Book probes prov­ince’s fad­ing past

Calgary Herald - - FRONT PAGE - ERIC VOLMERS

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.

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