“I aimed to explore a version of rural beauty that is a landscape in tension with its past and present.”
The number of books printed for Kyler Zeleny’s book ‘Out West’ could far out number the populations of 20 of the small rural communities in which he made the work. This isn’t to say that his edition is particularly large (500), but more to highlight how easily we take a number for granted – 500 is a limited edition in the photobook world, in rural Canada its a community (but perhaps one that wont be available for long).
“The Out West project details my appreciations, fears, pity and interest in a rural haunted by its past and unsure of its future”
Early on the work seems to be charged with a tension of what is to come and the individual communities prophylactic struggle against the “rural drain, urban claim” that so threatens their way of life. From a tattered storage containers pathetic attempt to appear modern with a decal declaring it as such to an abandoned pickup trucks flat-bed – abandoned by its own cabin in search of a more urban rear-end, perhaps – Zeleny fills his images with a kind of hopeless, mournful resentment of what is, inevitably, to come.
These initial last-ditch efforts are punctuated hard by an image of ‘ROAD CLOSED’ signs and barriers stacked up behind a wooden shed, poised ready for the impending catastrophe, ready to close the road for the communities (re)construction into a new, more efficient and more profitable beast. From this puncture in the sequence we begin to see efforts deteriorate, as communities seemingly relent to the ‘progress’ of urbanisation. Zeleny begins to show us the failings of each location – from decimated roads to signs and businesses to cars and homes who have lost their function to time, abandonment and loss of necessity.
Time is an important theme within the work, with the rural scenes depicting “agelessness in the form of automobiles, houses, objects and dress.” In fact the only image where one is able to construe a sense of time is in the Shore-esque ‘CO-OP’ gas station photograph, where the price of fuel is bluntly thrust into the book. Like a photograph of a hostage holding the previous days newspaper this image thrusts the ‘nowness’, the contemporary relevance of the project onto the viewer and gives the project a dateable anchor point. It is a proof of life that asserts the communities depicted as living today but perhaps not for long. Like the swathe of stills from execution videos and war photography we are placed in an impossible position of arriving too late to enact any action in the physical scene and superficially too early to witness the unravelling of the implied death on the surface of the photograph.
The appearance of humans is a carefully considered one, with an overarching theme of ‘significance’. His portraits (of people) appear only in habitations where the population number is at a significant point numerically. “Population: 400”, for example, depicts an elderly woman crossing an alley, walking toward the ‘Senior Citizen’s Drop in Centre’ – without her there would be only 399 but with her the number is whole, complete and rounded. Its a metaphor for belonging – in a large, urban city her death would mean relatively little, she would be replaced quickly – her minus would be offset instantly with 4 pluses. No one would miss her, no one would know her, its a classic ‘small fish, big pond’ scenario. Instead she lives where she is known, she is important (numerically, at least) and her life is valued.
The book is one that delicately and gracefully walks a tight-rope between academic study and poetic/artistic expression. The essays in the back by Ginger Strand, Craig Campbell and Kyler Zeleny absolutely lean toward the academic study performed through the project, whilst the images and the narratives made/implied by their ordering go beyond this. The layout is systematic – images square, in colour, taken in daylight, each page template the same – yet it is populated by some of the most poetic images I have seen from such a book. I thought that a book by someone concerned with social/anthropological themes would undoubtedly hark back to Simon Roberts work “Mother Land” and of course “We English”, but this work feels different. I feel like the book is concerned more with its stated concerns than it is with establishing the photographers career in photography and book-making (the book even opens to expose its raw spine, a nice touch). This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with Simon Roberts’ approach, it has its place, but Zeleny’s images feel more concerned about his subject matter than interested in it.
The smaller an edition in photography the more desirable the piece. The same could be said for the communities in rural Canada – I’m sure Toronto is lovely, but I’d take a few months of living in that wood-clad house with the red pickup any day. 778 is a fine edition to me.
Out West can be purchased here.
Ollie Gapper graduated from UCA Rochester in 2014 with a degree in Photography (Contemporary Practice). He is currently studying an MA in Photography with a long-term focus on photobooks and the American landscape.