THE BATTLEFORDS — Even though Gilbert Katerynych has spent years looking through the lens, taking thousands of photos of old churches and homesteads, the changing of the seasons, combines churning grain and wildlife set against the backdrop of a setting sun or rising moon, his first experiment with a film camera in junior high was, by all metrics, a disaster.
"It didn't go very well," Katerynych said to the News-Optimist/SASKTODAY.ca, recounting his tale of film not feeding through one of the first cameras he used in his school's photography club and accidentally taking all his pictures on a single frame.
"I just lost interest there," he said, unaware that over two decades after his graduation in 1994, he would end up as the Battlefords most renowned nature photographer.
During his early 20s, Katerynych bounced from job to job and place to place, searching for a passion he wasn't sure existed. Travelling west, he found himself in Calgary.
" I was just kinda blundering about ... I just didn't find my path until later," he noted, finally picking up his first digital camera in 2006, a Canon Powershot A70 in his late 20s, early 30s.
The rest was history.
"I just kinda blew the lid off it all ... just being able to keep taking pictures, over and over and over again," Katerynych said.
And with those repeated opportunities, Katerynych is able to capture images like lightning over the lighthouse at Cochin, a coyote running through a field near the Saskatchewan Hospital, or key landmarks in the area like the old Battleford bridges or the North Battleford water tower.
But before returning to the Battlefords to take these pictures, he experimented with his rekindled love of the camera in Calgary with little success.
"...(I) didn't grow a following in Calgary ... I was just one of many," he said, noting that he dabbled in wedding photography and cityscapes but didn't enjoy it at all.
"I just decided I would enjoy what I enjoy doing instead of forcing myself to do things I don't enjoy just to make money on it."
Then, in the early 2010s, he moved back to the Battlefords to be with his father, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Then, when his father passed in 2011, he realized his second passion.
His time spent in the palliative unit convinced Katerynych to get his nursing degree and he is now working as registered nurse in the palliative unit at Battlefords Union Hospital.
And despite being a photographer at heart, the hardest question for Katerynych to answer is why he loves photography as much as he does. Is it a calling, a passion, a need? He isn't sure, but he has to do it.
"I don't know why exactly, that's difficult to pin down an exact why ... I just do."
When he isn't working in the hospital, he spends a good deal of his time staking out new places to take his pictures and scouting out times when he can get that perfect shot.
"I grew up here, and I've been finding places I didn't know were here at all.
"...there's really lots of planning involved, the execution, getting up, going out and exploring, and having luck on your side for everything to come together ... and just to line things up with the sun or the moon, or the milky way, the stars," he said.
"That's part of the challenge now," he said, "trying to find something new in the area."
His photography spans the Battlefords and just beyond to catch the local satellite communities, including Whitko and Prongua. And nature just calls to him in a way that people and cityscapes just don't.
"I always like a quiet place ... without people around," he said, noting the differences between his sterile, hygienic workplace with machines and bright white lights. Katerynych said his job is like spending 12 hours inside a box on the third floor surrounded by co-workers, a stark contrast to exploring the prairie landscape for photos.
"...death is a constant in my unit, but I enjoy ... helping people through that spot."
Katerynych noted that he was also lucky to be able to juggle both of his passions through COVID-19, adding that a lot of established photographers got out of photography due to the pandemic.
"I have a good pension plan," he said, laughing "...I was fortunate."
And though he was unable to gather a following in Calgary, he's attracted a dedicated fan base of just shy of 3,000 people in the Battlefords.
On May 6, he even held the largest printed collection of his work to date at ARTageous, one of North Battleford's resident art watering holes, run by Jocelyn Schmunk.
It was Schmunk, after all, who insisted Katerynych display his artwork there.
"The show with Gilbert Katerynych had a great turnout," Schmunk said to the News-Optimist/SASKTODAY.ca
"...it is wonderful that the Battlefords has such a talented photographer...the Battlefords [is] a hidden gem, [and] Gilbert captures all the beauty."
Katerynych attributes the love and attention his photos have gotten mostly to nostalgia, Battleford expats who are no longer able to see their old stomping grounds.
"It's nostalgia for them," he said, noting that he's also found a niche here in the Battlefords.
Maybe it is nostalgia, or perhaps it's the love of a good photo, or maybe it's Katerynych's passion and love for photography coming through. Who knows?