The cover of Richard Erlendson’s new book “Journey to Bethlehem: 20 Years of Proclaiming Jesus As the Reason for the Season” is an image of the St. John Vianney Catholic Church in Fort Assiniboine. A small group of adults and children stand in front of the building while an actor wearing a robe strolls in front of them, carrying a lantern.
What’s most striking is the way the camera’s flash has picked up the snowflakes in the foreground, dotting the image with white circles and giving it an almost angelic feel.
“Choosing a cover photo is always a big challenge. It became a no-brainer that this would be the cover photo,” said Erlendson.
This is just one of the more than 100 images in Erlendson’s book, which documents the annual “Journey to Bethlehem” production in Fort Assiniboine, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in November.
When he’s not taking photos of small-town theatrical productions, Erlendson works as a professor in the Faculty of Communication Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
In his earlier days, he also worked at a few newspapers, most notably a decade-long stint as the chief photographer at the Daily Tribune-Herald in Grande Prairie.
Prior to Journey to Bethlehem, he published 10 books of photography, depicting subjects as varied as action shots from small town rodeos, nature scenes from Thetis Island in the Strait of Georgia, images of the Olympic National Park in Washington and depictions of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
It was while taking pictures of the Athabasca River Voyageur Brigade — a 2017 expedition involving 16 canoes travelling along the river from Jasper to Fort Assiniboine — that Erlendson came to the attention of Louise Nielsen, who had served as the treasurer for the Journey to Bethlehem production.
Nielsen’s daughter was at the head of the canoe that Erlendson rode in, and upon looking at one of his books, Nielsen decided to invite him to shoot the production.
When asked why he agreed to shoot Journey to Bethlehem, Erlendson said his favourite thing to photograph is something he hasn’t photographed yet.
“For me, (Journey to Bethlehem) really fit the bill, because I had never really photographed an interactive play like that,” he said.
The book includes a wide variety of images, including shots of the set-up, images of the play in action, a handful of behind-the-scenes shots and a number of posed pictures of the actors in full costume.
Erlendson admits that he put his photographic skills to the test documenting the Journey to Bethlehem production.
“It was challenging, because it was night and it was cold. A couple of places, you go into a tent where they had a wood-burning stove, and then my lenses would fog up,” he said.
When flipping through the book, Erlendson takes note of a few of his favourite images. One such shot is of a couple of actors dressed up as Roman soliders marching along the street as fat snowflakes fall around them.
“The snow makes them kind of look like they’re floating,” he notes.
Another favourite is an image of beggars running out of the taxpayers’ pavilion, which he enjoys because of the facial expressions of the children involved.
He also points out an image of Mary and Joseph being turned away at the inn; the pair are surrounded by an expansive darkness, illuminated only by a small light.
Another of his favourite pictures was taken in the manger, with a newborn Baby Jesus (an actual baby, by the way) lying in his crib.
“It was humid in there, and my lens fogged up a bit. And they just had this one string of lights, so the lighting was … moodful. It was really magical.”
All of these shots were taken on the first night of this year’s production, which took place on Nov. 17-18 and 24-25.
Erlendson said he had planned to come to all four nights, but only because he was under the impression that there was only one performance per night. As it was, he ended up taking the tour about six times.
It was good fortune that he was able to get all the necessary pictures in one night, however, as he only had about a week to put it all together.
His goal was to have about 150 copies ready for a pair of book launch/signing events in Barrhead and Fort Assiniboine on Jan. 12 and a wind-up party for the Journey to Bethlehem volunteers on Jan. 13.
Erlendson ended up working 16-hour days sorting through photos, designing and then laying out the pages and writing a 2,000-word article that serves as the book’s introduction.
“If I hadn’t gotten enough material that first weekend, then it wouldn’t have been available (for this weekend),” Erlendson noted.
As indicated by the opening quote from the book’s introduction, Erlendson was fairly impressed by the production.
“It’s always been a bit audacious – this idea that the small collection of people in the Hamlet of Fort Assiniboine could produce an interactive theatre performance of the Christmas story involving as many as 100 actors and behind-the-scenes volunteers,” he writes.
“For people able to take in the Journey to Bethlehem production each November, the Christmas compass is set to true north prior to the secular craze that sets itself in motion in our contemporary world.”
Noting that his comment is both a comment on secular belief and the commercialism of the season, Erlendson notes that he thinks it’s healthy, at least for this area, “to remind people what the origins of Christmas are and why it’s important.”
There are about 32 copies of the book left for purchase. Each copy costs $40 and comes with a short DVD about the theatrical production.
Anyone interested in purchasing a copy may contact Nielsen at (780) 674-4131.