In his latest book, published by The Velvet Cell and beautifully printed, Kyler Zeleny takes a road trip Out West. The West in question is western Canada, as indicated by a map in the first couple of pages. Zeleny documents or depicts scenes of extremely small-town Canada, ranging from population 7 to population 988, according to an indicator opposite each photograph.The sparse nature of these communities - or areas - is reflected in the total number of actual people portrayed, which seems like 3. They are not shown in much detail: always small in the frame, going about their own business or seemingly deep in thought. Zeleny appears much more interested in the once-removed evidence of people and evidence of living, from blankets on a drying line to weathered brick walls. Typography is prevalent, in the form of a worn away logo, a "closed" sign, or a sign belonging to a motel equal parts quaint and uncanny. People exist or have existed here, but they're mostly either gone, hiding from, or avoided by the photographer. Capricious spoke to this photographer over email.
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to go on this these trips?
The project has a personal element to it, I identify as a ruralite. I was raised on a farm in the Canadian West, but I later moved onto city living, as many do. Having been privy to both worlds, I feel I have borne witness to the ever-growing rift that many rural communities are facing between their proud past and their uncertain future. There is something really interesting about the culture of this space. Western Canada was the last quadrant of North America to be settled. As a result of being "young," it lacks a strong sense of history. Some rural communities are only now celebrating their centennials. They have a limited legacy, and that legacy is in question as some of these communities slowly wither and die. This was something I was interested in documenting.
What was your process like for this book? In terms of picking towns, driving around, walking around, etc.?
This is something I touch upon in my essay in the book. I used a modified version of Walter Benjamin's conception of flaneur to inform my process, something i termed the automotive flaneur. I would let the road inform my travels and stops. The process seems rather inefficient but it allowed for the trip to unfold rather than being staunchly planned out. I drove, stopped and photographed and repeated the process over 1,00 times. Sometimes communities were so desolate I would walk around them for a short period and then continue on without photographing them. There of course were general parameters to photographing: communities had to have less than 1,000 inhabitants, anything larger would be bypassed and each community had to be in Western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba). I did two trips, one in the summer of 2012 and one in 2013 and then spent the winter of 2013 compiling the essays and the images into a narrative.
A lot of the locations seem weathered, but not too weathered. Just enough to lend a certain character, which seems pretty consistent throughout. Can you talk about what draws you to places that are in this specific type of condition?
I would say that is a consistent theme throughout the book and perhaps I am drawn to places that exhibit a certain 'run down' character. I would perhaps view it differently and suggest that the project presented me with these spaces rather than I searched them out. That being said, I am putting forth a particular narrative that I think is the visual equivalent to current data suggesting the continued decline of rural Canada. This relates back to my personal interest in these spaces and a real worry that they are losing the very elements that made them strong and vibrant communities in the past.
How did the three essays at the end come about?
I wanted to create something more than "just a photo-book". I was interesting in presenting a particular narrative of the rural spaces of Western Canada. I also wanted to question how these spaces were different from their American counterparts and how they were similar. I thought that was best achieved through the marriage of text and image and I felt my words alone would not be adequate enough. Along with my essay I approached Craig Campbell, an Anthropologist who had taught and researched in the area, to write about the culture present in Western Canada. Campbell wrote from a more academic point of view which offered something different from Ginger Strand's contribution. Strand is two things, a very eloquent writer and also am American ruralite at heart. Her essay provided contrast to the others by focusing on her personal experiences with rural America. I originally approached Strand for another project, having read the contributions she had made to other photography projects (most notably Postcards From America). It seems a bit absurd to have a contribution that focuses on the American Mid-West but for those who know rural spaces in Western Canada will understand the poetic connection. A forth essay was written but in the end the publisher decided it did not fit with our conception of the project and was not used.
Text & Images by Alex Broadwell