Rediscovering George Webber

  By John Veldhoen

By: John Veldhoen

So many responses in a few weeks after rediscovering the work of Calgary-based photographer George Webber, attempts to write, days and nights reading, poring over pictures in five volumes of photographs. For weeks now, these pictures have lingered with me. Webber’s work is mesmerizing in its depth and complexity, and I am afraid that all I can do is essentialize what has affected me. What I would hope may affect any viewer. Given a tendency to say too much, or to make comparisons between photographers (which I have to do, but only do briefly), or to rely on a formalist tactic of placing images side by side, am I to choose a phenomenological diction instead for a book review? I think so, or it will inevitably devolve into that anyway. If only because there is so much complexity in the work that I cannot reduce, or feeling that was caused by it, for me. Indeed, within me.

There are images in In This Place, taken of Calgary between 2004-2011 that ruin, and transcend ruin. These are years that I did not live in this place. I was mostly somewhere else, but I am from Calgary. These are images of a city being made, and re-made; images of a palimpsest; images of the transcription of places onto people, and images of how people re-interpret, and imagine space. Webber dedicated his 2006 monograph People of The Blood, images taken over a decade on a Canadian reserve, to Henri Cartier-Bresson. I was struck by this because the great curator/photographer John Szarkowski wrote about Eugene Atget; Todd Papageorge wrote about Walker Evans and Robert Frank (in an excellent essay declaratively about influence.) Looking at In This Place, I feel this horrible shakiness; I have taken pictures in a few of these places myself, and wanted the results that I am looking at. This anxiety of influence can only be a paragone, where I fail miserably. The photographers I mentioned a moment ago are present in these pictures, even if only for me. Webber’s quarry isn’t that different from a few photographers who take pictures in Calgary, but none of them are doing it anywhere near as well as Webber. In each book there is progress, the look changes and deepens. Webber gets better as he goes on. The result of sticking with it, I have to imagine.

A quote from an adventure book, written in 1872, cited in a book of essays on photography, which I have been reading in the last few weeks while in the thrall of these images, has been working in the background of my attention, altering what I have seen. A quote about the Canadian West, that there was “no other portion of the globe where… loneliness can be said to live so thoroughly.“ Webber’s early books seem to drive at community, the stubborn opposite of this elemental loneliness. The Hutterite experience, in his book A World Within, to me, especially, means idealized community, living and life, and communication itself. These pictures are a linament for materialism. But there is so much irony and coherence, in a photographer using the apparatus of making pictures to expose this world within.

A photographic exhibition is taking place, as I write this, in New York, called “What is a Photograph?” Another book I am reading relates a question from the time of the Reformation, “Was ist das?” (What is that?) That can only be answered, “Das ist das” (It is that). A critique of this straightforwardly representational answer went on for a few hundred years, in different forms, and it was codified in photography, at various times. Looking at a picture of a calendar in the Cecil Hotel, turned to February 13, or a photo of pictures of body builders on the wall of a gym, with a set of crutches in the corner of the frame, makes me feel that Webber has captured folkish reality, the smallest truth, of any place and any time. If I don’t think about it and just feel the heartbreak, it is too much for me, and my mind buckles. The core job of a certain kind of photography is to capture what place and time look like. George Webber’s accomplishment is a retable of what my heart feels. I have never met the man, but there it is.

What I fear most, sitting at a table in the house that I live in, which is currently run by an ex-manager for the Salvation Army, looking at these photographs: The part of the East Village that is not a smooth real estate pitch; The Drop-In Centre; Death.

What I desire most comes to mind, looking at these pictures, also: Faith; Hope; Love.

Daily, the images (if they were only images) of poverty and class disorder as I walk to work in the ozone cold mount, and all I have as recourse is writing this. The world cast upon with the light that poet Karen Connelly inadequately describes in Webber’s book Last Call. It is not her fault, she is a wonderful writer, but it is nearly impossible to write anything about light. Her passage that “sometimes Calgary’s light tricks the wrecked hotels into loveliness  gold sun-slant on a boarded-up facade; ghost blue air under a flat roof of cloud” recalls to me what another photographer calls “the poetic image”, if one, or two, steps removed. The thing itself becomes a feeling, then becomes an image of that feeling, and then just so many words.

George Webber’s Book Collection Available at The Camera Store Includes: 

People of the Blood: A Decade-Long Photographic Journey on a Canadian Reserve
The Blood Reserve is a land of wind, prairie, mountains, and rivers, a land of dramatic physical beauty. It is the setting for George Webber’s stunning collection of black-and-white photographs, People of the Blood. From the spring of 1992 until the late summer of 2005, Webber journeyed to the reserve from his home in Calgary, documenting his experiences on film and with pen and paper. People of the Blood is an intimate and compelling story of the reserve’s people and stark, sweeping landscape told in black and white.

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A World Within – An Intimate Portrait of the Little Bow Hutterite Colony
When he found out that the Little Bow Hutterite Colony in southern Alberta was to be flooded upon completion of a nearby dam, award-winning documentary photographer George Webber visited the inhabitants. He hoped they would allow him to photograph them at work and at play, before their homes disappeared forever. Over the next four years Webber witnessed and photographed, gently and unobtrusively, the daily life in the colony and finally its abandonment. They welcomed him into their barns, gardens, kitchen, dining room, school, and – ultimately – their church.

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Prairie Gothic

 George Webber’s poignant black-and-white photographs transport us into the forgotten, unknowable communities of the Canadian prairies. Throughout the journey, we’re confronted by the mysterious particulars of life, death, landscape and faith. Intimate portraits and the hard facts of the place are woven together to create a body of work that is by turns inspiring, consoling and sometimes achingly sad. Individually, these works startle and challenge. As a collection, they represent a photographer’s decades-long meditation on the ever-changing face of the Canadian West.

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In This Place – Calgary 2004-2011

But it is not the customary view, the postcard tourist view, the souvenir view, the view that lies solely on the surface, oblivious or indifferent to the life that unfolds below that surface, and beyond. This book is about the images, both written and graphic, of the themes that define the city.

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Last Call

As North American cities continue to grow and downtown cores evolve into suburban shadows of their former urban selves, the shabbier realities of contemporary life at the city’s heart are forced to migrate and disappear as “villages” are torn down, re-imagined and redeveloped into upscale properties.

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Last Call: Special Edition

This special edition is presented in a run of 300 copies each signed and numbered by the photographer.

As North American cities continue to grow and downtown cores evolve into suburban shadows of their former urban selves, the shabbier realities of contemporary life at the city’s heart are forced to migrate and disappear as “villages” are torn down, re-imagined and redeveloped into upscale properties.

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Check out more of George Webber’s Photography and Exhibition Information at

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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.