The pho­tographs

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The book con­sists of 90 full colour, 10.5-inch by seven-inch pho­tographs — none of which is a con­ven­tional, “post­card view” shot of Cal­gary’s iconic down­town sky­line, or its pretty pub­lic spa­ces such as Stephen Av­enue, Olympic Plaza or River­walk.

The mostly gritty im­ages re­mind us of Cal­gary’s past as a small prairie town. Web­ber refers to them as the “over­looked, the feral, the dis­carded, the un­ex­pected and mys­te­ri­ous” places that de­fine Cal­gary.

These are def­i­nitely not im­ages likely to be used by Tourism Cal­gary to at­tract vis­i­tors and con­ven­tions, nor by Cal­gary Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment to at­tract busi­nesses — yet, they do de­fine Cal­gary’s sense of place.

Web­ber had three cri­te­ria for choos­ing the pho­tographs: they had to have a cer­tain beauty, they had to be com­mon places and there had to be a dis­tinc­tive Cal­gary qual­ity of light.

To me, they cap­ture a city in tran­si­tion, a city both erod­ing and evolv­ing; the pho­tographs speak for them­selves.

The es­says

Van Herk’s four es­says — Fences, Signs, Rough and Re­quiem, were in­spired by both Web­ber’s pho­tographs, and her un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Cal­gary’s unique sense of past and place.

Each es­say is a work of art in its own right. Each word, each sen­tence is like an­other pho­to­graph re­veal­ing in­sights into Cal­gary’s psy­che, soul and sense of place — past and present.

Fences was in­spired by Van Herk’s ob­ser­va­tion of the pre­pon­der­ance of fences in Web­ber’s pho­tographs, es­pe­cially the chain-link ones.

She opens with: “Trace their dou­ble helix back to barbed wire, Cal­gary’s con­nec­tive fences. How, they pro­pose a puz­zle. The First Peo­ples had never seen such a con­strict. What kind of idea is that? De­signed to stop move­ment, to herd what it en­closes, to pos­sess. As if this world could be cor­ralled, could be di­vided.”

Else­where, she asks the reader to pon­der the role of fences in Cal­gary’s DNA with words such as: “Fenc­ing’s ge­netic link­age, Cal­gary’s op­ti­mistic chro­mo­somes, lat­tice re­sis­tance. Open range is never open. Hoard­ings pro­pose a fu­ture, surely bet­ter than the muddy con­struc­tion site within.”

Van Herk’s sec­ond es­say, Signs, is in­spired by the dom­i­nance of signs in Web­ber’s pho­tographs.

I counted 54 pho­tographs where signs were the fo­cal point.

Web­ber loves to play with the jux­ta­po­si­tion of land­scape, light and word. His photograph­y is both vis­ual and ver­bal.

Signs is less an es­say and more like “sound bites”:

“Signs cheer­ful as clear water trade­mark this Cal­gary. Come to me. Sell a dream. Buy a dream. Catch a check. Cash a cheque.”

“Suites: in­stru­men­tal or or­ches­tral, uni­fied by key, like the re­peated pat­tern of stacked apart­ments, flats in a col­lage, in­ter­mezzi con­nect­ing rooms, the city pack­ag­ing its rentals, pay­ment and yield in the pur­suit of use.”

Rough is the third es­say. It refers to Web­ber’s pho­tographs of some of the Cal­gar­i­ans taken in places such as Chi­na­town, the Cal­gary Stam­pede and the Cana­dian Le­gion.

The first para­graph cap­tures the core of Cal­gary’s soul: “No time to smooth the edges, to pol­ish out­lines and buff up shoe leather. Cal­gary is a binge city, gulp­ing this split sec­ond down be­fore it evap­o­rates. No patina of ven­er­a­ble time here, no leg­ends back­ing up street names or stair­ways. We are the ir­reg­u­lars, rough up and down, coarse as an old horse’s mane, a ruf­fian shout. This bois­ter­ous care­less city, at its gut­tural ease.”

MFor other Richard White col­umns, visit our web­site un­der the head­ing: ‘More News and Views.’

In the mid­dle, she adds: “And the puz­zled mo­saic of cranes, lad­ders inch­ing to­wards crossword grids. Cranus erec­tus, build­ing sky out of sky, reach­ing across blue. No touch but to touch. Noth­ing but sug­ges­tions, the hon­ey­combed build­ings wait­ing to be filled, eggcar­tons on end, their win­dows cus­tom art is a rep­e­ti­tion of space, danc­ing with re­frac­tion.”

She ends with “Rough is a dealer’s felt, a cof­fee pot’s grind, a tomato plant’s leaves. Rough is what’s past the edge of the post­card, the tempt­ing cliff, the in­frac­tion of work, sweet ex­er­tion’s fa­tigue, and rhubarb push­ing through the frost.”

The fi­nal es­say, Re­quiem, opens with: “There are dozens of cities where one might choose to grow old, their lit­er­ary home­com­ings thick with temp­ta­tion. Those are the places that seethe with pil­grims, where post­cards racks adorn side­walks and the same bells have rung for cen­turies, tours of sig­nif­i­cant sites avail­able hourly.”

Van Herk then turns to Cal­gary with ob­ser­va­tions like:

“This city isn’t gritty enough to be beau­ti­ful.”

“We rise early in or­der to rein­vent our­selves be­fore break­fast.”

“No one comes here for plea­sure, but for am­bi­tion, that philis­tine af­fec­tion.”

All of Web­ber’s im­ages were taken from 2004 to 2011, which for him is an im­por­tant pe­riod in Cal­gary’s his­tory as it co­in­cides with Cal­gary’s most re­cent boom pe­riod.

It’s a time when we be­came a city of one mil­lion peo­ple and lost the last rem­nants of be­ing an in­no­cent small Prairie town.

In­deed, some­thing dies with each of Cal­gary’s booms and busts — hence Van Herk’s Re­quiem.

The cover

The cover pho­to­graph is an in­ter­est­ing choice — and is per­haps mis­lead­ing, be­cause it is the only pho­to­graph in the book that con­veys a sense of Cal­gary’s emerg­ing hip and chic im­age.

This glitzy, glossy and se­duc­tive pho­to­graph dom­i­nated by the im­age of a hand­some blueeyed male model, is some­thing you’d ex­pect from a Euro­pean fash­ion mag­a­zine from Lon­don, Paris or Mi­lan.

Look care­fully and you re­al­ize it is Cal­gary. It is a re­flec­tion in the dis­play win­dows of down­town’s his­toric Hud­son Bay depart­ment store, with the old Palace The­atre’s mar­quee across the street

It begs the ques­tion: What does Cal­gary want to be in the fu­ture? Do we want to be­come just an­other global cor­po­rate city, or do we want to evolve our own unique sense of place?

I’d en­cour­age you to get a copy of the book. Give one as a gift this Christ­mas.

Use it to ini­ti­ate a dis­cus­sion with col­leagues, fam­ily and friends on what makes Cal­gary a some­times ex­hil­a­rat­ing — and other times ex­as­per­at­ing — place to live, work and play.

Let the de­bate con­tinue.

Cour­tesy, Richard White

‘Rough’ is what is past the edge of the post­card, says Cal­gary author Aritha van Herk.

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