7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.5 | Gar­dinerZe­lenyPDF


Abstract | Adopt­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive frame­work, this paper uti­lizes Thomas Gardiner’s project West­ern Cana­da (2005-2010) as a cat­a­lyst for explor­ing the con­cept of a pho­to­graph­ic com­mu­ni­ty in the Cana­di­an West. The arti­cle con­sid­ers how Hollywood’s pro­duc­tion of fea­ture films has appro­pri­at­ed land­scapes in West­ern Cana­da to rep­re­sent Amer­i­can spaces. Fur­ther­more, the arti­cle dis­cuss­es how the absence of an estab­lished pho­to­graph­ic canon in the Cana­di­an West and the lack of insti­tu­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties to assist in fos­ter­ing a pho­to­graph­ic com­mu­ni­ty cre­ate par­tic­u­lar con­di­tions for pho­to­graph­ic prac­ti­tion­ers in the region. Thomas Gar­diner and Kyler Zeleny’s work is dis­cussed in rela­tion to their mul­ti-loca­tion­al work­ing meth­ods. These meth­ods include for­mal train­ing and rela­tion­ship build­ing that pri­mar­i­ly takes place out­side of rur­al cen­tres. The con­cept of a renewed pho­to­graph­ic vision is dis­cussed through the frame of place attach­ment and its rela­tion to pho­tog­ra­phers who leave the Cana­di­an West only to return to doc­u­ment once famil­iar spaces. In lieu of a tex­tu­al con­clu­sion, a col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly nego­ti­at­ed sequence of images between Gar­diner and Zele­ny serves as a dia­log­i­cal exer­cise that is intend­ed to draw the read­er towards the imag­i­na­tive work of place-mak­ing.
Résumé | À tra­vers un cadre col­lab­o­ratif, cet arti­cle abor­de le pro­jet West­ern Cana­da (2005-2010) de Thomas Gar­diner comme un catal­y­seur afin d’explorer le con­cept de com­mu­nauté pho­tographique dans l’Ouest cana­di­en. Y est exam­iné l’impact de l’appropriation des paysages de l’Ouest du Cana­da par les pro­duc­tions filmiques hol­ly­woo­d­i­ennes en quête d’un cadre améri­cain à rabais. À ce titre, l’article ques­tionne égale­ment l’absence d’un canon pho­tographique établi lié à l’Ouest cana­di­en et la rareté des ouver­tures insti­tu­tion­nelles apte à créer une tra­di­tion ou à tout le moins une com­mu­nauté de prati­ciens dans cette aire géo­graphique. Les travaux de Thomas Gar­diner et de Kyler Zele­ny sont ain­si exam­inés en lien avec leurs méth­odes de « mul­ti-local­i­sa­tion », méth­odes qui inclu­ent un entraine­ment formel et le développe­ment d’aptitudes rela­tion­nelles, et qui pren­nent place surtout à l’extérieur des cen­tres ruraux. Enfin, le con­cept de regard pho­tographique renou­velé est exploré dans l’article à tra­vers la lorgnette de l’attachement affec­tif au lieu et son influ­ence sur les pho­tographes ayant quit­té le Cana­da dans le passé et y revenant pour met­tre en scène des lieux qui leur furent fam­i­liers. À la place d’une con­clu­sion tra­di­tion­nelle, l’article offre une séquence d’images pro­duites col­lec­tive­ment par Gar­diner et Zele­ny et qui ser­vent en quelque sorte d’exercice dialogique afin d’attirer l’attention du lecteur sur le pou­voir d’évocation de la con­struc­tion du lieu en pho­togra­phie.

Thomas Gar­diner (images) | Pho­tog­ra­ph­er
Kyler Zele­ny (images | words) | Ryer­son Uni­ver­si­ty

LEAVING TO RETURN:
A Photographic Case Study in Western Canada

Welcome to the West

A son of the Prairies, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Thomas Gar­diner was born and raised in West­ern Cana­da. After a few years abroad, Gar­diner returned to the prairies with a fresh per­spec­tive and began doc­u­ment­ing his origins—the land­scape and its inhab­i­tants that had once been so famil­iar. As a pho­tog­ra­ph­er and researcher I fol­lowed a sim­i­lar devel­op­men­tal path: I was raised in rur­al West­ern Cana­da, spent time abroad, and ulti­mate­ly felt the pull to return to doc­u­ment the region—the end result of which was a book titled Out West (2014). What Gar­diner and I are both enact­ing through this process is the motif of the ruralite leav­ing only to return. The fol­low­ing sec­tions will explore why the motif of “return­ing home” and the con­cept of a renewed pho­to­graph­ic vision is impor­tant to under­stand­ing doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers oper­at­ing in West­ern Cana­da. Adopt­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive frame­work, this paper reads Thomas Gardiner’s project West­ern Cana­da (2005-2010) as a cat­a­lyst for explor­ing con­cepts and ideas relat­ed to pho­tog­ra­phy and the pho­to­graph­ic com­mu­ni­ty in the Cana­di­an West. The analy­sis cul­mi­nates in a col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly nego­ti­at­ed sequence of images between Gar­diner and myself, serv­ing as a dia­log­i­cal exer­cise designed to immerse the read­er in the imag­i­na­tive art of region­al place­mak­ing.

Apprais­ing Gardiner’s work beyond pure aes­theti­cism can illu­mi­nate how the images empow­er a nar­ra­tive of expan­sion and pas­toral­ism that is par­tic­u­lar to the Cana­di­an West. Sim­i­lar to oth­er work that explores Cana­di­an iden­ti­ty and envi­rons, Gardiner’s work rais­es ques­tions about the rela­tion­ship between the land and its inhab­i­tants. In oth­er words, Gardiner’s lens oper­ates as a con­duit allow­ing us to ques­tion our con­cep­tions of land­scape, place, and iden­ti­ty in the region.

West­ern Cana­da rais­es a set of broad ques­tions: What is West­ern Cana­da? Who is rep­re­sent­ing it? And echo­ing Northrop Frye’s famous “where is here” inquiry, where is West­ern Cana­da? Geo­graph­i­cal­ly speak­ing, we know the lines that demar­cate West­ern Cana­da. We can iden­ti­fy them on a map and for most of us those very lines also lim­it our prob­ing. Yet the ques­tion remains, how is West­ern Cana­da sig­ni­fied spa­tial­ly? That is, what spaces are used to rep­re­sent it? What are the signs and sym­bols that trig­ger the aware­ness of being in its bounds? Exam­in­ing Gardiner’s provoca­tive large-for­mat images, one can begin to prob­lema­tize what is often tak­en for grant­ed in this region—its pho­to­graph­ic iden­ti­ty. Pri­mar­i­ly cap­tured in the south­ern regions of British Colum­bia, Alber­ta, and Saskatchewan, Gardiner’s images con­tribute to an under­de­vel­oped doc­u­men­tary form—colour pho­tog­ra­phy in West­ern Cana­da. In a sim­i­lar man­ner, five years after Gar­diner com­plet­ed West­ern Cana­da, my project Out West (2014) aimed to cre­ate an expan­sive visu­al account of rur­al West­ern Cana­da, oper­at­ing as a crit­i­cal response to the lack of wide­ly exult­ed image-mak­ers pho­tograph­ing the region (Zele­ny).

Acclaimed pho­tog­ra­phers have pho­tographed in the region. For instance, Amer­i­can-born New Topo­graph­ic pho­tog­ra­ph­er Stephen Shore pho­tographed in Saskatchewan in the 1970s. How­ev­er, his images do not include typ­i­cal Cana­di­an identifiers—Canadians flags, Roy­al Mount­ed Cana­di­an Police uni­forms, or gra­naries with “Wheat Pool” insignia—and are not clear­ly marked as Cana­di­an, nor are they are quin­tes­sen­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Cana­di­an spaces. Through a tex­tu­al silence, they eas­i­ly become sub­sumed under the ban­ner of Amer­i­can life and Amer­i­can space. Shore’s Cana­di­an pho­tographs then become an unknown sim­u­lacrum for rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Amer­i­can space. Much in the same way, many films and shows are pro­duced in the land­scape of the Cana­di­an West but are used to rep­re­sent Amer­i­can spaces. For instance, the fol­low­ing titles were filmed in Alber­ta with dia­logue and set mod­i­fi­ca­tions (includ­ing Amer­i­can flags or sig­nage changes) that obscure the loca­tion­al nature of the film: Days of Heav­en (1978), Broke­back Moun­tain (2005), The Assas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Cow­ard Robert Ford (2007), Inter­stel­lar (2014), The Revenant (2015), Cut Bank (2014), and Far­go (2014-2016). As a result of what com­mu­ni­ca­tion the­o­rist Will Straw calls a “shared visu­al space” (24) and some cin­e­mat­ic imag­i­na­tion, the aver­age view­er reg­is­ters these set­tings as Amer­i­can. This is an inter­na­tion­al affair and speaks to the com­plex transna­tion­al rela­tion­ship we have with film and dis­joint­ed imagery, or what the dias­po­ra the­o­rist Nicholas Mir­zo­eff calls Inter­vi­su­al­i­ty (Straw 28). This process is large­ly dri­ven by the eco­nom­ics of film pro­duc­tion (pro­duc­tion costs), where it is often more cost effec­tive to shoot films in Cana­da than it is to pro­duce them in Amer­i­can stu­dios or envi­ron­ments. How­ev­er, in the past (par­tic­u­lar­ly in the 1920s and 1930s) the oppo­site was true. Amer­i­can writer James Oliv­er Curwood’s film God’s Coun­try and the Woman (1937) rep­re­sents a Cana­di­an log­ging com­mu­ni­ty while the film’s prin­ci­ple pho­tog­ra­phy was shot exclu­sive­ly in Wash­ing­ton State (Fran­cis 155). Sim­i­lar films about Moun­ties and the Cana­di­an fron­tier were filmed in Hol­ly­wood stu­dios.

When I began pho­tog­ra­phy for Out West in 2012, I had had no pre­vi­ous expo­sure to Gardiner’s work; it was only in 2015 that I came across an online news arti­cle that dis­cussed his pho­tog­ra­phy. Real­iz­ing that we were pho­tograph­ing the same region con­tem­porar­i­ly and giv­en the dif­fi­cul­ty in locat­ing like­mind­ed pho­tog­ra­phers, I was excit­ed to dis­cov­er anoth­er doc­u­men­tar­i­an pho­tog­ra­ph­er oper­at­ing in the area (although Gar­diner self iden­ti­fies as a fine-art pho­tog­ra­ph­er, I view his work as belong­ing to the doc­u­men­tary tra­di­tion). This per­son­al reflec­tion under­lines the issue of sup­port and pro­mo­tion of pho­to­graph­ic cul­ture in the Cana­di­an West, where aspir­ing doc­u­men­tar­i­ans have dif­fi­cul­ty find­ing access to inspi­ra­tion and men­tor­ship.

In the spir­it of this spe­cial issue of the Imag­i­na­tions Jour­nal—a large­ly col­lab­o­ra­tive effort between artists and academics—I will be respond­ing to Gardiner’s West­ern Cana­da series through text as well as a series of images. The includ­ed images from Gardiner’s and my own work have been cho­sen and sequenced col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly and view­ers are invit­ed to read them com­ple­men­tar­i­ly, togeth­er cre­at­ing an imag­i­na­tive space through a shared famil­iar­i­ty. Gardiner’s images illu­mi­nate the anx­i­eties and top­ics (issues of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, changes to rur­al cul­ture, and the West­ern inhab­i­tant) I was work­ing with when con­duct­ing my own visu­al work. Fur­ther­more, our respec­tive works do not exist in a cre­ative vac­u­um. As a con­tem­po­rary of mine, I use Gardiner’s images—from his projects Unti­tled USA (2011-2012) and West­ern Cana­da (2005-2010)—as a visu­al start­ing point. Thus, some of the imagery for my most recent project Crown Ditch & the Prairie Cas­tle (2015-ongo­ing) has been influ­enced by Gardiner’s work. Our inten­tion for a col­lab­o­ra­tive sequences is to acknowl­edge that each project rep­re­sents its own read­ing of the Cana­di­an West while also lend­ing a com­ple­men­tary nature to the oth­er when read togeth­er as a form of coop­er­a­tion or syn­er­gy. The case for a visu­al syn­er­gy is favourable for a num­ber of rea­sons. Both projects employ the jour­ney as a per­for­ma­tive method of research-cre­ation (Adler). In the North Amer­i­can con­text, the car jour­ney is the quin­tes­sen­tial emblem of nar­ra­tive-based road cul­ture. In rur­al Cana­da, the autonomous move­ment afford­ed by the auto­mo­bile is cen­tral to rec­on­cil­ing its sparse pop­u­la­tion with its topo­graph­i­cal vast­ness.

Fur­ther­more, both West­ern Cana­da and Crown Ditch & the Prairie Cas­tle (Crown Ditch for short) focus on the Cana­di­an West and, through the appli­ca­tion of self-imposed bound­aries, are geo­graph­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic projects while also spa­tial­ly unspe­cif­ic, giv­en the vast­ness of the bound­aries. Robert Adam’s geo­graph­i­cal­ly spe­cif­ic work uses much the same process. Adam’s space-spe­cif­ic approach is sig­ni­fied in his book titles—The New West (2008), Pho­tographs of the Amer­i­can West (2010), and Prairie (2011). Con­tem­po­rary doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phy reflects a par­tic­u­lar resur­gence of region­al­ism. A num­ber of recent projects estab­lish visu­al expres­sions of region­al­ism: Look­ing at Appalachia (2014), “The Unit­ed States” issue of Moss­less (2013), “The Amer­i­can South” issue of Ain’t Bad Mag­a­zine (2014), “Notes From the Foundry” in Spaces Cor­ners (2013), as well as this cur­rent issue of Imag­i­na­tions Jour­nal.

Both Gar­diner and I were raised in the Cana­di­an West, spent time abroad learn­ing pho­tog­ra­phy, and then returned to reflect pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly on the region. Our region­al con­scious­ness, mod­i­fied by a cos­mopoli­tan read­ing of rur­al space, fur­ther binds our approach­es. This pecu­liar famil­iar­i­ty has afford­ed us an inti­mate lev­el of engage­ment cou­pled with a renewed vision of the space. This idea of under­stand­ing land­scape echoes Jacques Derrida’s con­cept of ontopol­o­gy: “a way of think­ing about claims to belong­ing that posit a con­nec­tion between behav­iour and land­scape” (17). Gardiner’s shoot­ing style, through which famil­iar­i­ty of space presents itself with a renewed sense of vision, demon­strates this rela­tion between learned behav­iour and lived expe­ri­ence. Leav­ing one’s home and return­ing to it anew facil­i­tates this par­tic­u­lar sense of vision.

Geography as Experience

Defined here, West­ern Cana­da is an amal­ga­ma­tion of the prairie regions (with vary­ing prairie cli­mates) of Alber­ta, Saskatchewan, Man­i­to­ba, and the Cordillera region of British Columbia—mountains and prairie grass jux­ta­posed. How­ev­er mun­dane, land­scapes are nonethe­less mon­u­men­tal, exert­ing a place-spe­cif­ic vision upon its inhab­i­tants. From a phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal per­spec­tive, one “unself-con­scious­ly and self-con­scious­ly accepts and rec­og­nizes the place as inte­gral to his or her per­son­al and com­mu­nal iden­ti­ty and self-worth” (Sea­mon 17). That is to say, the land­scape and place-attach­ment pro­duces a par­tic­u­lar way of see­ing and under­stand­ing the land based on pro­longed inter­ac­tion. An Alber­tan ranch-hand once shared an anec­dote with me that cap­tures the con­tra­dic­tions in hold­ing dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives of the land. A lum­ber­jack and a farmer stand shoul­der to shoul­der fac­ing East towards the Rocky Moun­tains. The lum­ber­jack says, "Now isn’t this some­thing to look at?" The farmer replies "But it’s block­ing the view." The Rocky Moun­tains act as a nat­ur­al bar­ri­er between the bore­al for­est and the prairies, a for­ma­tion to be breached by pick­axe and dyna­mite, and although pas­sages between the two has been estab­lished, the dif­fer­ing geog­ra­phy pos­es more than a sym­bol­ic rift. Geog­ra­phy extends beyond a way of see­ing and becomes a way of liv­ing. Dis­tance has the abil­i­ty to breed dif­fer­ence (cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and social). As Author Bri­an Moore observes in The Luck of Gin­ger Cof­fey, geog­ra­phy is the ene­my and the bat­tle over it has yet to be won. Mod­i­fy­ing Moore’s claim that geog­ra­phy is the ene­my, we can inter­pret the ene­my not sim­ply as geog­ra­phy but as distance—nowhere else is this more observ­able than in stud­ies of Cana­di­an space (the Far North as well as the Cana­di­an West). Viewed at a dis­tance, the dif­fer­ences in geog­ra­phy and cli­mate of the West become obscured and the speci­fici­ties of the Cana­di­an West become invisible—the moun­tains, plains and prairie fold into each oth­er and come to rep­re­sent a uni­fied space. How West­ern Cana­da is defined is often debat­ed. Gar­diner clas­si­fies West­ern Cana­da as extend­ing from the West Coast to the Man­i­to­ba-Ontario bor­der with the upper board­er being the north­ern ter­ri­to­ries. I myself clas­si­fy it sim­i­lar­ly, how­ev­er I exclude the Van­cou­ver met­ro­pol­i­tan area (as it belongs to the Van­cou­ver school of pho­tog­ra­phy). The North-to-South for­ma­tions of the Prairies and Rock­ies arguably bind the Cana­di­an West more to its south­ern neigh­bour than to East­ern Cana­da. The East to West split in the Unit­ed States is often defined as the 100th Merid­i­an. The 100th Merid­i­an acts as a geo­graph­i­cal (west­ern bound­ary of mois­ture from the Gulf of Mex­i­co) and a cul­tur­al bor­der (set­tle­ment pat­terns change west of the demar­ca­tion) that both cre­ate a clear demar­ca­tion for the Amer­i­can West. Com­par­a­tive­ly, Cana­da is with­out a geo­graph­i­cal­ly or cul­tur­al­ly con­sti­tut­ed east/west claim. As the French geo­g­ra­ph­er Andre Siegfried pos­tu­lat­ed, Amer­i­ca is West­ern Canada’s geo­graph­i­cal cen­tre (1937). As much as the Rocky Moun­tains oper­ate as a bar­ri­er, they also oper­ate as a spine, one that binds the two into a uni­fied sense of West­ern Cana­da. Once we view this for­ma­tion as a spine, opposed to a bar­ri­er, the space becomes con­flat­ed. As an issue of visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, this top­ic requires more crit­i­cal atten­tion, beyond the scope of this arti­cle or Gardiner’s imagery. Geo­g­ra­phers and Cana­di­an Stud­ies schol­ars have yet to address the short­age of viable exam­ples of long-term space-ori­en­tat­ed projects in West­ern Cana­da. Through this inter­ro­ga­tion, the com­mu­ni­ty may unearth knowl­edge of a new pho­tog­ra­ph­er, per­haps Canada’s ver­sion of Vivian Maier, who bears wit­ness to the visu­al his­toric­i­ty of the West.

Visu­al­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed and com­pound­ed by oth­er forms of mar­gin­al­iza­tion, the rur­al parts of the Cana­di­an West are placed in a posi­tion of the Oth­er (Krause). This sense of oth­er­ing stems from two sources and is there­fore compounded—Eastern Cana­di­an urban cen­ters and Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ism, which often dimin­ish the exis­tence of Canada’s West. Through these two fac­tors we often for­get that at least two Wests exist in North Amer­i­ca. When rep­re­sent­ed pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly, com­mu­ni­ties in West­ern Cana­da are often fetishized for their pas­toral, unproven, and open-range qual­i­ties. Lack­ing a strong pho­to­graph­ic his­to­ry, the Cana­di­an west can be viewed as a space unsure as to how to con­struct its his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive. As Amelia Kalant argues, “…Cana­da con­tin­ues to cre­ate its iden­ti­ty through the quandary of doubt­ing its own exis­tence” (86).

Creative Exodus

Com­ment­ing on the ear­ly state of the arts in West­ern Cana­da, a jour­nal­ist from the Globe and Mail once remarked, “no won­der young Cana­di­an artists go abroad when­ev­er they can earn pas­sage mon­ey” (Fran­cis 27; orig­i­nal empha­sis). Although this com­ment was made over a cen­tu­ry ago with regards to the Ontario Government’s deci­sion not to extend the com­mis­sion of Cana­di­an painter Edmund Mor­ris, the phe­nom­e­na still per­sists as doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers fre­quent­ly search else­where for com­mu­ni­ty, train­ing, and com­mis­sions. The Van­cou­ver School of Pho­tog­ra­phy (com­prised of Fred Her­zog, Jeff Wall, Greg Girard, among oth­ers) belongs to what Joel Gar­reau calls the region of “Eco­topia” (1981)—the coastal region of British Colum­bia, rather than West­ern Cana­da. Van­cou­verites do not expe­ri­ence the cold and extend­ed win­ters that fall over West­ern Cana­da. They do not pho­to­graph the anx­i­ety of seclu­sion and the seren­i­ty of a nev­er-end­ing sky offered by the open prairies and plains. Because the West was so recent­ly set­tled, it arguably lacks a strong pho­to­graph­ic iden­ti­ty. Small West­ern towns illus­trate this claim. Only recent­ly have a major­i­ty of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties cel­e­brat­ed their cen­ten­ni­als; Alber­ta and Saskatchewan became offi­cial provinces in 1905 and Man­i­to­ba extend­ed to its cur­rent bound­aries only in 1912. His­tor­i­cal­ly speak­ing, from the time of colo­nial set­tle­ment, the West has been a region of raw-mate­r­i­al resource extrac­tion. The process con­tin­ues today with most of the West’s indus­tries focused around pri­ma­ry resources (ener­gy, grain, and lum­ber-based indus­tries) rather than ter­tiary indus­tries. The nuanced process of indus­try cre­ation and fac­tors of assem­bly are out­side the scope of this paper, but it should be not­ed that this eco­nom­ic con­di­tion is bound by present demo­graph­ics. A small pop­u­la­tion in a vast geo­graph­i­cal space does not yield the same cre­ative spe­cial­iza­tion as high-den­si­ty areas (Knud­sen, et al. 462). How­ev­er, the con­cept of cre­ative den­si­ty is a mod­ernist per­spec­tive and los­es poten­cy in post-indus­tri­al­ist economies through the pro­lif­er­a­tion of infor­ma­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies (ICTs) and an increase in glob­al con­nec­tiv­i­ty where the local meets the glob­al (see Bathelt; Malm­berg; Maskell). That is not to say that pho­to­graph­ic-artists (doc­u­men­tar­i­an and fine-art pho­tog­ra­phers rather than com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phers) did not his­tor­i­cal­ly oper­ate in the Cana­di­an West. The point worth stress­ing is that pho­to­graph­ic-artists are forced to chose one of two mutu­al­ly exclu­sive options: move else­where to seek train­ing and access to com­mu­ni­ty resources, or remain in the West and stag­nate.

There are a num­ber of strik­ing exam­ples of painters and pho­tog­ra­phers who chose to relo­cate in order to fur­ther their train­ing, devel­op their skills, and find a com­mu­ni­ty before return­ing to immor­tal­ize the area in pig­ment and sil­ver gelatin. Emi­ly Carr trained in San Fran­cis­co, Lon­don, and Paris (Fran­cis 31) before return­ing home to British Colum­bia. Paul Kane, a self-taught painter who depict­ed scenes of West­ern Cana­da, was raised in Toron­to and vis­it­ed Europe in 1841 on the basis of a “paint­ing study trip.” The painter Fred­er­ick Vern­er was born in Sheri­dan, Ontario and trained at Heatherly’s Art School in Lon­don. Vern­er was renowned for paint­ing images of West­ern Cana­da, includ­ing strik­ing land­scapes that depict­ed graz­ing bison. How­ev­er, by some accounts, Vern­er had nev­er seen a bison, fur­ther prob­lema­tiz­ing authen­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of West­ern Cana­da. Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Geof­frey James, in a sim­i­lar vein, oper­ates as an out­sider from Toron­to. In 1988 James was invit­ed by the South­ern Alber­ta Art Gallery to cre­ate imagery of the com­mu­ni­ty of Leth­bridge as it under­went a peri­od of accel­er­at­ed expan­sion. James’ images, pub­lished in an artist mono­graph titled Place: Leth­bridge, City on the Prairie (2003), pro­vide a well-exe­cut­ed sur­face under­stand­ing of the com­mu­ni­ty and its con­nec­tion with its sub-plain land­scape. To assert that James’ project pro­vides a sur­face under­stand­ing is not to den­i­grate the work, but rather to describe his inter­pre­ta­tion of that space from an out­side per­spec­tive. James acknowl­edges this per­spec­tive when he states:

I worked over the peri­od of a year, with four vis­its to the city, and had the lux­u­ry of time to reflect on what I was doing. In a sense, most of the pho­to­graph­ic projects I embark upon are the same, in that, at their con­clu­sion, I have accu­mu­lat­ed almost enough knowl­edge to begin. (9)

James was not a native of Leth­bridge, and no native of Leth­bridge enjoyed the same pres­tige as the estab­lished Toron­to artist. Sim­i­lar to James’ com­mis­sion, the Keep­safe (1980) project, coor­di­nat­ed and con­cep­tu­al­ized by Dou­glas Clark and Lin­da Wed­man to doc­u­ment a vari­ety of Alber­tan com­mu­ni­ties, also relied heav­i­ly on pho­tog­ra­phers either trained or orig­i­nal­ly from some­where oth­er than Alber­ta. The project was intend­ed to “cre­ate state­ments about peo­ple and their envi­ron­ments by col­lect­ing pho­tographs which rep­re­sent­ed a broad range of social and aes­thet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties” (Clark and Wed­man 11), and was accom­plished by ten doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers in con­junc­tion with sev­en researchers. Each pho­tog­ra­ph­er was tasked with doc­u­ment­ing a par­tic­u­lar com­mu­ni­ty or region. The pur­pose of the data col­lect­ed by the researcher was to inform the pho­tog­ra­phers of the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of each com­mu­ni­ty. Giv­en the expan­sive scope of the project, pho­tog­ra­phers with vary­ing train­ing back­grounds and from a diverse set of loca­tions were invit­ed to par­tic­i­pate. How pho­tog­ra­phers were cho­sen for the project is not dis­cussed in the book; how­ev­er, a review of the his­tor­i­cal record of Alber­tan pho­tog­ra­phers active at this time indi­cates that the deci­sion was part­ly based on a dearth of pro­fi­cient doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­phers resid­ing in the province. Of the ten invit­ed pho­tog­ra­phers, six were trained either ful­ly or par­tial­ly out­side of the province (Gabor Szi­lasi, Ron­nie Tessler, Mark Arne­son, Dou­glas Cur­ran, Hubert Hohn, and Lau­ren Dale), with the remain­ing four pho­tog­ra­phers either Alber­ta trained or self-taught. Nowa­days, giv­en the lim­it­ed avail­abil­i­ty of post-sec­ondary pho­tog­ra­phy cours­es in Alber­ta, aspir­ing pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dents can either embark on a pro­gram of self-train­ing, leave the province to train for­mal­ly else­where, or some com­bi­na­tion of the two. These exam­ples high­light the pre­car­i­ous posi­tion not only of the pho­to­graph­ic arts in West­ern Cana­da but also in the nation as a whole. This trend is still per­sis­tent, as the Fall 2016 edi­tion of Cana­di­an Art mag­a­zine fea­tured 12 inter­na­tion­al artists with Cana­di­an ties. In a sec­tion titled “Spot­light,” the term “Satel­lites” is used to describe Cana­di­an artists work­ing abroad.  Edi­tor-in-Chief David Balz­er describes the term as a way to “describe Cana­di­an artists work­ing abroad, and non-Cana­di­an artists whose prac­tices do or have orbit­ed around this coun­try” (par. 2). On a per­son­al note, when I had reached the lim­it of self-taught pho­tog­ra­phy, I left the west for Lon­don to pur­sue grad­u­ate work at Gold­smiths Uni­ver­si­ty in visu­al soci­ol­o­gy. Gar­diner also left for New York to train and to be part of a pho­tog­ra­phy com­mu­ni­ty:

Aside from real­ly want­i­ng to live in New York, I also felt the expe­ri­ence I had there with regards to the art and artists I was inter­est­ed in, and every­thing that came with that… I sup­pose it is true that it was an edu­ca­tion I could not get while I was going to school in West­ern Cana­da, but it was more that I was excit­ed to go to a new place and live in anoth­er coun­try and be in a city, which to me, while I was there, seemed like the cen­ter of the world. (Per­son­al Cor­re­spon­dence, 4.1.2016)

A pho­tog­ra­ph­er grav­i­tat­ing towards larg­er cen­ters is not strict­ly a Cana­di­an phe­nom­e­non but rep­re­sents a larg­er move­ment in art com­mu­ni­ties in North Amer­i­ca. For instance, North Dako­ta raised pho­tog­ra­ph­er Sarah Chris­tian­son moved away to do “what a lot of young artists feel they must do, and I moved to New York City” (Per­son­al Cor­re­spon­dence, 20.9.2016). Echo­ing Gar­diner and Christianson’s con­cerns, my inter­ests aligned with devel­op­ing my visu­al prac­tice and relo­cat­ing to a vibrant pho­to­graph­ic cul­ture milieu, some­thing more eas­i­ly obtained in the cul­tur­al pow­er­hous­es of World Cities than in the Cana­di­an west (Soja & Kanai). The desire to be locat­ed at the epi­cen­ter of an emerg­ing or estab­lished artis­tic com­mu­ni­ty is par­tic­u­lar­ly attrac­tive. For instance, anec­do­tal­ly, it is hard­er to cross paths with a Lon­don­er, or a Berlin­er in Win­nipeg, Man­i­to­ba, or Elbow, Saskatchewan, than in oth­er inter­na­tion­al cul­ture and art hubs, like New York, which is home to a vibrant inter­na­tion­al arts com­mu­ni­ty.

On The Return

Writ­ing in Four Quar­tets, T.S. Eliot remarked, “…the end of all our explor­ing will be to arrive where we start­ed and know the place for the first time” (38). Eliot describes the psyche’s abil­i­ty to inter­pret events expe­ri­enced afar and how these events are car­ried back home and lever­aged to cre­ate new mean­ing in a once famil­iar space. The jour­ney changes the indi­vid­ual and their under­stand­ing of their once famil­iar envi­ron­ments. These envi­ron­ments oper­ate as sites of reflec­tion, both for the self and the com­mu­ni­ty. Often an under­ex­plored top­ic, the nar­ra­tive of return is a con­stant refrain in pho­tog­ra­phy. For instance, pho­tog­ra­ph­er Ray­mond Jones, speak­ing about her project Deep South Par­adise, stat­ed, “It wasn’t until I paid my dues in New York City and moved back to the South that I came to under­stand the rich, com­pli­cat­ed cul­tur­al melt­ing pot that is South­ern cul­ture. And I fell in love with all of it” (Jones). Less­er-known pho­tog­ra­ph­er Maryanne Gob­ble, com­ment­ing on her return to Brook­ing, Ore­gon, said she “moved away because it offered noth­ing. I con­tin­ue to come back because it offers every­thing” (Gob­ble). Sarah Chris­tian­son, return­ing from New York, felt a renewed sense of place. She began to work on her project Home­place (2013) and was able to tap into a per­spec­tive that leav­ing had afford­ed her:

I saw my home with a fresh per­spec­tive.  It was sud­den­ly clear to me that our fam­i­ly her­itage was crum­bling:  my grand­moth­er had sold her farm­house and moved to town, my sib­lings had also moved away for jobs, and my par­ents were the only ones left out there. (Per­son­al Cor­re­spon­dence, 20.9.2016)

A project that relies on a com­bi­na­tion of archives and cre­ative prac­tice, Christianson’s Home­place is a deeply sen­ti­men­tal work pro­duced from the per­spec­tive of a long-time insid­er. Gardiner’s work echoes sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments with his pho­tographs express­ing a lev­el of inti­ma­cy typ­i­cal of pho­tog­ra­phers with a long and sus­tained famil­iar­i­ty with a space. Expressed through­out Gardiner’s work are ques­tions of space, per­ceived nor­mal­cy, and built envi­ron­ment. Gardiner’s West­ern Cana­da and my own Out West both evoke notions of the del­i­cate rela­tions between land­scape, her­itage, and built envi­ron­ment, bal­anced between a proud rur­al his­to­ry and an uncer­tain future. Both works are as much about the past as they are about the future, and cer­tain­ly they are as much about under­stand­ing these tem­po­ral­i­ties as they are about under­stand­ing our own place with­in them as pho­tog­ra­phers local to the region. As Ger­ald McMas­ter writes, “‘return­ing home’ means con­tribut­ing and recon­nect­ing to local cul­ture. Liv­ing and work­ing in a chang­ing world while main­tain­ing a sense of iden­ti­ty is to rec­og­nize the impor­tance of pre­serv­ing fun­da­men­tal philoso­phies and prin­ci­ples” (29). To the local pho­tog­ra­ph­er, the per­se­ver­a­tion of fun­da­men­tal philoso­phies and ideas occurs through their visu­al doc­u­men­ta­tion. Through doc­u­men­ta­tion, an avenue for cri­tique and reflec­tion emerges, for the self as well as the com­mu­ni­ty. For the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, this process oper­ates as expos­ing the residue of lived mem­o­ries and, like sil­ver halide, these events cling to the neg­a­tive, cre­at­ing attach­ment. This cre­ates a form of “place attach­ment,” a cog­ni­tive process in which emo­tion­al bonds are formed between the land­scape and its inhab­i­tants (see Man­zo & Devine-Wright). This process estab­lish­es “pow­er­ful aspects of human life that inform our sense of iden­ti­ty, cre­ate mean­ing in our lives, facil­i­tate com­mu­ni­ty and influ­ence action” (Man­zo & Devine-Wright i). The process of place attach­ment is fre­quent­ly visu­al­ized through land­scape or envi­ron­men­tal por­trai­ture or through pho­to-elic­i­ta­tion and res­i­dent-employed pho­tog­ra­phy by researchers (see Sted­man, et al.). Pho­tog­ra­phy of land­scapes oper­ates on a num­ber of levels—personal, local, region­al, nation­al, and glob­al. The West­ern Cana­di­an image of Banff, Alber­ta will hold a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of mean­ings for dif­fer­ent groups (res­i­dents ver­sus tourists, for exam­ple). Rachel Sailor, author of Mean­ing­ful Places (2014), explains that “the sto­ries that fol­low do more than just shed light on how west­ern set­tlers used the pho­to­graph­ic image as a set­tle­ment tool; they also illus­trate how local and region­al under­stand­ings of places have a fun­da­men­tal impact on those places now, and how, tak­en as a whole, they shape mod­ern con­cepts of the West” (xix-xx). A com­mon theme in Mean­ing­ful Places is the process of place attach­ment and place cre­ation through pho­tog­ra­phy. Imbed­ded in this process is the destruc­tion of Abo­rig­i­nal place attach­ments for the place cre­ation and sub­se­quent attach­ment of Euro-Amer­i­can set­tlers. Pho­tog­ra­phy helped write the land as emp­ty and by exten­sion cre­at­ed a cul­ture of own­er­ship, plen­i­tude, and expanse that becomes increas­ing­ly inter­ro­gat­ed in the lat­er decades of the 20th cen­tu­ry, as dis­cussed briefly in Liz Wells’ Land Mat­ter (2011) and Rod Giblett and Juha Tolonen’s Pho­tog­ra­phy and Land­scape (2012).

Fol­low­ing Man­zo & Devine-Wright’s def­i­n­i­tion of place attach­ment, Svet­lana Boym’s con­cept of restora­tive nos­tal­gia spec­i­fies how bonds are estab­lished between an indi­vid­ual and a place. In Future of Nos­tal­gia, Boym builds upon this attach­ment by dis­cussing how the empha­sis is placed on nos­tos (the return home) with a pur­pose of rebuild­ing the lost home—in oth­er words, to “patch up the mem­o­ry gaps…. [This] cat­e­go­ry of nos­tal­gics do not think of them­selves as nos­tal­gic; they believe that their project is about truth” (154). Fram­ing nos­tal­gia as the pur­suit of truth rebinds it to the local doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­ph­er who pur­sues an authen­tic visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion through their lens—an authen­tic­i­ty that can be arguably found in West­ern Cana­da, Crown Ditch, as well as Out West due to the photographer’s famil­iar­i­ty with the region. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er in search of truth often finds a ten­sion between the past and the present. For the restora­tive nos­tal­gic, “the past is not a dura­tion but a per­fect snap­shot” (Boym 49). For the pho­tog­ra­ph­er, the past is some­thing that must be inter­ro­gat­ed through a series of snap­shots. Here lies the impor­tance of the return­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er. Tak­ing Gardiner’s images for exam­ple, we can detect an ele­ment of inti­ma­cy and know­ing with­in them. It can be argued that Gar­diner is an informed insid­er, that this is his land­scape and there­fore he com­mands a par­tic­u­lar exper­tise, and that a “visu­al weight­i­ness” is implied in his imagery. “Visu­al weight­i­ness” here means not visu­al com­po­si­tion but the ele­ments with­in the frame that extend the mean­ing of the image. These are sub­tle but ulti­mate­ly very impor­tant details for under­stand­ing rur­al space. In one of Gardiner’s por­traits (image 4) we see a man pos­ing out­side a com­mu­ni­ty hall. Com­mu­ni­ty halls are ubiq­ui­tous in rur­al and urban spaces in Cana­da; how­ev­er, in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties they act as par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant points of meeting—dating back to wed­dings and dances where the rur­al com­mu­ni­ty would walk or dri­ve (by horse and lat­er by car) for kilo­me­tres to attend a com­mu­ni­ty event. In anoth­er one of Gardiner’s images we see a house with a rust­ed car­cass of an auto­mo­bile (image 8), the strong com­po­si­tion strength­ened by the knowl­edge that the rur­al is often home to car grave­yards (Zele­ny).

This lev­el of exper­tise lay fal­low in each inhab­i­tant, and may become recruit­ed by an individual’s return with the intent to inter­pret the space with a renewed vision. In the case of both West­ern Cana­da and Out West this oper­a­tion is twofold. First, both Gar­diner and I return from abroad to pho­to­graph and, through this return, we acknowl­edge our new appre­ci­a­tion of the space, set­ting out to cap­ture it. Sec­ond, as our pho­to­graph­ic jour­neys end, we return home and once again arrive renewed, our under­stand­ing of home trans­formed. Gardiner’s images express the abil­i­ty to for­age for a series of ide­al images rep­re­sent­ing space. His abil­i­ty to cap­ture these moments is his cul­tur­al famil­iar­i­ty (inter­nal ele­ment) cou­pled with his tech­ni­cal pro­fi­cien­cy (exter­nal ele­ment). Through this pair­ing Gar­diner is able to pho­to­graph with famil­iar­i­ty and visu­al poten­cy what a stranger would find dif­fi­cult to observe. Gar­diner express­es this rela­tion when he writes:

A place that had been so famil­iar to me nev­er appeared to be so sparse, qui­et and vast and at the same time I thought it was extreme­ly beau­ti­ful, which I had nev­er acknowl­edged in that way before. Instead of the feel­ing that I always had grow­ing up, want­i­ng to leave, I returned actu­al­ly valu­ing the expe­ri­ences I had of where I grew up. (Per­son­al Cor­re­spon­dence, 4.1.2016)

The above pas­sage fore­grounds Gardiner’s appre­ci­a­tion of his prairie upbring­ing. Through nos­tos, Gar­diner finds pride in his roots and this process reaf­firms his attach­ment to the Cana­di­an West. My own project Out West was par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­pelled by a nos­tal­gic dri­ve to rec­on­cile mem­o­ry with the contemporary—a project that was as occu­pied with “exca­vat­ing the past as it is with recod­ing the present” (Cov­er­ley 14). Gardiner’s work under­takes a sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tion between the past and present and, because of his per­son­al his­to­ry in the area, he is able to bring both tem­po­ral­i­ties into visu­al dia­logue. This is fur­ther cou­pled with his “renewed vision,” estab­lished by tak­ing a leave and return­ing, along with the skills he gained else­where to real­ize this vision for oth­ers. For in the end, pho­tog­ra­phy is not sim­ply about ren­der­ing a space in a visu­al man­ner, but shar­ing a unique vision with a com­mu­ni­ty.

Ending With Images

The fol­low­ing is a selec­tion of images from Gardiner’s West­ern Cana­da and my ongo­ing project Crown Ditch. The images have been select­ed and sequenced col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly by Gar­diner and myself and rep­re­sent a mutu­al read­ing of the Cana­di­an West. The images are curat­ed in such a way that the nar­ra­tive space oper­ates between and across the images—with each photographer’s images speak­ing to oth­ers in the selec­tion. The cred­its for each image are list­ed at the end of the paper. We urge read­ers to view the images as a nar­ra­tive of West­ern Cana­da that oper­ates as a dia­log­i­cal exer­cise, intend­ed to draw the read­er into the imag­i­na­tive work of place­mak­ing.

 

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Fig­ure 1-20

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Image List:

Image 1: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 2: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 3: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2010

Image 4: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2008

Image 5: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 6: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 7: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2009

Image 8: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2008

Image 9: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2009

Image 10: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 11: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 12: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 13: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2009

Image 14: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 15: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 16: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2009

Image 17: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2010

Image 18: Thomas Gar­diner, West­ern Cana­da, Unti­tled, 2009

Image 19: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015

Image 20: Kyler Zele­ny, Crown Ditch & The Prairie Cas­tle, Unti­tled, 2015