George Webber in the dark room at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Webber photographed the historic Turner Valley Gas Plant that had been decommissioned since 1985 (Photo by Dustin Ruth/The Press)
George Webber in the dark room at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary on Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015. Webber photographed the historic Turner Valley Gas Plant that had been decommissioned since 1985 (Photo by Dustin Ruth/The Press)

(First published on The Press on Feb. 24, 2015)

It was an opportunity George Webber had been awaiting for a long time.

Webber, who is well-known for documenting Alberta’s past on film, had always wanted to take his camera inside the barbed wire fences surrounding the historic gas plant at Turner Valley, just southwest of Calgary.

The site was considered dangerous and riddled with vandalism, Webber recalled in a recent interview.

But it was here, only 100 years ago, where oil first erupted from the ground in Southern Alberta, transforming a community and a province.

“Turner Valley changed the West, and Canada, forever,” wrote historian David Finch in the March, 2014 issue of Alberta Views.

In another article published in the spring 2014 issue of Alberta History, Finch wrote, “There is no doubt that Calgary was a willing and joyful victim of oil fever.”

When Webber was finally granted access to photograph the historic site last summer, he was keen to get going.

What made the opportunity even more attractive was the fact the plant was almost exactly as it had been when it was decommissioned in 1985.

“While there had been some restoration work done, the buildings were sitting in a pretty feral, rough, sexy manner,” said Webber.

After getting the okay to go in, he waited a few days more, for a drizzly overcast sky that would bath the surroundings in the right light and detail.

His methodology was simple: a fixed 20-mm lens shot directly at eye level in landscape and not a millimetre off in any direction. The images were to be captured in black and white.

Webber described his own feelings walking through the the plant and looking back at the glass towers of Calgary in the distance.

“All of that came from here,” said Webber. “It’s an extraordinary touchstone.”

When Webber photographed the plant, oil was trading at $108 US a barrel on world markets.

But when the photographs were being hung for display at the Lougheed House in January, oil was just under $50 a barrel.

This was just the latest of the oil shocks to hit Alberta. As far back as Webber can remember, there have been three or four major declines and rebounds in the province’s economy, due to its reliance on fossil fuels.

“It’s the curse and the blessing.”

Although Webber does not bring politics to his art, he knows that Alberta’s current economic situation, caused by low oil prices, can affect the way the public views the exhibit.

“I just try to tell the story as simply and directly and respectfully as I can,” said Webber.

“If that happens, and is done well, those photographs can be interpreted as the most optimistic thing in the world, or the most pessimistic thing in the world. But that’s not for me to say.”

The Turner Valley Gas Plant Portfolio exhibit is component of Exposure Photography Festivaland is on display at the Lougheed House, 707 13 Ave. S.W. in Calgary, until March 22. Admission is $8.50 for adults, $6.50 for children or $25 for a family.

Images of historic gas plant a window on Alberta’s history
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