GLIMPSES OF A BYGONE ERA
Book probes province’s fading past
In 1986, George Webber took a photo of an abandoned service station near Sibbald, Alberta.
The building itself is decrepit and boarded up. Unruly vegetation has basically overtaken the lot. A homemade sign with JACK’S ESSO scrawled in paint is still perched atop the building, as is a crooked and rusting corporate Esso sign behind it. There’s also a yellow phone booth in the foreground. It’s lopsided, overgrown with weeds and resting against a telephone pole.
“The whole thing about the little service station and the phone booth, I mean there’s probably young kids today who would look at that and say ‘ What is that thing ?’ What’s that yellow box?’” Webber says with a laugh, in an interview from his Calgary home.
“It talks about something that didn’t exist, then it existed and then it has disappeared. In time, it will have almost disappeared from our collective memory.”
It’s a striking image, and one that seems to show layers of small-town history, while also conveying both a strong sense of loss and wistful nostalgia. It’s one of more than 200 photographs in Webber’s Alberta Book, which combines his images with essays about small-town Alberta by novelist Fred Stenson and poet Rosemary Griebel.
The book was nearly 40 years in the making, with Webber accumulating a vast collection of work that stretches back to some of his earliest offerings as a photographer. The oldest piece is from 1979, when Webber was in his late 20s. It’s of the Elks Lodge No. 54 in his hometown of Drumheller, an old multi-coloured building set against a rich blue sky.
Webber, an award-winning photographer whose work can be found in the collections of museums in Germany, Australia and France, as well as here in Alberta, has spent decades chronicling the Canadian West. His family left Drumheller when he was only seven years old, but the imagery of small-town Alberta has always stayed with him.
“As the Jesuits say, by the time a kid is seven their values and a lot of things have been pretty deeply imprinted,” says Webber, who will hold a book launch on Dec. 14 at the New Central Library.
“So I saw this stuff but I didn’t do photography until I was in my late 20s, literally 20 years later. When I first started to do a bit of photography, these little towns were among my first subjects because there was a sense of intimacy, connection, biography, family history and a yearning to connect with these things.
“When I’m out, this stuff is like catnip. On some level, it’s a desire George Webber will hold a launch and presentation on Friday, Dec. 14 at Calgary’s New Central Library at 6 p.m. o reconnect, to enjoy, to savour these things that were so formative in my own childhood remembrances.”
Still, while the images might evoke a certain nostalgia, it’s certainly not of the rose-coloured, Norman Rockwell variety. Webber has always had a keen eye for finding subjects that seem to be at risk of vanishing, whether it be his 2016 Calgary exhibit that focused on the industrial past of the Turner Valley Gas Plant or his 2005 book, A World Within: An Intimate Portrait of the Little Bow Hutterite Colony, which found Webber capturing the final days of a community that was about to be flooded after the completion of a dam.
In Alberta Book, Webber photographs fading commercial signs, collapsing buildings and abandoned sites in dozens of small Alberta towns. There’s added poignancy to the images when you realize that most, if not all, of what has been captured is likely no longer there.
There’s a 1984 shot of an abandoned drive-in theatre site in Red Deer. In 1985, he captured an almost Gothic-looking abandoned church in Retlaw (although that particular church has since been restored). In a 1995 photograph taken in Skiff, Webber shows the empty husk of a hulking sign towering over a yellow Prairie field. In 1987, he found an old, discoloured Coca-Cola sign in Craigmyle covered in rust and graffiti.
It all points to one of the reasons he has always been attracted to imagery in the Canadian West.
“There is something about where we live,” he says. “You’re in the Prairies and you’re in a small town and you get a sense of the tininess and vulnerability of all human life, human aspiration, human structures. It’s really powerful here.”
Webber says the photos are also meant to capture the precarious nature of some of these communities that sprouted up in the wilderness.
“There’s hundreds and hundreds of small towns in the Canadian West that went through an incredibly abbreviated cycle of going from a natural or First Nations-inhabited area up to the little town, and then the town went down,” he says.
“It’s an extraordinarily brief cycle that informs the history of some of these little places. Of course, the underlying story behind that, especially with the churches and stuff, was that people aspired to things, they sacrificed, they were idealists and they came up against the hard facts of things like drought and depression and changing economic models.
“There’s a level of heroism and courage,” Webber says, “but also a real subtext of loss and disappointment that these are a testament to.”
This 1984 shot features what used to be a drive-in theatre in Red Deer.
In 1987, George Webber discovered an old, discoloured Coca-Cola sign.
This 1986 photo captures an abandoned gas station and phone booth.