Social Media

Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle: Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Book Review Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle Photographs by Kyler Zeleny Reviewed by Blake Andrews In the space of four years, Kyler Zeleny travelled the prairie lands of North America, driving over 15,000 km in the process to photograph and document their current realities.
Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle
Photographs by Kyler Zeleny

The Velvet Cell, Berlin, Germany, 2020. 96 pp., 8¾x10¼".

I have a soft spot for photographers who shoot their immediate surroundings. After all, who better to document a subject than someone with a deep familiarity? Once one notices how spectacular the everyday can be, there’s little need for exotic journeys. It turns out everything a photographer could want is right at hand.

For Kyler Zeleny, this realization took awhile to manifest as a project. After an idyllic childhood on a farm in Alberta —“the prairies are my spiritual home,” he remembers fondly— he was later drawn to the area as a photographic subject. But the process of shooting prairie country was more involved than a neighborhood stroll. Over the course of 4 years, Zeleny hauled his camera over 10,000 miles, tracing a spiderweb of highways across the Canadian Midwest, from Montana through northern Alberta. A map of his route can be found in his recent photobook Crown Ditch And The Prairie Castle (The Velvet Cell, 2020). It’s the second volume of what will eventually become a trilogy of photobooks about the region (the first volume, Out West, was published in 2014, and the third, Bury Me in the Back Forty, is now in progress).

Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle. By Kyler Zeleny.

At first glance, Crown Ditch reveals a world that is perhaps unsurprising. It’s a wide, flat region crouched under booming skies and spiced with small outposts: civic buildings, bars, churches, and post-industrial ruins. The residents of this “last promised land” are a hardy breed, fond of large belt buckles, ball caps, and denim. “There is something special about the prairie spirit,” says Zeleny in a recent interview. “At its core is the idea of Frontierism and perseverance.” Zeleny has captured a measure of this resilience in his photos. Whether it’s a building, person, or empty lot, the subjects in these photographs appear fastened in place, like barnacles.

In photographic style, Crown Ditch is vaguely reminiscent of road trip classics by Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and Alec Soth. Like those predecessors, Zeleny mixes three broad subjects —geography, vernacular structures, and portraits— in roughly equal measure. And, similarly, his compositional approach favors broad perspectives and centered subjects, all shot outdoors under clear skies. If it is a somewhat filtered view of the Canadian heartland, it’s one that is executed with skill. Zeleny’s instinct for commanding vantage and horizontal spacing —for example, in photographs of Power, Montana and Drumheller, Alberta— reveals a deft sense of visual phrasing.

But comparisons to Shore, Sternfeld, or Soth raise an existential dilemma. For it’s Canada Zeleny is after, not America. “I remember when I first started photographing on the Canadian prairies,” he said in a recent interview, “people would discuss my images as if they were American simulacrum, images no different than you’d find south of the border. That made me think, how can Canadian photographers assert a unique regional sense of place if we are benchmarked against a cultural juggernaut with its own mythology, history and imagery?”

Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle. By Kyler Zeleny.

That’s a very good question. Defining national identity is always a tall order, heightened for Zeleny by the fact that wide swaths of Northern Montana and Southern Alberta are visually similar. The sheepish apology that begins his text —“I am sorry that the Prairies are not as enticing as the American South, not as mythical as the American West.”— takes some measure toward repatriation, as does the book’s no-nonsense orderly flow. But some fuzziness remains. For better or for worse, many of these pictures might be mistaken for American scenes. Perhaps this is just the nature of beast. The 49th parallel separating the U.S. and Canada is an arbitrary boundary, and imposing its essence into photographs may be impossible.
Crown Ditch features some distinguishing design elements. The bold yellow cover with a tipped-in rear plate is striking. The pace of the main body is broken up by three gatefold pullouts. Each one shows a mini-series on a particular topic, one on squat shops, the next headshots, and the third shows a wide panorama of grain fields. There is a small note tucked in the middle with a delightful list of offbeat keywords, which reads like a stream of consciousness poem. One page later is another note, which shows Zeleny’s route map.

Finally comes the book’s text, which is included as a pullout booklet sleeved into the rear inside cover. Here we find Aritha van Herk’s essay Reading the Unreadable, followed by Zeleny’s diaristic anecdotes recounting his travels. His writing style is dense but friendly, and its breezy first-person sketches go down easily. Zeleny’s ruminations lend narrative form to the photographs, helping put them in the context of his road trips and the huge expanses he covered. The book ends on a nice closing note, a tipped-in photograph of a quiet cafe, perhaps the perfect spot to organize a flood of pictures and memories.

Purchase Book

Read More Book Reviews

Crown Ditch and The Prairie Castle. By Kyler Zeleny.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at