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