power lines; many photographers omit them, but Herber considers them an inevitable and important part of the Prairie landscape.

During Herber’s travels, she sourced a lot of locations from organizations like the Manitoba Historical Society. But in 2022, she came across this barn in southwestern Manitoba while browsing geotagged images online. She usually selects historical subjects for her photographs, but she found the contrast of the red walls against the stark white snow too striking to resist.

This Ukrainian church, not far from Saskatoon, was built in the early 1920s. It replaced the congregation’s original building, which went up in 1905—the same year Saskatchewan became a province. Last year, Herber drove to the church, where she learned that the congregation still exists, although it’s now based in the village of Alvena. “They protect the church,” Herber says. “They come out; they maintain it.”

In 2022, when Herber pulled up to this school in southwestern Manitoba, she was immediately attracted to its vibrant yellow colour. It’s a two-classroom schoolhouse—a departure from the usual single-room ones found in the area at that time—and Herber suspects the community must have taken great pride in it. Although the Coultervale School District dates back to 1887, the one that Herber photographed was constructed in 1914.

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