Prairie Modern

Questioning the Ideal

When I looked back at my photographs from 2014 the urban ones didn't seem as cynical as I thought they might be.  On reflection, I think it's just less overt.    

My Vancouver photographs seem motivated by the contradiction between an idealized version of Vancouver and the reality on the ground (which is perhaps a clever turn of phrase given how that idealized vision incorporates towering condos). 

Looking at the photographs (yet) again, I concluded that even the ones appearing to be a straight-up representations of an idealized Vancouver are still questioning that ideal in some way.  Consider this photograph:

Dwelling, Vancouver, 2014

It’s a view of an attractive townhouse entrance.  But my interest lies in the contrast with the tower sitting above it.  The towers are striking, but their scale is alienating when experienced from the ground.  The homes in the sky are financially out of reach for most people.

The questioning appears in other ways.  Vancouver, like most Canadian cities, is very young.  Yet, there are signs of decay and neglect.  Rather than acquiring character buildings simply wear out.  They are disposable.   

Shrouded, Vancouver, 2013

Claymore Parking, Vancouver, 2013

Steps, Vancouver, 2014

There’s more to be written about the Vancouver photographs in future posts.  But I want to touch on how the Prairie Waters and Prairie Modern photographs also question ideals.  

The prairies are often imagined as a pastoral ideal.  In practice, the it's criss-crossed by a grid of roads.  I can just as easily see it as a vast food manufacturing operation.  I think of the Prairie Modern photographs as both representing and questioning the ideal.

Power Pole, Alberta, 2005

The Prairie Waters photographs question an ideal in a different way.  People might not consider the shallow lakes in central Alberta beautiful.  Certainly they don't attract visitors the way the Rocky Mountain parks do!  But mud can be beautiful if you look at it in the right way.  So, they question the ideal of conventional beauty.

While I may be questioning an ideal, ambiguity arises because there is also genuine affection.  I unabashedly love the open spaces of the prairies.  Vancouver may be flawed, but it’s an easy city to love. Green stains on concrete can be seen as verdant or decrepit.  I'll write more on this ambiguity in a future post.

Concept and Intuition, Part 2: Prairie Modern

In Part 1, I proposed a model for the roles of concept and intuition and discussed how it played out in the Prairie Waters project.  In Part 2, I’m going to examine the Prairie Modern project.

It could, and perhaps should, be called Roads and Horizons.  It’s two projects that I banged together after the fact when I put this site together.  I felt neither project was strong enough to stand on its own and they are closely related.  

The roads came first.  I was driving along the highway connecting Edmonton and Calgary taking pictures in my head.  It occurred to me I should make an effort to take some of those photographs with a camera.

I went on excursions to photograph around roads.  I started by focusing on overpasses, but the results weren’t satisfying.  One winter morning I was wandering along a ditch overlooking the highway.  Rather than looking out into the surrounding fields away from the road - a more conventional point of view - I was looking back onto the road.  

Pair, Alberta, 2005

Pair, Alberta, 2005

Roads are often framed as a visual pathway leading into a scene.  The view from side appealed to me because it shows the road slicing through the landscape.

I included objects in and around the roads as integral parts of the composition.  I was interested in drawing attention to mundane details often excluded from the frame.

Farmhouse, Alberta, 2005

Later I began simplifying the scenes into horizontal lines.  This was in part a response to observing how completely these landscapes have been transformed and groomed by people.  It's like the landscape has been machined into this simpler form.  

After Gursky, Alberta, 2005

I also stumbled upon the idea of framing scenes to include the top of the road as the foreground. 

Cracked, Alberta, 2005

Pond, Alberta, 2005

Such variations seem informed by both concept and intuition.  

Driving through the prairie provided ample time to consider concepts, perhaps to the point where I was getting in the way of myself.  

I was seeking more abstract images.  I imagined photographs with a few, simple bands of colour like a Rothko painting.  That contrasted elegantly with the Prairie Waters photographs which I likened to abstract expressionist paintings.  But that search became frustrating because roads are usually a messier affair.  My pursuit of an idealized landscape could blind me to the one in front of me.  Or perhaps I just needed to be more committed to finding those simplified landscapes.  At the time, I felt I was driving into a cul-de-sac.     

One evening, I was driving to an area where I planned to spend a few days photographing roads.  I had gotten a late start, so as twilight arrived I was mostly focused on reaching my destination.  I came upon a pile of grain.  It seemed like a pyramid.  Even though it wasn’t a road I felt compelled to stop and photograph it.

Prairie Pyramid, Alberta, 2005

I liked the idea of that photograph so much I abandoned the roads and spent the next several days making photographs of smallish things on the horizon.  This was one of them.

Tractor, Alberta, 2005

I sought more like this and found a few adhering to the strict format:

Canola Power, Alberta, 2005

Herd of Deer, Alberta, 2006

But again, they were difficult to find and I became frustrated.  It’s an interesting concept, but one that requires more patience.  I was very pleased with the deer.  I wanted some cattle and horses.  Rather than hoping to come upon such a scene by chance (as I did with the deer) I could have improved my chances by working with farmers.    

I made other photographs that were similar, but less stringent in their constraints, more informed by intuition.   

Prairie Sundial, Alberta, 2005

A Touch of Green, Alberta, 2005

When pulled together, the resulting portfolio reflects this series of partially developed threads.  I might have benefited from giving intuition freer reign.  For example, just photographing the roads as I found them without concern for a high degree of abstraction.  The Prairie Waters photographs were never as abstract as I imagined them anyway!  Alternatively, I might have benefited from stronger conceptually imposed constraints.  For instance, I could have photographed from the tops of roads, but always using the same focal length and placing the far edge of the road on the ⅓ line.  Or I might have continued to work on the ‘things on the horizon’ project to slowly accumulate more.  Of course, there’s nothing stopping me from trying any or all of these approaches in the future. 

There was certainly a lot of toing and froing between concept and intuition.  It generated interesting sub-themes and variations.  I might have achieved greater impact by more cohesively developing fewer ideas.  Or I could have generated more variation with a less constrained approach.  I wonder how it comes comes across in the Prairie Modern portfolio?  Let me know in the comments.    

Six Bins, Alberta, 2005

Prairie Revisited

The Prairie Modern photographs were made in 2005 and the spring of 2006.  During that period I photographed the prairie intensively and more or less exclusively.  

I also photographed the prairie after this period creating a few more photographs I love.  They are similar in some ways, but have a different look and feel.  

The Prairie Modern photographs adhere to self-imposed constraints reflected in their formal and symmetric compositions.  The later ones break from those constraints.   They are more relaxed and organic and perhaps even a little romantic.   

Here's a few of my favourite post Prairie Modern photographs.

Edges, Alberta, Fall 2006

Above, Alberta, Winter 2006

Clumps and Abandoned Shed, Alberta, 2012

I didn't recognize the end of the Prairie Modern project until sometime after it had happened.  Starting in the summer of 2006 there there were several years of lean photographic activity as I focused on leading product development teams at a startup.  The photographs during this period started heading in new directions.  The prairies remained the same, but I changed. 

I haven't included the more recent photographs in the Prairie Modern portfolio.  The portfolio is not a 'best of' collection of every photograph I've taken of the prairies.  Instead, its meant to be a cohesive set of photographs with its own narrative and a consistent aesthetic.  

There are also some fine photographs of the prairies taken before the project.  They are different from the project photographs and the ones that came later.  I think of them as precursors.  But that's a topic for a future post.  

I thought perhaps the more recent photographs might lead to a new prairie project and maybe they will someday.  But for now they are a vignette rather than a full story.