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Book Review: Crown Ditch & The Prairie Castle by Kyler Zeleny

“Some use empty or banal to describe the prairies, I use the term sublimely banal. The writer and prairie son Wallace Stegner once called the emptiness of space on the prairies “almost frighteningly total.” The place I grew up could be argued to be the last ‘proving ground’ of colonial settlement, as such, it is a place largely without a history, there have been no barons here, no great battles on hills just the sublimely banal horizons of a landscape and a culture in its youth.” – Kyler Zeleny

The prairie is considered as one of the many retrogressive “period pieces,” prisoners of the coma that precedes their certain death. It is a lost cause, good only for its harvest and reserves. Farm is no longer a verb, cultivated and planted, but a small tax on history.

But the prairie (which pretends to be infinite, which practices aesthetic self-discipline) is a place of only apparent absence and declining vitality. The prairie is also a place of spaces, characterized by large artifacts and oversized objects that differentiate communities, like slogans. It is in this context that the photographic research of Kyler Zeleny, who graduated in political science from the University of Alberta (Canada) and obtained a master’s degree in photography and urban cultures at Goldsmiths College (University of London), develops.

Crown Ditch & the Prairie Castle is a long-term project that documents the spaces and people of the last great “West” and towards which we too often forget to turn our gaze: the Canadian West. It is a project that analyzes this type of landscape, industry and most importantly people who are a resilient race created by generational lessons of fortitude and fortunate circumstances. It is a West that we do not know, addicted to the idea of the American one, and which perhaps for this reason seems more real.

The 5-year work drew on the author’s previous visual research (“Out West”), taking him to the back roads of rural western Canada and, occasionally, to Montana. Sleeping in the car, taking a shower in lakes and community pools, he dedicated himself to trying to understand the current idea of rurality and to represent it, grasp it, visually. Kyler’s style is influenced by the fascination for the elements of the past but also by the reflection on the future; from the propensity for open spaces, his places of birth, but also from the metropolis as a response to the need for interaction. The message behind the author’s research is that the rural areas of the prairies are important to understanding the West and contemporary settler culture in Canada. The goal is to document and preserve what is there before it disappears as well as to build a better understanding of what makes the region unique both for those who live within the region and those outside who know little about it.

The book consists of portrait photographs and photographs of spaces. It consists of stories of places, people, places that determine people and vice versa. The attached pamphlet, hidden in a small pocket at the end of the book, is also very interesting, as an afterword, containing anecdotes and reflections by the author and a text by Arithe Van Herk.

Aritha Van Herk is an important writer for Zeleny and important for his research: she wrote an introduction to Prairie Gothic by George Webber, another photographer of the prairie, and she is herself an inhabitant and a profound connoisseur of this place and its dimension. Her poetic text creates an interesting contrast with the author’s descriptive one.

I personally find this project essential for identifying the contemporary photographic culture of Western Canada.

Kyler Zeleny is a founding member of the Association of Urban Photographers (AUP), an editor for the Imagination Journal for Cross-Cultural Image Studies, and a guest publisher for The Velvet Cell, which publishes the book. Kyler currently lives in Toronto, where he is a PhD candidate in the joint Communication and Culture program at Ryerson and York University.

“The cultural iconicity of the prairie is not in its extraordinary simplicity, but how we practice our desire for that prairie, and what we expect it to do for us. It becomes then a space studious as shelves, faithful as a painted icon.” – Aritha Van Herk

Crown Ditch & The Prairie Castle
by Kyler Zeleny
96 Pages / 22.5 x 26 cm
Hardback, Clothbound,
Printed in Tallinn, Estonia
Published by The Velvet Cell
Edition Size 500
https://www.thevelvetcell.com/shop/crown-ditch-and-prairie-castle/


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