Words by Claudia Bigongiari
All images © Kyler Zeleny
Kyler Zeleny (born in 1988) is a Canadian photographer and researcher coming from his beloved even though isolated ‘Berta. When he was 16 there wasn’t much to do but driving around and looking at the old buildings slowly disappearing back in nature. “Just for having something to do” with friends, he tells.
Very young, he already had a fine instinct for lighting and composition, without a proper awareness of photography. His first memory with the camera goes back two years before holding a Canon Powershot 3.2, since then Kyler never stopped documenting the landscape and life of Western Canada.
In 2011 he began a real journey around Canadian and north American countries, the idea wasn’t to locate something in particular but to explore the location, he calls it the “grounded theory” when findings themselves drive you to what exists and why. “I simply began by knowing that I wanted to visually document my home region.”
The open space doesn’t discourage him, prairies become Kyler’s muse. He wants to understand how rural culture is visually represented and why prairies never had an imaginary before, instead they are forgotten places, with no identity.
Zeleny collects his travel in the form of the photo-book, something that could fit in people hands: “I was interested in making a project that could be accessible to those within the images”. Out West is the first chapter of the trilogy, published in 2014, where he presents small rural communities of 1000 or less inhabitants. After finishing it “I felt the work was done, I wasn’t done with the region”, he needed to make more, explains Kyler.
He started driving across the 4 western provinces of Canada, places suffering their state of uncertainty due to urbanisation, lack of heritage, abandonment, nature was more and more hiding the old architectures. Out West pays a particular attention on landscape, while the second twos “began simply putting myself in motion”, more focusing on people, the resilient inhabitants plenty of stories about prairies.
Regarding the second volume Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle (2020), made over 4 years of travels and 15000 kilometres of driving, Kyler extends his interest to towns of around 10000 inhabitants, including Alberta, and spaces outside the boundaries.
The atmosphere is timeless, as if everything, buildings, abandoned cars, farms, make difficult to understand what period they belong to, “decay is a natural feature of landscape” an inevitable passage of life/time. Today’s fetish of decay has become a phenomenon, the “ruin porn”. Instead Zeleny’s photos of old finds, shuttered architectures make the prairie landscape as much as other elements, like people.
Images of ruins were certainly easy to take while “asking people for their photos terrifies me”. Crown Ditch makes the photographer shift from the far, untouchable open space to the very close encounter with inhabitants. He followed Alec Soth lesson who once said he knew he had to take pictures of people to get better. To be done with the region he knew he has to take pictures of people. Fortunately it went very well! Looking at them it seems they didn’t make a big effort to stay in front of the camera: they pose like they do every morning in front of their farm, house, car, a familiar space talking about familiar memories and stories.
He was stopping inhabitants when they were coming or going to the prairies, asking the reason of their visit whether if they would like to share it, or just chatting with them. There was Ernie selling books from a small corner house, drinking beer and waving people; the meticulously bible reader and believer Gary; Judy picking the garbage from the roadside, proudly telling she once found two one-hundred-dollar bills.
Another interest anecdote is the one behind the title Crown Ditch and the Prairie Castle, two actually. Crown royal was the typical drink of Montana, after a couple of which people hit the ditch, some of them tragically died on their way back from the bar. Prairie castle instead, refers to the giant grain elevators that once ruled the landscape. They were called castles or cathedrals and indicated the nearness to towns. Maybe Kyler liked the idea of “introducing royal undertones to a space that has no history to it.”
He probably is the first visual testimony of Western Canadian life, and since he was writing a piece of history, he decided to make it “royal”.
Each book of the trilogy “represents a progression of thinking and creation”, as much as kilometres add new visions and experiences. The last volume will be published this 2021 and has the title Bury Me in the Back Forty, again a new shift: here Zeleny reduces the focus to his home community Mundane presenting the journey as an intimate one (until his house backyard). With a more personal than the traditional documentary approach, Kyler includes images of others and archives to create a more complex story.
There would be many other things to write about Kyler Zeleny since his research moves widely and wisely. 2011 wasn’t only the year of the photographic trip, but he also began a curatorial one.
His fascination for found photography and archives started when he bumped into the many polaroids sold in markets, vintage shops, online. He was curious about how those images reached places so “disconnected from their origins” and even more about who were the people portrayed.
By time he “collected” over 6000 instant photos, he created an online platform Found Polaroids to give, as his first plan, people the possibility to take back their images whether if recognised. A very nice purpose but too hard to realise. For Kyler Zeleny photography is the encounter between images and stories, now it’s clear, “to get better”, to go further is necessary the encounter with people and their experiences. So he decided to use polaroids to make new connections, after the difficulties to send them back to their owners. They became source of inspiration for anyone wants to share a new and fictitious story. Found Polaroids represents a space of imagination and transformation where photography makes go under the surface. Again, the young Canadian doesn’t only go to locate something specifically but to explore all the location, all the possibilities, like he did all around prairies. He presents himself not even as a collector, only a keeper of images until they will find their new location, their new story.