EDITORS NOTE: This interview will be a treat for photographers out there. The Daily Yonder sat down with Kyler Zeleny, a Canadian photographer, to catch up on his latest work. Four years ago, when we interviewed Zeleny for the first time, he was working on his Ph.D. and a new photography project.
Now, he has completed both the doctorate and his new book, “Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle.” Shawn Poynter, a professional photographer himself and the Daily Yonder regular, reconnected with Zeleny to ask about his creative process, adventures on the road, and plans. At times a bit technical, the conversation peels back the curtain on the inner workings of masterful photography.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Zeleny: I’m essentially working on a trilogy looking at rural space, or prairie space, or rural space on the prairies. And “Out West” [previous book] was this wide expanse look at Western Canada, small towns of a thousand or fewer individuals.
And then this project [“Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle”] became just looking at the prairie region itself. So kicking out a lot of the northern parts of the prairie provinces that are far more forested or boreal. And also kicking out British Columbia to the west because that’s all mountains or forest. And just really focusing on the concept of the prairies as a region. And then also expanding that population, of looking at communities that had more than a thousand…
“Out West” was very much about really looking at the space of these very small towns. And it was very absent of people, it was like the presence of people through their absence. And for “Crown and Ditch” you can see…there’s a ton of portraiture.
So that was a key component, let’s move beyond the town to look at the landscape outside of it. Let’s continue to look at the town and let’s look at the people that inhabit both spaces.
That started in 2015. Shooting took three years. I mean, it’s a long process. It’s been five years with that project. So the fact that it’s out now has been really exciting.
Poynter: I know what you’re saying. I love your … vernacular buildings: the cafes, the churches, and the like. There’s one, an old house with a camper behind it, that could have been in my hometown. That’s so familiar to me. I guess we call it “hillbilly engineering.” A point of pride that we can make anything work.
Zeleny: A number of Canadian people have written me and they’re from small towns (but have) moved on, which is this common motif. And a lot of them have been, like, “I know every single person in this book. I know every single space, even though I’ve never come across it.” It’s like looking at a regional, or maybe it’s just a rural, vernacular that exists across the entire continent. Not only in Canada or the Northwest, but also in the south, southeast, central.
Poynter: I was raised in Kentucky and … it looks familiar. Everybody here, I feel like I know them. All of these people kind of live everywhere in some sense.
Zeleny: Yeah. They become rural archetypes, you know? You know people like this.
Poynter: Did you go out with a certain category in mind? “Oh, today I’m going to shoot houses and buildings?” Or, “I must shoot baby artwork with dinosaurs and buffalo in a field?” How’d you think about it as you’re going out and shooting?
Zeleny: Yeah, there wasn’t a laundry list of things I was wanting to photograph, not in the beginning at least. I kind of use the road trip as a method, movement as a method, so just literally driving.
I think a lot of photographers [who] are road-based photographers, maybe we can call them that, would do something similar. I would do a road trip for about three weeks to a month, every summer, over three summers and whatever I saw, I saw. When I arrived and whoever was walking the streets and whoever I bugged and let me take that photo became part of it.
So it’s a lot of happenstance. The third year is really about, okay, let’s figure out what we want to say. Let’s figure out what gaps exist within the narrative and try to go and encapsulate that. It was pretty quick after the first year that I was, like, “I don’t need to shoot any more grain elevators.”
That was also super cliche, but it’s also so cliche that you would like to include one. It’s a weird thing.
Going into the third year, I was like, “I don’t have enough female portraits.” I don’t know if they’re being adequately represented, but they’re also just … As a male approaching females in rural spaces, it’s a little more difficult for me and for the interaction, but I think it’s still important. So I tried to balance that out, as well.
Poynter: I’m looking right now and that picture of the lady in the middle of the road with a green bag.
Zeleny: Oh, yeah. Judy.
Poynter: Judy. That’s a great picture. It’s beautiful.
Zeleny: Thanks. Yeah. She was just picking up garbage on the side of the road as a retirement hobby. She was, as she was expressing it, just trying to leave something better for the next generation. That’s a really nice sentiment. So lady on the super busy highway, that’s [got] trucks going down it.
It’s a cool road because it’s called the Cowboy Highway and it’s one of the most beautiful roads we have in Alberta. Because it’s just kind of skirts going south, north, north, south with the mountains. It’s kind of just right. You can see behind her, that’s the beginning of the Rockies. That’s the beginning of the formation.
We talked a little bit about God’s country and how she can talk to God in the landscape, which, I actually am not religious, but I took that just as a spiritual comment, in general, because I can see what she was saying.
Poynter: Just her shirt and the bag. It’s just the perfect colors, the perfect landscape for it. It’s really nice.
Zeleny: Yeah. Just sitting on a highway with semis ripping behind her.
Poynter: I’ve never done a book, so I’m wondering: going into this project five years ago, what was your intention? And do you think that you met that intention or are there things you wish you had done differently?
Zeleny: I think I made and met the intention because there wasn’t any intention. I mean, I already have a number of preconceived ideas of what this space looks like, how it operates, who’s there, because I’m from it and I’ve already done work on it, but then I also want to be surprised. I mean, at its bones it’s a creative work, but it was based out of an academic setting. So it’s really just about going out and using we see, what can we find, what’s it about? So there wasn’t really any intention.
Through that process, what ends up happening is I do understand that there are certain things that I would have liked to have done differently, but that becomes then another project, right? So in the same way that “Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle” came out of “Out West”, this next book project that I’m working on just called “Bury Me in the Back 40” comes out of both the previous projects, particularly out of “Crown Ditch.” There’s this evolution.
Poynter: One thing I like … well, first of all, I feel like I’m giving you too many compliments. So if that’s making you uncomfortable…
Zeleny: No, please, Shawn. How much do they cost?
Poynter: Today they’re free.
I feel like a lot of times people, and I think that I fall into this trap occasionally, go to a rural area and get caught up in … how [worn-out] stuff is… But I don’t feel like any of the work in this book falls into that trap, which is impressive. Is that something you are conscious of when you’re out doing work?
Zeleny: Yeah, I’d say I am. So I think we can definitely point to images that we can maybe call… “ruin porn,” and it’s very pervasive in North American rural culture. But then also if you look at like ex-Soviet culture, ruin porn is a big thing, as well. Look at how things have turned out. So, and also in urban centers, like Detroit, is big for that. For the narrative of decay.
I was cognizant of it, but also that’s part of the story and I think that’s also why I’m doing the work is because I am making the argument that we’re seeing a real shift within rural spaces and how viable they are and what kind of forms of community exist within them.
This is a good compliment. I really appreciate this one because it’s a very delicate balance to get a sprinkling of that decay, to just show that this is an operation that’s occurring, as well as, an aging population, which I think you get from the general age of the individuals in the portraits, but then to make that not the overarching idea of the whole project that it just becomes the forefront concept.
Poynter: It’s a fine line, right,? I mean, you do see it and it is there and that’s a big part of the landscape, but I just think that you don’t fetishize it like I’ve seen. Plus, you mix that with these really intimate, really kind portraits of people. It comes through as well-meaning instead of mocking, which is easy to do sometimes.
Zeleny: Yeah. That’s another great compliment. I don’t know if you’re trying to give it or not.
Poynter: That one was an accident, honestly.
Zeleny: Yeah, people have commented on that, too, where these aren’t cold. Some of them can be distant, but I think there’s still warmth to them. I really care about these people in this region. I’m just really interested in trying to understand. I make a little bit of the comparison with you guys in the States, that I think politics are becoming very polarized in the States. And I think we have a number of reasons why rural isn’t being listened to and those individuals aren’t being listened to from other populations. And I’m just a little worried that a similar thing is going to happen in Canada.
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Poynter: In your intro [to the book], you talk about how there’s so much visual reporting on the American West but not so much the Canadian West and prairie. Have you spent much time in the U.S. plains? And if so, can you compare the prairie to the plains at all?
Zeleny: I haven’t spent that much time. I mean, part of this work, I’m framing it as the Canadian West, but there’s a number of images that come out of Montana in this work. And there’s a reason to kind of forget that arbitrary border that someone drew 200 years ago, some white guy in the Mideast without consultation with groups that were currently operating and living in that space. And just even geographical formations, they don’t run east to west. They run north and south in North America. So they get kind of lumped in.
I’ve stopped a little bit in Kansas and stuff, and I see some similarities there. I think this project could have had a larger scope. We could have included some of the American Midwest. I haven’t shot that much, but I do feel like that is a kindred, almost like a brother region to the Canadian prairies without having physically spent a lot of time there.
But I have read a little bit, especially about how the region kind of operates as this internal colony, if you will. Resources are usually pulled out of Western Canada historically and utilized in the East. And that continues today in a number of ways and creates some sort of animosity. And there’s a number of individuals that talk about that happening and occurring in the Midwest similarly.
Poynter: This book really makes me want to come to Canada and do a month-long road trip, so that’s a testament maybe. Are you still shooting medium format?
Zeleny: Yeah. That’s all medium format. That’s a Pentax 67. it’s a lovely camera. I love it. It’s a beast.
Poynter: I ask [about format] because this guy shoveling in front of a fence with the home behind him, if you remember that picture, that’s the kind of picture you don’t normally see shot on a medium format. It’s more of a candid. It’s just kind of cool to see candids shot on formats like this.
Zeleny: I have a number of those images that didn’t really make the book, but they’re in-action kind of poses. I actually really like them, but they just didn’t fit. They weren’t as aesthetically pleasing or they didn’t make the narrative. It’s an SLR camera. So, it looks like a giant 35-millimeter film camera. It’s just really big and bulky. So, you can take shots like that. [Film] is just so expensive and time-consuming that the next project, the one I’m working on right now, I’m just using a medium format digital Fuji camera.