7-1 | Table of Con­tents | DOI 10.17742/IMAGE.NBW.7-1.9 | Con­wayPDF

Abstract | In the accom­pa­ny­ing essay, I exam­ine attach­ment to places, par­tic­u­lar­ly to the prairie. My attach­ment to the Saskatchewan prairie is part­ly a fond­ness for the abstract and min­i­mal. More deeply, it is what philoso­phers have called an aes­thet­ic engage­ment, that is, an active par­tic­i­pa­tion and immer­sion in a place. Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, my attach­ment to the prairies is a result of the sig­nif­i­cant per­son­al mem­o­ries I car­ry with me, my emo­tion­al invest­ments in my (adopt­ed) home, and the social ties and sense of com­mu­ni­ty I felt liv­ing there. Being out on the prairie also evokes a cer­tain con­tem­pla­tive, self-reflec­tive melan­choly in me, an emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence, while not always pleas­ant, I also cher­ish and court.

A num­ber of artists have reflect­ed on how grow­ing up on the prairies has had a pro­found influ­ence on their work. Geor­gia O’Keeffe’s paint­ings reflect the “bar­ren beau­ty” of the plains. Wright Mor­ris said that the prairie “con­di­tioned what I see, what I look for, and what I find in the world to write about. The plain is a meta­phys­i­cal landscape…Where there is almost noth­ing to see, there man sees the most.”

Résumé | Dans cet essai, j’examine l’attachement per­son­nel au lieu, tout par­ti­c­ulière­ment les Prairies. Mon attache­ment aux prairies de la Saskatchewan tient en par­tie à une affec­tion pour l’abstrait et le min­i­mal. Plus pré­cisé­ment, c’est ce que les philosophes appel­lent un engage­ment esthé­tique c’est-à-dire une par­tic­i­pa­tion et immer­sion active dans un espace. Psy­chologique­ment, mon attache­ment aux Prairies est le résul­tat de sou­venirs per­son­nels sig­ni­fi­cat­ifs que je porte en moi, de mon investisse­ment émo­tion­nel pour ma mai­son (d’adoption) et des liens soci­aux et du sens de la com­mu­nauté que j’y ai dévelop­pés. Être en plein air dans les Prairies évoque aus­si chez moi une cer­taine mélan­col­ie réflex­ive et con­tem­pla­tive ; une expéri­ence émo­tion­nelle qui bien que par­fois déplaisante, je recherche et appré­cie toujours.

Un nom­bre d’artistes ont réfléchi sur l’influence pro­fonde que grandir dans les prairies a eu sur leur œuvre. Les pein­tures de Geor­gia O’Keeffe sont une réflex­ion sur la beauté infer­tile des plaines. Wright Mor­ris a dit que les prairies « ont con­di­tion­né ce que je vois, ce que je recherche et ce que je décou­vre et dont je par­le dans le monde. Les plaines sont un paysage métaphysique…ou il n’y a presque rien à voir, ou l’être humain observe le plus. »

John Con­way | Photographer


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The cam­era eye is the one in the mid­dle of our forehead,
com­bin­ing how we see with what there is to be seen.
(Mor­ris 11).

I have pho­tographed the Saskatchewan prairie for close to 40 years. Though I came to the prairies “from away,” as they say in Atlantic Cana­da, I devel­oped a strong attach­ment to the land­scape. Why, I have won­dered, have I grown so fond of dri­ving, walk­ing, and pho­tograph­ing the prairie? What about being on this land attracts me? Or, per­haps, this attrac­tion is more about me than the land, that is, some­thing about my psy­cho­log­i­cal make-up has led me to become attached to the prairie rather than to moun­tains or forests.

I began to real­ize how pro­found­ly the prairie land­scape influ­enced my see­ing when, ear­ly on, I spent a year in Cal­i­for­nia and could only pho­to­graph the sea, its strong hor­i­zon­tal divide near the mid­dle of my viewfind­er. I could not pho­to­graph land­scapes there as they were so unlike my beloved prairies. Trav­el­ing over the years, I have often pho­tographed land­scapes rem­i­nis­cent of the prairie. In these 10 dip­tychs, I place Saskatchewan prairie land­scapes along­side pho­tographs from oth­er land­scapes that are rem­i­nis­cent of the prairie—Tuscany, Cos­ta Rica, Mex­i­co, the Unit­ed States, and oth­er Cana­di­an provinces.

Forty years ago, I began to pho­to­graph the prairie land­scape as an out­sider, as a tourist or new­com­er, in a dis­tant and detached way. Over the years, my view grad­u­al­ly evolved into that of an insider—a par­tic­i­pant engaged in the place. As a tourist in these oth­er places where I have trav­elled, my view is as an out­sider, an out­sider look­ing inward to a remem­bered land­scape of his (adopt­ed) home place.

I left Saskatchewan nine years ago, return­ing reg­u­lar­ly to pho­to­graph my prairie home­land. Pho­tograph­ing the prairie is a great pas­sion of mine, but also a lim­i­ta­tion, as I seem to have lost inter­est in pho­tograph­ing much else.

In this essay, I exam­ine attach­ment to places, par­tic­u­lar­ly the prairie, and the influ­ence of attach­ment to the prairie land­scape on my art work.

The Prairie: Love It or Leave It

The prairie land­scape cer­tain­ly does not appeal to every­one. How many do you know who have dri­ven across south­ern Saskatchewan on the Trans-Cana­da for the first time and raved about the beau­ti­ful landscape?

Lured by cheap land and extrav­a­gant promis­es of fer­tile soil, ear­ly set­tlers typ­i­cal­ly found the prairies a harsh place.[1] For exam­ple, a Welsh­man on his way to his home­stead in Saskatchewan wrote home in 1910:

This was so unlike what we had imag­ined back in Wales. We had visu­al­ized a green coun­try with hills around. There was some­thing so imper­son­al about this prairie, some­thing that shat­tered any hope of feel­ing attached to it or even build­ing a home on it. (qtd. in Rees 157-158 )

To enrich their under­stand­ing of the prob­lems of adjust­ment to an alien envi­ron­ment, Amer­i­can astro­nauts at one time were required to read Wal­ter Prescott Webb’s clas­sic study, The Great Plains.

Many new­com­ers find the prairies to be bar­ren, des­o­late, and alien­at­ing, a “vast noth­ing­ness”; they feel exposed, vul­ner­a­ble, fright­ened in the empti­ness of the prairie, as if they were “on the edge of the earth” (de Witt 36).

Oth­ers are imme­di­ate­ly tak­en by the prairie land­scape. Albert Pyke, trav­el­ing in Texas in 1831-1832, wrote:

The sea, the woods, the moun­tains, all suf­fer in com­par­i­son with the prairie.…The prairie has a stronger hold upon the sens­es. Its sub­lim­i­ty aris­es from its unbound­ed extent, its bar­ren monot­o­ny and des­o­la­tion, its still, unmoved, calm, stern, almost self-con­fi­dent grandeur, its strange pow­er of decep­tion, its want of echo, and, in fine, its pow­er of throw­ing a man back upon him­self. (qtd in Haley)

Walt Whit­man referred to the prairie as “that vast Some­thing, stretch­ing out on its own unbound­ed scale, uncon­fined … com­bin­ing the real and ide­al, and beau­ti­ful as dreams”. He spoke of the “grandeur and superb monot­o­ny of the skies,” and “how free­ing, sooth­ing, nour­ish­ing they are to the soul” (qtd. in Mil­ton 59).

Aes­thet­ic Attach­ment to the Prairie Landscape

Geo­g­ra­phers have stud­ied what they call a sense of place—the affec­tive bond between peo­ple and place or set­ting. Such ties may vary in inten­si­ty, sub­tle­ty, and mode of expres­sion. Respons­es to the envi­ron­ment may be aes­thet­ic, tac­tile, or emo­tion­al (Tuan; Relph).

My attach­ment to the Saskatchewan prairie is part­ly aes­thet­ic. Con­nois­seurs of the “pic­turesque” in the 18th cen­tu­ry used a spe­cial device through which they viewed nat­ur­al land­scapes: the “Claude Glass,” a tint­ed con­vex mir­ror that framed and reflect­ed the view, trans­form­ing it into some­thing like a minia­ture paint­ing (Brady 316).

Look­ing through my cam­era viewfind­er is not unlike this kind of “pic­turesque” or “scenic” aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion. I appre­ci­ate, aes­thet­i­cal­ly, many visu­al art works of the prairie land­scape, includ­ing my own pho­tographs. My aes­thet­ic appre­ci­a­tion of a land­scape has to do with the abstract min­i­mal­ism of the expan­sive prairie land and sky.

How­ev­er, stand­ing out in the mid­dle of a prairie land­scape evokes some­thing more than a two-dimen­sion­al, visu­al appre­ci­a­tion of a scenic place. There is a strong sense of the tremen­dous vast­ness and the pow­er of the open prairie. The expe­ri­ence can be both exhil­a­rat­ing and, with a storm approach­ing, over­whelm­ing and fright­en­ing. The expe­ri­ence, for me, has been what Brady describes as the “sub­lime” in nature (318).

My expe­ri­ence of the prairie is what Berleant has described as an aes­thet­ic “engage­ment.” Such engage­ment in a land­scape involves active par­tic­i­pa­tion and immer­sion in a place. Many times I have stood in the mid­dle of a vast prairie land­scape immersed in the vista, the smell of wheat, the song of a mead­owlark, the feel of the wind on my face.

Being in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment, unlike look­ing at works of visu­al art, allows one an aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence that draws on a broad­er range of senses.

My attach­ment to the prairie comes, then, from both a visu­al appre­ci­a­tion of the min­i­mal scenic view­point and a 40-year per­son­al engage­ment with the landscape.

Psychological Attachment to the Prairie Landscape

Though not born or raised in Saskatchewan, it is my home, as I have lived there for over 40 years. Envi­ron­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists (see Scan­nell & Gif­ford) under­stand my attach­ment to the place as a result of the many sig­nif­i­cant mem­o­ries I car­ry with me, my emo­tion­al invest­ments in my home place, my social ties there, and the sense of com­mu­ni­ty I feel being there. Saskatchewan was a good fit for me as many of the tra­di­tion­al val­ues there (such as com­mu­ni­ty and social jus­tice) matched my own values.

My psy­cho­log­i­cal attach­ment to the prairie is also asso­ci­at­ed with emo­tion­al expe­ri­ences. Being out on the prairie brings feel­ings of soli­tude and calm, and also a cer­tain con­tem­pla­tive, self-reflec­tive melan­choly. My pho­tographs of the prairie today are more melan­choly than before. After pho­tograph­ing only in colour, I pre­fer a black-and-white aes­thet­ic today.

A few of my friends have told me that they sense a feel­ing of long­ing or yearn­ing in many of my prairie pho­tographs, even in my old­er, colour work. While this was a sur­prise to me at first, I now rec­og­nize what I under­stand as melan­choly in my pictures.

I think that the long­ing or melan­choly I expe­ri­ence while pho­tograph­ing the prairie, con­not­ed in my pic­tures, has as much to do with me as it does with qual­i­ties inher­ent in the prairie landscape.

The prairie land­scape itself does evoke neg­a­tive emo­tions in some, includ­ing iso­la­tion, lone­li­ness, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, fear.

For me, being out on the prairie has often brought some melan­choly. I think this is sim­ply because melan­choly is a part of my inner life that is stirred while alone on the emp­ty prairie. Today, return­ing to Saskatchewan after leav­ing brings back many mem­o­ries of my life there, along with nos­tal­gia and some regret.

My melan­choly is not usu­al­ly enjoy­able or oth­er­wise a pos­i­tive feel­ing. Yet melan­choly is a very famil­iar emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence of mine. It is a famil­iar habit of mind. Melan­choly is a part of me. In a sense, I am “attached” to my melan­cholic nature.

At the same time, I am aes­thet­i­cal­ly engaged and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly attached to the prairie land­scape in the pos­i­tive ways I’ve described.

Attachment to the Prairie as an Influence on One’s Art Work

Visu­al art in the tra­di­tion of abstract expres­sion­ism and min­i­mal­ism can reflect the min­i­mal and abstract land­scapes of the prairie. Artists who grow up on the prairie often feel that the land­scape leaves an indeli­ble print on their imagination.

Jack­son Pol­lock, who grew up in Wyoming, nev­er got over what he called the West’s expan­sive­ness and “vast hor­i­zon­tal­i­ty,” qual­i­ties that influ­enced his abstract paint­ings. The lines that he put into his paint­ings express an expan­sive­ness that has been asso­ci­at­ed with the West­ern land­scape. Because the land­scape is rel­a­tive­ly emp­ty and unclut­tered, it lends itself both to abstrac­tion and to the fill­ing of the open spaces. In Pol­lock the two approach­es come togeth­er. (Mil­ton 61)

Geor­gia O’Keeffe, who grew up on the Mid­west plains and lived most of her lat­er years on the high plateaus of New Mex­i­co, thought that where a painter grew up and lived was reflect­ed in their art. Her own paint­ings reflect the “bar­ren beau­ty” of the plains (Mil­ton 61).

Wright Mor­ris, the nov­el­ist and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who spent his ado­les­cent years in Nebras­ka, said that the prairie “con­di­tioned what I see, what I look for, and what I find in the world to write about. The plain is a meta­phys­i­cal landscape…Where there is almost noth­ing to see, there man sees the most” (qtd. in Marty).

Robert Adams, who for years pho­tographed the plains in East­ern Col­orado in black and white, was great­ly influ­enced by his deep attach­ment to his home land. He described his engage­ment with the plains:

Were you and I to dri­ve the plains togeth­er, and the day turned out to be a good one, we might not say much. We might get out of the truck at a cross­roads, stretch, walk a lit­tle ways, and then walk back. Maybe the lark would sing. Maybe we would stand for a while, all views to the hori­zon, all roads inter­est­ing. We might find there a bal­ance of form and open­ness, even of com­mu­ni­ty and free­dom. It would be the world as we had hoped, and we would rec­og­nize it togeth­er (Adams 182).

Works Cited

Adams, Robert. Why Peo­ple Pho­to­graph. New York:  Aper­ture, 1994.

Berleant, A. “What is Aes­thet­ic Engage­ment?” Con­tem­po­rary Aes­thet­ics (Decem­ber 30, 2013). Online pub­li­ca­tion. Accessed July 14, 2016. http://​www​.con​tem​paes​thet​ics​.org/​n​e​w​v​o​l​u​m​e​/​p​a​g​e​s​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​.​p​h​p​?​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​I​D​=​684

Brady, Emi­ly. “Envi­ron­men­tal Aes­thet­ics.” Ency­clo­pe­dia of Envi­ron­men­tal Ethics and Phi­los­o­phy. Vol. 1. Ed. J. Cal­li­cott and Robert Frode­man. Detroit: Macmil­lan Ref­er­ence USA, 2009. 313-321.

de Wit, Cary W. "Women's Sense of Place on the Amer­i­can High Plains." Great Plains Quar­ter­ly 21 (2001): 29–44.

Haley, J.E. “Albert Pike's Jour­neys in the Prairie 1831-1832.” Pan­han­dle Plains His­tor­i­cal Review 41.4 (1969): 1-89.

Mar­ty, M.E.  “The Descrip­tion of Place: The Plains, the Prairies, and the Human­i­ties.” Nebras­ka Governor’s Lec­ture. 1997.

Mil­ton, John. “Plains Land­scapes And Chang­ing Visions.” Great Plains Quar­ter­ly 1.1 (1982): 55-62.

Mor­ris, Wright. Time Pieces, Pho­tographs, Writ­ing and Mem­o­ry. New York: Aper­ture, 1999

Rees, Ronald. “Nos­tal­gic Reac­tion and the Cana­di­an Prairie.” Great Plains Quar­ter­ly 2.3 (1982): 157-67.

Relph, Edward. Place and Place­less­ness. Lon­don: Pion, 1976

Relph, Edward. “Sense of Place: an Overview.” Place­ness, Place, Place­less­ness. March 1, 2015. A web­site by Edward (Ted) Relph. Accessed July 14, 2016. http://​www​.place​ness​.com/​s​e​n​s​e​-​o​f​-​p​l​a​c​e​-​a​n​-​o​v​e​r​v​i​ew/

Scan­nell, L. and Robert Gif­ford. “Defin­ing place attach­ment: A Tri­par­tite Orga­niz­ing Frame­work.” Jour­nal of Envi­ron­men­tal Psy­chol­o­gy 30.1 (2010): 1-10.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Topophil­ia: A Study of Envi­ron­men­tal Per­cep­tions, Atti­tudes, and Val­ues. Engle­wood Cliffs, New Jer­sey: Pren­tice-Hall, 1974.

Webb, W.P. The Great Plains: A Study in Insti­tu­tions and Envi­ron­ment. Lin­coln: Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 1931.


[1] The Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment great­ly exag­ger­at­ed the promise of farm­ing on the prairie, espe­cial­ly the Pal­lis­er tri­an­gle in Sask., to entice Euro­pean set­tlers. In the first decade of the 20th Cen­tu­ry most who had set­tled left due to severe drought. And then, dur­ing the depres­sion, many more left after years of drought and no crops.