Monday, November 10, 2008

George Webber: Portrait Poet of the Canadian Prairies

You know, if we did have the government will to continue with plans for a National Portrait Gallery, it would be a great place to see George Webber's artworks. This Calgary photographer has spent the past 25 years beautifully documenting the people and places of the prairie region. Being a Manitoba/Alberta gal myself, I can definitely say his images quite capture the feeling of that area. So I was pleased to be able to chat with him last week in relation to a show at the Art Gallery of Calgary. The National Post published our Q&A today. Click on to page L8 of the digital edition or read on after the jump to find out how Webber frames his life and his art.

George Webber's Hutterite Girl with Pigeon, 1992, from

Keeping up with the pace of change
National Post, Nov 10 2008, Page L8
By Leah Sandals

Though prices of commodities might be dropping, the oil-rich Prairies remain an economic — and increasingly, political — powerhouse of the country. But there are also many lesserknown stories of personal and spiritual power from that region that are waiting to be told. Award-winning Calgary photographer George Webber has spent 25 years documenting these less conspicuous tales. Now, with an exhibit of his portraits on display at the Art Gallery of Calgary, Webber tells Leah Sandals how he puts the art into heartland.

Q You’ve been photographing Alberta and Saskatchewan for more than 20 years. What intrigues you?

A Well, it’s my home, that’s the primary thing. Also, it’s rich in narrative and mythology. I often think of what Faulkner talked about in his novels, using a postage-sized piece of material and exploring that for a lifetime. So over the years I’ve done projects on the Prairies’ small towns, Hutterites, First Nations, landscapes and the whole look and texture of the place.

Q How did you become a photographer?

A I was born in Drumheller, a small town in Alberta, and came to Calgary when I was seven. I started photographing when I was 27, but I think an ongoing theme for me is trying to bring a child’s sense of magic to these places.

Also, I’m attracted to working in the tradition of black-and-white documentary inspired by Henri Cartier Bresson, Diane Arbus and Eugene Atget. Just the process of working the darkroom can be contemplative. There’s some kind of slow feedback you get working in that enclosed amber-lit space for hours. Having said that, I shoot digital now, too.

Q How did you access communities that are often closed to photographers, such as Hutterite colonies?

A There’s an attraction for me to enter into an intimate and unseen community, to photograph unphotographable things. Many Hutterites don’t permit photography at all. They see photography as a prideful sort of activity; the idea that someone would put their own photo up would be vanity. But some are more liberal in how they see those things.

For me, entering into those places where cameras are not common is part of the challenge of having someone open up to me. It often takes months of small steps. I spent four years with the Hutterites for a recent book, and the project on the Blood Reserve, the largest reserve in Canada, is now at year 16. There’s a lot of patience.

Q Many small, shrinking Prairie towns have been reinvigorated by recent oil and potash booms. What changes have you noticed over the years?

A Certainly change happens, but the rate of change or perceptions of the speed of change seem to be much slower in these communities that I photograph. In Calgary, by contrast, change is happening with breakneck speed.
Still, I think people photograph because things are always disappearing and changing. Whether someone’s photographing professionally, like I do, or just taking a photo of their child, that impulse to record and hold something that is disappearing is a really fundamental one.

The other reason people often photograph is because there’s a narrative element or story embedded in these changes. In my book on the Blood Reserve, there are photographs of a man who had alcohol problems and then reconnected with spiritual traditions. For me, such stories are frequently heroic. Sometimes, it’s dramatically so, other times it’s smaller in scale. So I sometimes photograph for the same reason people read novels; you’re looking for a little instruction manual on life.

Q Conservative politicians, who dominate the West, were accused of being anti-arts in our recent election. What’s your take on being an artist in Alberta?

A I think because Alberta’s been a bit off the art radar, I’ve had a great sense of personal freedom. I don’t think there are the same kinds of pressures that you might find in Toronto where there’s more history and more tradition. The fact that the politicians are conservative is in the background, and I realize the work I do is not the kind of work that will collide with those kinds of values. But there’s something about the space, the population and that mythic idea of the less constrained individual that rings on.

George Webber continues to Jan. 3 at the Art Gallery of Calgary. Visit for details.

Image of George Webber's Craigmyle, Alberta, 1987 from

No comments: