MEDICINE HAT, AB — Frank Webber spent decades capturing the history of Medicine Hat through his camera, showcasing the people who helped make the city what it is today, and highlighted its growth over the years.
Now, he has donated tens of thousands of negatives he photographed over the years to the Esplanade Archives, with the aim of preserving the past for future generations.
Webber, 77, got interested in photography while working on the yearbook as a high school student in Irvine.
“I was given a challenge then to take the different teams and the rest of it for your 1962 yearbook, and that’s where I found an interest in it,” he said.
“I was really fascinated by photography, just preserving time and being young and at that age, I wanted to keep those good times as long as I could.
He worked for the Medicine Hat News as a photographer from 1962 to 1996, covering community events and milestones, such as the Medicine Hat Exhibition and Stampede.
“We always found Stampede time very interesting, because there was lots of action both in the infield, and outside,” he said. “The parade was always a bit of a challenge, because at that time, it was an evening paper, and you had go and grab the photos right away. When it became a morning paper, moreso, but the fact we were pretty well digital then, it was a lot easier to do.”
He also covered the installation of the Canadian Pacific Rail train that is parked in Riverside Veterans Memorial Park, which at the time was across the street from the Medicine Hat News’ former location downtown.
“It was Jess Nowicki who was pretty much responsible for the obtaining of the engine and the transferring of it, with CPR’s cooperation of course,” he said. “They came off the main line and built that spur line temporarily that you see there, and just literally run the engines down into the park where you see it now.”
In addition to his work as a news photographer, Webber also did commercial and freelance work. Occasionally, his freelance work allowed him to photograph from up in the air, getting a glimpse of the city from a vantage point almost nobody gets to see.
“Even though we had additional photographers at the time, there was one sort of rule that I got to go do the aerial assignments,” he said.
Much of the aerial work involved photographing the Trans-Canada Highway or businesses, such as auction houses.
Looking back at the photos, Webber says he is amazed with how the city has grown over the years. One of the photos in his collection was an aerial photo of Kin Coulee Park from the 1980s, looking towards Medicine Hat College.
“If you take a look at the very top of the photo, there’s none of the buildings on the south side of the Trans-Canada Highway, and that’s all filled in now, and still growing,” he said. “I find that with a lot of my photos.”
Webber kept his negatives organized, with details about the photography subjects and the year the photos were taken. In 2017, Webber approach the Esplanade Archives about the possibility of donating his personal collection.
Archivist Philip Pype says they knew they had to have the collection once it was donated.
“My eyes, I’m pretty sure just lit right up,” he said. “I’ve had an opportunity to work with Frank as a member of the community, as somebody who documented the community for as long I’ve been in Medicine Hat.”
“I’m quite pleased they’re going to be looked after and cared for, rather than stored up in the top of our quonset,” Webber said.
Pype says Webber’s role in the community makes the negatives an important historical resource.
“He’s been able to record day-to-day life, as well as record some of those iconic events that are really important to our community’s history,” he said. “He’s recorded industrial development, development of the community, hockey games, community festivals are in there, as well as events that went by quickly and we tend to forget about, like the tearing down of grain elevators and how that’s changed the prairie landscapes.”
The collection was catalogued and organized by the Esplanade Archives, which also included scanning and posting around 700 images online.
“I still hope someone, somewhere finds one of them interesting and can make some use of them,” said Webber.
“What we're able to do is by getting it stored and described and accessible is ensure that it's available for many, many years to come,” said Pype. “And hopefully many generations are able to access this documentation and what know what life has been like in the ‘80s, ‘90s and 2000s.”
The full collection can be viewed online on the Esplanade’s website. The negatives can also be viewed in person at the Archives.
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