I sometimes wonder if I am a true landscape photographer. It would be hard to categorize myself as anything else, but I rarely take purely landscape images. Rather, I am drawn to the interaction between nature and the man-made world, particularly old, even ancient, man-made structures. When I was asked to write an essay on the connection I feel to the places I photograph, the first place that came to mind was the Prairies in Canada. But I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about some of the other places I’ve photographed as well, including Japan (which I visited earlier this year) and the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.
The Canadian Prairies
I’ll start with the Canadian Prairies, which cover a great middle swath of Canada—from Manitoba, through Saskatchewan and into eastern Alberta—and are the northern extension of the U.S. Great Plains, which stretch as far south as Texas. I don’t claim to be an expert on the Prairies,never having lived there; I just want to tell one person’s story of falling in love with a place.
I first photographed in the Prairies in the summer of 2013 on what I thought would be a one-off trip. I drove through Saskatchewan and Alberta to photograph old, wooden grain elevators (most not used anymore and abandoned) as well as abandoned churches, schools, and homesteads I came across on rural back roads. On that first six-day trip, I drove over 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles). When I first planned the trip, I thought that would be my one and only visit, but the Prairies have drawn me back again and again. Since then, I have returned each summer and on three winter trips to try to finish that grain elevator photo series that never seems to want to properly come together.
I spend a lot of time planning for these trips. I scout sites online and put them in a Google Map so that I can plan some sort of general itinerary. I use books on grain elevators and Prairie history, Flickr, Google Maps, and ShotHotSpot to find possible sites and then scout them as well as I can in Google Maps. Most of the places I want to shoot are quite remote and not covered by Google street view, so I often depend on satellite images to locate them exactly. Luckily, grain elevators are tall and I’ve found lots of great sites because of the telltale shadow they cast in the satellite view. As any photographer knows, light is probably the most important element in creating an image, so I try to plan my trips around confirmed sites and good light. First I scout the site in person, just to make sure it hasn’t burned down or been demolished. Then I plan to return in the early morning or evening for softer light. It doesn’t always work this way, though, since the driving distances can be huge and I often stumble across the most wonderful sites just by luck on random back roads, but this is the ideal scenario.
Though I photograph all types of old, abandoned Prairie structures, I always arrange my trips around photographing grain elevators. Part of the reason I love the elevators so much is the history they encapsulate. Having a master’s in history makes me a natural researcher and in preparation for my first trip, I read everything I could find on grain elevators and the history of farming on the Prairies. I always think in terms of photographing a series and research like that helps me to know what I am photographing. To me a series is not just a group of interconnected images, but a story. The elevators tell the story of the rise (in the late 19th century) and fall of small family farming on the Prairies. The number of grain elevators peaked in the late thirties, when there were nearly 6,000 primary (country) elevators in the Prairie provinces. Primary elevators stood every 13-16 kilometres (8-10 miles) down every railway line in the Prairies, ensuring that most farmers could make a round-trip to sell their grain in a single day. Towns often grew up around the elevators and they became the centre of Prairie communities. From the fifties onward, though, there was a radical decline in small-time family farming because of rural depopulation, increased mechanization, improved transportation links, and abandonment of branch railway lines. Primary elevators were abandoned and now the old wooden elevators number in the few hundreds and they are disappearing fast. This whole story can be seen in an old wooden grain elevator, abandoned on the Prairies with a few buildings, the remains of a now-ghost town, around it.
The elevators were built primarily with function in mind but they are also simply beautiful buildings. In an almost completely flat landscape, they can be seen from kilometres away as they stand 20 metres (65 feet) tall or more. Le Corbusier called the perfect melding of form and function of grain elevators “the first fruits of a new age.” Though he was talking about large, concrete elevators in Buffalo, I think this perfect melding of form and function can also be seen in the humble primary elevator. Look at any one built near the beginning of the 20th century—such a simple, functional building, but with such a bold, stunning profile. I think they make for amazing images.
When I compose images of grain elevators and other remnants of the past life of farming on the Prairies, I shoot pretty wide. I want to show the building, the landscape surrounding it, and the ‘living skies’ that Saskatchewan and other Prairie provinces are famous for. I love those skies and those open spaces. The first time I travelled in the Prairies, in 2013, I rented a car in Saskatoon that didn’t have a USB port for my iPod. As soon as I got any distance north of Saskatoon, it was hard to pull in any radio stations either. The distances on the Prairies are often huge and the drives between elevators can take hours. And now I had no music. The first two days were torture. But then something happened. I relaxed into the silence (just the ping of gravel on the undercarriage of the car on the rural roads to keep me company) and I realized how much the silence worked perfectly with the great sweep of those open spaces to let my mind wander free. On every trip I’ve taken since, I spend most of my time driving in silence. I feel myself relax and open up to those grand spaces. I love them, but those big, open spaces aren’t to everyone’s tastes. I have a friend, a die-hard city dweller, who says she would get anxious with all that space around her. The beauty of the Prairies is subtle and not apparent to everyone. The mountains, the coast, the American Southwest—their beauty is so dramatic. The beauty of the Prairies is so much less obvious. It’s in the space, it’s in the wide, open sky. And it’s in the silence.
The two old elevators in Dankin, Saskatchewan, are among my very favourites to visit and photograph. Dankin isn’t a place you will find on Google Maps, but it clearly was a bustling community to have had two grain elevators (both built in the late 1920s and closed in 1975). Now there is nothing around them but the open fields and the silence. I have shot Dankin five or six times and I love to stand there in quiet contemplation as I take a long exposure shot. I listen very carefully and I hear … birdsong, the sound of the wind murmuring in the grasses that have grown up along the abandoned railway track, the buzz of insects … but not a single man-made sound. Not a car, not an engine, not an airplane. So, not complete silence, but a complete absence of man-made sound. If you live in a city, as I do, what you think of as silence never is. But out there, in that great wide-open place, without a man-made sound, a peace comes over me that I rarely feel elsewhere.
So, even if I somehow wrap up this grain elevator series, I will probably continue to visit the Prairies. I will continue to suffer with the ticks, the (wo)man-eating mosquitoes, the long, hot summer days, the brutally cold winters, and the questionable motels, so that I can connect with that history, those skies, the beautiful, stark, bold forms of those elevators on the open plains, and with the silence. Especially the silence.
The Yucatán Peninsula
In December 2014, I took my first trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico. I had decided to go after hearing stories a friend had told me about the ruins of 19th-century haciendas and old, half-abandoned churches damaged in the Caste War (1847–1901), an over 50-year-long Mayan
rebellion in the Yucatán. After giving me tips on books to read in order to find these sites, he put me in touch with a local photographer called Baltasar (Balta) Castro Cocom. Balta and I became friends online. Even though I was planning to spend the bulk of my time visiting the haciendas and churches, Balta offered to take me to see some remote Mayan ruins. We went out for a weekend—Balta, his wife, Nubia, and his friend Julio from Mexico City—to visit Mayan ruins outside Mérida. I was stunned by what he showed me. Though I did photograph some haciendas and even produced a small photo series on Caste War churches, it was the ancient Mayan ruins that fascinated me. And though I did visit Uxmal, Sayil, Labna, and other famous, publicly accessible sites, it was the smaller, off-the-beaten-track ruins, some deep in the jungle, almost completely covered in vegetation, that Balta showed me that captured my heart and my imagination.
Photographing the ruins, on the other hand, was not easy. There are few open spaces, and the ruins are jumbled and sometimes covered in dense vegetation, so access and compositions are often difficult, but even more difficult was the light. We were often at sites near midday with harsh, contrasty, dappled light shining through the jungle canopy. After struggling for a little while at our first site, the amazing Xkichmook, I tried an infrared (IR) filter. I have an old Singh Ray IR filter that is like a piece of welding glass—it gives the equivalent of about 16 stops of filtration—so I didn’t use it that often. Not only did the infrared deal pretty well with the lighting conditions, it created a dreamy, otherworldly look that perfectly reflected the wonder and awe I felt seeing these ruins hidden away in the jungle. I was so taken with the few (not really very good) IR images I shot on that trip that I decided to convert a camera to IR and plan a return trip, which happened in March 2016. This time Balta and I travelled together for a week through the Puuc region (south of Mérida) and even farther south to Calakmul, near the Guatemalan border. I had a most amazing adventure, visiting incredible ruins such as Kiuic (a partially excavated ancient city where we were shown around by the resident archaeologist, Tomás Gallareta, a friend of Balta’s), Balché (where I re-tore an old ligament injury on the second day of our trip but didn’t let that stop me), Rio Bec B (which involved hiring a local guide to take us 16 kilometres into the jungle on a quad on one of the more exciting rides I’ve had in my life), and one of my favourites, Xpuhil II (stunningly beautiful because it is large, imposing, and almost completely overgrown).
Many people know of the justifiably famous ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza, but ruins of satellite cities and smaller settlements are scattered all over Yucatán. If you know where they are (or, in my case, if you’re lucky enough to know someone who knows where they are), you can see these amazing places in the jungle, nearly completely overgrown, echoes of their former glory. It’s hard to express the feeling of seeing one of these places—words like awe, amazement, and wonder come to mind but don’t seem quite adequate. Every time I stood in front of one of them, I simply felt incredibly lucky to be there.
In the end, I created a series of 10 images from that trip. As with my photography of the grain elevators in the Prairies, I read as much as I could about Mayan civilization in the 14 months I had to prepare for my second visit. I was influenced by the late 19th-century images of Teobert Maler, the modern images of Tomas Casademunt, and most particularly by the drawings of Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood travelled through Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico in the early 19th century. His beautiful illustrations of Mayan ruins, detailed and atmospheric, illustrate John Lloyd Stephens’ books on their travels. Stephens’ two books (published in 1841 and 1843) were instant bestsellers, in no small part because of Catherwood’s gorgeous images. Catherwood’s drawings are both precise and wonderfully romantic. I wanted my images to be similar in both documenting the ruins and presenting them in a way that expressed my awe at simply standing in front of them.
Infrared was unquestionably the right choice for this series: it was able to handle the harsh, contrasty light and, more importantly, it created that ethereal, magical feeling I wanted for these images. There is another reason I think it was appropriate. These ruins were built between 800 and 1,300 years ago and every living thing—plants, animals, people—have come and gone, lived and died over that time, but the ruins remain there, permanent, enduring, eternal. The IR perfectly expresses that idea by creating a solidity in the tones of? the ruins and a light, airy, evanescent feeling to all the living things—trees, vines, overgrowth—that surround them.
In March 2017 I traveled, for the first time, to Japan. This was mainly to participate in a workshop led by Rohan Reilly and Stephen Cairns, two of my favourite photographers, but I also spent a couple of weeks exploring and photographing Tokyo, Kyoto, and K?yasan. I fell in love with Japan. Everything fascinated me—the food, the culture, the politeness and etiquette, and the amazing photo opportunities from the seaweed nets of the Chitahanto coast to the sprawling cemetery of Okunoin in K?yasan. Because of a busy schedule before the trip, I didn’t read as much about what I was going to see as I usually like to, but I think that had a surprising benefit: I came to Japan with a beginner’s mind. There is something to be said for arriving with a minimum of preconceived ideas—it creates an openness, a receptivity to new places, and, as a photographer, if you’re lucky, an ability to create images that are not mere imitations of others’.
I think that’s what happened to me at Okunoin. Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan, is located in K?yasan, the amazing mountain village of over 100 temples that is the centre of the K?yasan Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. The cemetery is the resting place of Kobo Daishi, who founded K?yasan and died in 835. The cemetery is an amazing place, filled with the graves of the powerful and famous, as well as of humble monks, all of them surrounded and interspersed by towering hundreds-of-years-old cedars. I had seen some images of Okunoin online, but few of them inspired me. Even Michael Kenna, who photographed extensively in K?yasann, has only a few images from Okunoin on his website and those are mostly detail images. When I visited Okunoin, I realized why. It’s a confusing, overwhelming jumble of graves and trees that is very hard to photograph. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the scale and history of the place. From a half a day there– shooting wide and close-up with few preconceived ideas of images I wanted to get– I managed a few images I liked.
My preferred MO is immersion into the history and geography of a place, but I found certain benefits from what photographer Cole Thompson calls “photographic celibacy” on my trip to Okunoin cemetery. That being said, I’m sure that in preparation for my next trip to Japan, I will be reading the long list of books suggested to me by Stephen Cairns. It’s just what I like to do. I prefer to know the history and the significance of the objects I’m shooting. I love reading and researching before a trip, immersing myself in the place, its history and significance, even before I get there. That’s how I make images that are meaningful to me and, I hope, pleasing and potentially meaningful to those who see them.
Gallery of Images
Prairies – Dankin
Prairies in the Snow
Prairies – Infrared
Japan – Infrared
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