Book uses photos and essays to find mystery, beauty and wonder in the city’s surroundings
Covering a pivotal seven-year period when the population of Calgary approached — and then passed — the one million mark, “In this Place: Calgary 2004-2011” is an intimate look at the city through the lens of award-winning photographer George Webber.
The book contains 90 photographs taken by Webber over the course of seven years. Four essays written by acclaimed Calgary author Aritha van Herk complement Webber’s work.
As long-time Calgary residents, both Webber and van Herk offer readers a respectively unique understanding of Calgary’s sense of place.
Although the two had known of each other’s work, Webber and van Herk had not worked together — or even met — prior to last fall when they collaborated on a magazine piece paying tribute to renowned Alberta author Robert Kroetsch.
“The actual circumstances were very poignant and quite sad,” Webber says.
Kroetsch passed away last June following a car accident.
Van Herk’s contribution to the book came about somewhat unexpectedly after a phone conversation between her and Webber.
“She said she hoped that we would have a chance to collaborate again sometime in the future,” says Webber. “We really did enjoy working with each other.”
Although his book was in the final stages of development, Webber called his publisher and told him that it might be possible to convince van Herk to join the project.
“He was thrilled,” Webber says.
The book was recently published by Calgary-based Frontenac House Media.
Publisher David Scollard says that “the decision to publish was made on the spur of the moment,” and that the book was “one of the best publishing decisions” the company has made.
“It was an unplanned result of a burst of enthusiasm for George Webber’s unique photographs,” Scollard says.
“Aritha van Herk’s marvellously poetic text came as an extra bonus. That made the whole project just about perfect.”
Ordinary becomes extraordinary
“In this Place” contains none of the stereotypical, postcard views of the city.
There are no shots of the downtown skyline set against the Rocky Mountains or of chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede — what van Herk refers to as “Chamber of Commerce photos.”
Instead, Webber’s photographs are filled with many things that, upon first glance, seem very ordinary — fences, signs, boarded-up homes slated for demolition.
“If you buy the Chamber of Commerce view, it makes us out as a lovely, handsome, rich, prosperous place — and that’s true, we are in lots of ways. I am not disputing that,” van Herk says.
“But the more you buy into that critical outsider’s view, it suggests that there is no culture in Calgary, and that we have no history and no charm and no character.
“In fact we do have a tremendous amount of character, and it shows itself in such interesting and subtle and complex ways,” van Herk says.
She explains that the photographs in the book will show much about life in Calgary.
Collecting moments and observations in time
Webber says he didn’t set out with a specific plan for this book and that it was an intuitive response to what was around him.
“When I was doing these photographs, there was never any particular project or intent or book idea in mind,” Webber says.
“It’s the specific things — it’s the light and the time in which the photographs were taken,” Webber says.
“But it’s also just this time in this city’s history where we are transitioning from being really just a big giant town to a city.”
The photos and text, Webber says, tell “Calgary’s story.”
Webber says that van Herk’s text makes his pictures “more interesting.”
“It’s a case of one and one is three. The two together are just magic.”
Van Herk says part of that magic comes from the fact that she and Webber are “very different” from each other.
“You have these two different perspectives and mutual kinds of love for the city,” she says. “Yet there is also critical eye. We both love beauty. We are not afraid of criticizing the city.”
Calgary, van Herk says, is currently “balancing on a cusp.
“This is a moment of change and we are just balanced on this moment. Some things we don’t do well, and some things, I think, we are figuring out how to do very well.
“But we are a 21st century city. So what we do now is going to shape the future.”
Book is a record for the future
“In this Place” is a record of Calgary in the present, Webber says he hopes it will stand the test of time.
“I hope it will be insightful in 25 or 50 years in terms of telling this particular little moment in time in the city’s history.”