Book Review: Badlands by George Webber and Robert Kroetsche

  By John Veldhoen

I am using a few different guides to say something about Rocky Mountain Books re-print of Robert Kroetsch’s novel “Badlands”, which also contains a portfolio of images of the eponymous area located on the Red Deer River, a couple hundred kilometers east of Calgary. I have been reading a series in the Financial Times by Francis Hodgson, called “A Dream Photo Collection”. I submit Webber’s first photograph in this book (pg. 276. from1987) as a consummate dream photo, it is my favorite type of picture, in the realm of ethnographic photos, a picture that falls into the category of “near documentary”. Identity slips in this picture, but more on this later… Given that this photo appears in a book that is also bound with a novel, there is much that I could say about the problematic of images and words. My favorite contemporary writer on art writes, “Too much reading can undermine your experience of the visual world”. Even so, the word-image problem was dissected wonderfully by Mieke Bal, in her book “Reading Rembrandt”. I address all of this to admit how complex the problem is, and how unable I am to untangle it. I did notice a difference in the epigraphs that Kroetsch and Webber use in Badlands. Kroetsch promises his book to his reader with a quote from a Nez Perce text, and a fragment from poet BP Nichol:

“this is a strange country
desert flows around us death &
breath makes us wary”

Webber begins his work with Philippians 4:13. When I look at the photo at the start of his portfolio, a shadow of someone looking down from the height of one of the hoodoos, I wonder, is the shadow Webber? Or is it Webber’s shadow? The Calvinist wonders, am I, the viewer of this photo, the shadow? Is the shadow Dawe, the novels’ masochist savant antihero? Is it Anna, Dawe’s put-upon narrator/mediator daughter? Is it Web, Dawe’s nemesis?

Sorry, dear reader, these questions are literary in nature, and I agree with James Elkins, “To increase knowledge only increases sorrow”. I think this is the theme of the Badlands, and the strange topology of Webber’s IR images achieves an affect that suits the tone of the novel. I can’t help thinking that this is a great and challenging work, what a challenge it is to the questions of illustration and text in art, and a challenge to how Albertans see place, and self, as well. When I was a young man, I read Kroetsch’s “Studhorse Man”, and this book is not as impressive as that one, and in time I have cooled on him as a writer, seeing him as a minor exponent of literary modernism, a stylistic descendent of Joyce, and I think in this book his prose tells too much, instead of showing, and he does not use plot enough to craft his narrative, but still, the combination with Webber’s photography is impressive, and I recommend this book as a challenge for thinking about landscape photography, and as a combined work of literature.

Join us for a book launch and talk by local professional photographer George Webber.

Location: Unit 210, 3060 9th Street SE Calgary, AB 
Time: 7PM – See more at: http://www.thecamerastore.com/8912-Badlands-Book-Launch-And-Talk-with-George-Webber.aspx#sthash.j2oEFjE3.dpuf

Join us for a book launch and talk by George Webber.
Location: Unit 210, 3060 9th Street SE Calgary, AB
November 13th, 2015 @ 7PM

John Veldhoen

John Veldhoen

In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.