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Old Athabasca in colour

Baptiste Lake resident Gunnar Schwede brings life back to old photos of Athabasca

ATHABASCA – For the past month, local resident Gunnar Schwede has been posting old photographs of Athabasca to social media, all of which he has personally sharpened and recoloured, bringing new life to many of the decades-old photos he has come across. 

The pictures, originally from the Alice B. Donahue Library and Archives web portal hosted by Athabasca University, have gained attention on Facebook, showing citizens and onlookers what the town they live in would have looked like if they took a walk around the block 70 years ago.  

“I always liked history and how everything was back then,” Schwede said in an interview last week, emphasizing how his enthusiasm for history played a big part in his recent project. 

Schwede first dipped his toes into photo recolouring after the recent passing of his mother. 

“She had this album with all these old black and white pictures of me and my sister. We grew up in Germany and they were grainy black and white obviously, that kind of stuff. So, I figured I'm going to look for something that can at least sharpen them up a little bit. I wasn't looking for colour yet.” 

Since then, Schwede has started focusing on photographs of historic Athabasca and its inhabitants, making them feel as lifelike as possible.  

“If you take a picture, then in two days' time it's going to be a nice colour, good resolution and that kind of stuff, right? But if you look at your parents and your grandparents, nobody really had a camera, a camera was expensive back then. Unless you were going somewhere, you probably didn’t have a camera. Pictures are pretty rare from back then,” he explained. 

The photos he is able to recolour are remarkable in the fact that it was not common to find photographs of everything at the time, only those of what was considered important enough.  

Schwede does most of his work out of Photoshop where he uses a combination of some automatic plugins and manual touch-ups.  

“Mostly I spent around I would say half-an-hour to an hour on an image,” Schwede said.  

"But if I do portraits, I want that portrait to be perfect because it's more important, I think, than a landscape. Landscapes include houses and city-scapes. They're a bit more forgiving ... I can spend two hours, maybe three hours, on a portrait.” 

While Schwede’s most recent projects have centred around the photograph recolouring, he has been an artist for many years.  

“The first money I ever made actually with any of my art was with painting on motorcycles and that’s usually airbrush,” Schwede said.  

“I did a lot of paintings, I do oil, I do watercolour, I do charcoal. I tried everything.”  

Schwede sells many of his paintings and other works, making art a huge part of his life.  

In the past month Schwede has posted over 30 photos, although his first is one of his favourites.  

“One of the photos is by Bob Preece and it is a shot down from one of the grain elevators that were in town. He obviously went all the way up there and I don't know if you ever seen one of those from the inside but there's no stairs going up, there were wooden ladders. So, it was pretty brave to go all the way up because those suckers are pretty high. Probably the highest building that we had in Athabasca,” he said. 

“He went up there and took that picture, it shows the Grand Union Hotel and the old garage across from the union. That's kind of my favourite one. He must have a good camera. It was a little grainy, but it wasn’t to a point where I had to do a lot of work on it.” 

Schwede has a meeting arranged with Preece’s daughter who is coming with a collection of his photographs from the 1940s and 1950s as he took the majority of photos Schwede has recoloured. 

dbrad@athabasca.greatwest.ca