Calgary photographer preserves Saskatchewan towns on film

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WATCH: A photographer has spent 30 years travelling to Saskatchewan to take photos of small towns – Dec 19, 2020

“In some ways, Saskatchewan is better because things change more slowly.”

It’s why George Webber keeps coming back.

For more than 30 years, Webber has been photographing Saskatchewan, travelling from his home in Calgary to small towns dotted around the province.

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Every time he returns, even to the same place, he said, he finds something new.

“There is something about that juxtaposition of these manmade structures on this vast, open, desolate sometimes, space,” he said, speaking to Global News over Zoom.

“It gives you some sort of a window into the aspirations of the folks that inhabit [Saskatchewan] and made that province.”
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Since 1987 George Webber has been documenting small towns in Saskatchewan. This photo was taken in Sedley, about 50 KM southeast of Regina, in 1993. Courtesy: George Webber

His new book, simply called “Saskatchewan Book,” is the culmination, so far, of his decades of travels through the province.

It’s full of vibrant pictures of roads leading to the horizon, small shops, old signs, abandoned buildings churches next to chicken restaurants and towers and barns alone in vast fields.

Some of his photographs so towns and villages that no longer exist.

Even the collapsed structures left behind, he said, are proof of, and a testament to, the people who once lived there.

A decaying truck in a field near Mazenod, Sask. in 2018. Webber documents what happens to small towns after people leave or as the town shrinks. He hopes to show how people used to live by capturing what remains of their lives. Courtesy: George Webber

“You’re really struck by the openness, by the sort of the fragility of the human endeavours in those places,” Webber said.

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“There is something also very heroic.”

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He began taking documentary photos of the small towns in Alberta and eventually started exploring the neighbouring province.

He said he found the rate of change slower here, which gave him more time to capture the handmade painted signs and small storefront.

“It’s almost it was a… sort of folk art. There’s a quality of people doing sort of simple, reticent, basic kinds of things as opposed to fancy things,” he said, explaining why he sometimes focuses on little details.

Little details, but no people.

His photos don’t show anyone who used to live or use the buildings or trucks he puts in frame.

He said he hopes to explain who they were by showing how they lived and what they left behind.

A defining characteristic, he said, is friendliness and support.

“People wave at you of their trucks, right?” he said.

An old sign near a gas station close to Webb, about 35 km west of Swift Current. Courtesy: George Webber

“People don’t do that in Calgary. They give you other signals in traffic.”

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He also eschews expensive, hi-tech equipment for a 50mm lens, which he said makes his work more honest and organic.

He added that it leaves his photos more at the mercy of the light and the seasons.

And that’s why he keeps coming back — to see how things change and how they continue to exist.

“People say, ‘well, how can you keep going back over and over to the same place?’ But… it’s never the same place.”

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