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Book Review: Out West


Book Review Out West By Kyler Zeleny Reviewed by Christopher J Johnson With more than half of the world’s population living in cities and outlying communities, places of long rolling fields and quietly flowing brooks become more and more a trope for the removed, for the detached and socially exiled among us — that is, to the popular mind, which is an urban mind. But nothing changes without an effect. No element many leave another element without changing its bonds.

Out West. By Kyler Zeleny.
The Velvet Cell, 2014.
 
Out West
Reviewed by Christopher J. Johnson

Out West
Photographs by Kyler Zeleny
The Velvet Cell, 2014. 112 pp., 35 color illustrations, 5¾x8¼".


With more than half of the world’s population living in cities and outlying communities, places of long rolling fields and quietly flowing brooks become more and more a trope for the removed, for the detached and socially exiled among us — that is, to the popular mind, which is an urban mind. But nothing changes without an effect. No element many leave another element without changing its bonds. As we speak of rural these days we mean either some antiquated notion of seasonal festivities and bustling country life or of, and what is more down to earth for our times, a vanishing culture in an advanced state of decomposition. It is the second of these, the real North American rural as it exists today that Out West looks to. Kyler Zeleny’s photographs may, upon initial purview, seem flat or lackluster, even a reprise of so much familiar photographic material, but there is a deeper layer to the work, which requires, perhaps, conscious engagement.

Out West takes us with Zeleny as he tours the Canadian West visiting communities with populations of 1,000 or less (frequently far, far less). His superb essay, which ends the book, outlines not only his journey, but his deeply felt ideas about the rural as a vanishing habitat. For those engaging with Out West for the first time I suggest starting at the end with The Rural Unstuck. Zeleny deserves credit not only for an illuminating collection of photographs, but for eloquently written exposition as well.

Out West. By Kyler Zeleny. The Velvet Cell, 2014.

In the essay Zeleny highlights his intentions for this collection of photographs, putting emphasis on the role of the car in the thinning towns and hamlets of the vast open western regions. It is interesting to note that what we get in the photographs, car or otherwise, is neglected, outmoded, and run down, be they homes, machinery, sidewalks and roadways. As Zeleny tells us in his essay these communities have less and less government representation; these are places and people who have, so it seems, been left in the woods by the greater share of an urban world.

Out West. By Kyler Zeleny. The Velvet Cell, 2014.
Out West. By Kyler Zeleny. The Velvet Cell, 2014.

And the photographs aptly display this vanishing landscape. There is to be found a plethora of eerily decaying locals such as grocery stores and elder community centers (the latter of these seemingly the most thriving place in all the photographs; dually illuminating). It would seem the places that fall under the lens in Out West were sets for post-apocalyptic films or television shows. What Zeleny gives us via his camera is a setting that is hard to relate to. It’s a setting of washed out buildings, neglect, aging and silence.

Out West. By Kyler Zeleny. The Velvet Cell, 2014.

It is strange after engaging with Out West, to think of the rural inhabitant. They become, somehow, like a tiger or other solitary animal, the contemporary rural holds over it something like the sense of exile; removal from the world of bustle, talk, commerce, and hullabaloo. This is a distinct change from the world of our not too remote past wherein the rural communities were rich with traditions and celebrations, where the seasons were spoken of in terms of leaves and crops and the awe for and abundance or scarcity of so many animals. To the popular mind, our seasons now fall upon city parks, city lawns, common birds, and the smallest mammals like chipmunks and squirrels. It is easy to forget our heritage steeped in rural life and industry; the popular mind enjoys an espresso while the anachronistic mind picks blackberries from the bush.

To cut me off, Out West is a thought provoking work. It displays the best of a sort of documentary approach to photography. It both shows and tells and in doing so lets light into an otherwise neglected place.—CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON


CHRISTOPHER J. JOHNSON is an artist, radio host, and poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His reviews, interviews, and essays on poetry can be read in the Philadelphia Review of Books. Johnson also hosts the radio program Collected Words on 101.5 KVSF, where he interviews authors, poets and artists.

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