Place: Lethbridge, City on the Prairie

by Photography by Geoffrey James. Text by Rudy Wiebe
128 pages,
ISBN: 1550549316

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Particularities of Place
by Peter O'Brien

That two such distinguished and poetic talents as photographer Geoffrey James and writer Rudy Wiebe have come together to produce a book is cause for celebration. That they use as their canvas the city of Lethbridge to examine the multifarious complexities of a specific "place" is an unexpected and inspiring delight.
Geoffrey James, who last year garnered two of the most important prizes awarded to Canadian artistsłthe Gershon Iskowitz Prize for sustained artistic achievement and the Roloff Beny Award for his book Parisł began photographing Lethbridge about five years ago. Perhaps it takes someone with international experience, and who has published books on 18th-century French gardens, the Italian countryside and on landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, to say of the land that encircles Lethbridge: "The coulees that rise up from the Oldman River, with their flowing, anthropomorphic forms, assumed in my mind an almost mythic stature, like the background of a Leonardo painting."
The black and white photographs here, printed in Italy with crystalline sharpness, are both an invocation of this sublime landscape and a form of regret for how quickly the land can be carved up into banal tract housing. As James says, "This phenomenon is not particular to Lethbridge," but it is disheartening to see the parched ravines that wrinkle down to the river all but ignored as subdivisions and golf courses overtake the land.
Geoffrey James wandered the city and environs lugging his huge box camera that produces 8" X 10" negatives. If you search for photographs of Lethbridge's signature work of architecture, Arthur Erickson's university campus, you won't find it here. But you will find a serene, pitted roadway that leads into town, its grasses gently undulating and its horizon straight and endless. You will also find a remarkable view of the CPR's High Level Bridge, its upper ironwork tracing the surrounding hilltops and casting its latticework over the rippling hills. And you'll see forlorn city buildings such as "The Top Hat" and the "Bow On Tong Co."
The text by Rudy Wiebe is a series of memory-saturated reflections called "Where the Black Rocks Lie in the Old Man's River." Wiebe has written extensively and compassionately about the life of the west and the north. His books, including the epic The Temptations of Big Bear and A Discovery of Strangers, among others, interweave history, warring notions of the future, love and a profound understanding of the land. Here, in Place, the text follows the photographs and does not comment on the images so much as complement and invoke them. Wiebe was born in a Mennonite community in Saskatchewan and lived throughout his teens in Lethbridge. He knows the land well, in all its harsh beauty.
Lethbridge, Wiebe tells us, was named for the publisher William Lethbridge (1825-1901), who helped finance the North Western Coal and Navigation Company, which was contracted to supply coal for the transcontinental CPR. The "long-faced English gentleman with his narrow nose, curly hair and full round beard was never near the prairie, nor did he ever make the slow sea voyage to Canada." Like the city's namesake, most Canadians have never been to the prairies and certainly have never spent enough time there to absorb the sweltering summer sun, to wander over the dry grasses and dirt of the coulees, and then to look out, slowly and with wonder, at the expansive and endless horizon.
"The wind is a sea in Lethbridge," Wiebe tells us. That sea carries its own vocabulary of "chinook", "cottonwood", and "sage", as well as the history of internment camps, Blackfoot tricksters and the "cloud-blossoming sky."
Like two strong, weathered old friends who have come together after much thought and many travels to shake hands and talk, the images of Geoffrey James and the stories of Rudy Wiebe provide a portrait of a city in transition. There is geographic and personal history here, but also deep knowledge of the city's contradictions and how we sometimes gloss over or obliterate the beauty within our midst. Place, these two imply, is a meandering evocation of land and people and memory and desire. Joan Stebbins, former director of and now curator at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, deserves much credit for envisioning this project and bringing these two preeminent artists together.
Gertrude Stein famously said of her hometown, Oakland: "There's no there there." Lethbridge, you may be tempted to say, should be similarly qualified, but Geoffrey James and Rudy Wiebe are able to gather out of the air a portrait that is everywhere present but so seldom seen. Here is Wiebe on the city that he knows so well: "After a lengthening spring or summer day of walking in the wind, I know that I have been breathed into. Whether I want to or not. And for the first time I comprehend why the city climbed up out of the deep, protective Oldman River valley and, despite its indenture to coal, built itself large on the unbounded and treeless prairie lying open to the distant mountains: it wanted the full blessing of the wind. To live in Lethbridge is to be perpetually inspired."

Peter O'Brien has reviewed art and writing for various publications, including The Globe and Mail, National Post and the Montreal Gazette.

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