The documentary and experimental-style photographer hailing from Canada chats about his visual history
Canadian native Kyler Zeleny is a photographer whose work is a dynamic and engaging mix of documentary and experimental art practice. After becoming hooked on his blog, we asked to talk to the 24-year-old to investigate his two most recent projects; an unnamed series based around found Polaroids, and the other, entitled Out West, a travelogue reminiscent of Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces. Here’s what he had to say for himself…
DazedDigital: Can you locate a specific reason as to why you started taking photographs?
Kyler Zeleny: My parents were avid amateur photographers and my father's closet is filled with loads of photo albums. I looked at these a lot as a kid and thought it would be nice to have a similar visual history for myself, but a history framed by me and not my folks. So I started taking photographs when I was 14, I just took pictures of my friends, but I didn't know about any specific photographers at the time and didn’t learn anything about the discipline for ages. I was stagnant like that for about five years before I started to really think about visuals and develop my work. Fundamentally, I now photograph in order to explore and understand things. Although, who knows, maybe I'll change my focus tomorrow…
DD: Can you detail a bit about the equipment you shoot on, etc?
Kyler Zeleny: Over the last few years I've realised that different cameras have different usages and personalities. I like to experiment and so use a variety of different cameras for different subjects and projects. Recently, I've been using a 120mm TLR and instant Polaroid cameras with expired film. I’ve also been using a 35mm point and shoot which I purchased for one euro. I've shied away from digital photography for personal projects because it doesn't allow me the proper amount of time to assess what I’m shooting- and to clock whether it’s actually worth capturing or not! The cost of shooting film forces me to be more selective.
DD: You’ve studied both political science and sociology. Do you think these areas of study have influenced the way you approach and go about your photography?
Kyler Zeleny: Yes, very much so. I think that all of the projects that I've done - past, present and likely future - are, in some sense, linked to those interests. For me, it’s not enough to just photograph; it has to have some sort of social meaning, explore something, address a grievance or issue and, hopefully, help to amend in some way. The recurrent themes in my work are, I suppose, nostalgia, history, and identity.
DD: These themes are certainly apparent in your Out West and Polaroid projects. Can you explain a bit about the work?
Kyler Zeleny: Sure. For Out West I travelled around by car, looking at the current state of particular rural areas with populations of under 1,000 people in the Canadian West. The work focuses on how these locations are still rooted-in, and relate to, a past time and a past identity. Like, they literally appear to be frozen in a past era. This is because a lot of these places are clinging to something that’s no longer there - the railroad and the grain industry, namely.
For the Polaroid project I've been scouring flea markets and eBay for random images and then, subsequently, trying to return them back to the people who originally took or were in the photographs, by using visual clues in the shots and things written on the front side or back of the images. So, yeah, this project is very much about identity and personal histories - both of the person and the Polaroid itself. Where was it 'born'? Why were these images abandoned? Where have the people in the photographs been since? etc. To date, I've collected over 2,000 images and have only been able to return one to its original owner. Not a very high success rate….yet!
DD: What’s next for Kyler?
Kyler Zeleny: I have a number of projects that I want to begin, which are all focused in rural Canada, the main one of which is photographing my home community: a town of about 850 people called Mundare. I wanted to photograph the current built up environment and its inhabitants, whilst at the same time wanting to explore its heritage. It represents a challenge to re-immerse myself in a community from which I have always felt estranged.