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City on the cusp

Rollerland, Calgary, 2007.jpg

December saw two launches for In This Place, a book of photography documenting the less picture-perfect corners of Calgary from 2004-2011. The photographs are by George Webber, whose work has been featured in The New York Times and Canadian Geographic, and the accompanying text is by Aritha van Herk, a professor in English department.

“We were thrilled when we found out Aritha was interested in the project,” says Webber. “She's probably the best person in Canada to write that piece.”

van Herk is well-known for her work in geografictione, a term she coined for a particular sort of writing about place. “It's a kind of fiction, an evocation of place, about place having character and being a character,” she says.

The result captures construction sites, storefronts, and bus stops, spanning social sets from Stampede to Chinatown to the Centennial Legion. “It's a condensed piece, and emotional. I wanted to make sure I didn't lapse into sentimentality, or the Chamber of Commerce view,” van Herk explains. “We have a handsome city. There are a lot of photos of the city skyline with mountains in the background, and it must be difficult not to take them. But you can't be a sophisticated global city without having parts that are dirty, ill-kempt, and ignored.”

Webber's focus on the unpolished parts of Calgary wasn't initially a conscious effort. He was taking photos for his own interest. “I had no particular agenda in mind when I started,” he explains. “But when I started, in 2004, was about the same time the city population approached and surpassed one million people. And I began to notice that a lot of the places in my photos were disappearing.”

van Herk, who is working on four other pieces during her sabbatical this year, is enthusiastic about Calgary's future, even if the city seems to be cannibalizing its less urbane nooks. “This is like Paris in the 1920s, or New York in the 1950s,” she says. “We're on the cusp of becoming something great.”

Photo from In This Place, courtesy of George Webber.