We were in a hurry to get out of the city and into the real prairie, where you can climb a fence post and see for about a million miles — that’s how flat the prairie is.
— Farley Mowat, Owls in the Family, 1961
On the morning of Friday, November 4, 2005, I left the city of Moose Jaw (population 35,689) and headed north. The commercial boxes along Main Street gave way to the clapboard of residential neighborhoods. On the outskirts stood Moose Jaw’s teen mecca, the Town and Country Mall; and then it was prairie. I stopped the car on the edge of a wheat-stubble field. Behind me the Moose Jaw skyline looked compressed by the weight of the steel gray Saskatchewan sky. The field spread out before me to infinity. The gusting wind was ferocious, and its intense cold cut like a knife to the bone. I made a photograph and quickly got back in the car, eventually warmed up, and continued on my way.
My destination was Saskatoon, 140 miles north along Highway 11. Neil Young played on the stereo: “They say there’s nothing out there but wheat fields anyway / Just a farmer’s wife hanging laundry in her back yard / Out on the prairie where the winds blow long and hard / Prairie wind blowing through my head….” It was not long before snow flurries were dancing in the wind; by the time I reached Saskatoon, two and a half hours later, they had intensified into a steady fall of heavy wet snow. Winter had begun and my trip was coming to an end. I had been on the road in Saskatchewan for almost two months, exploring and photographing, trying to make sense of what it means to live in the mysterious flatlands of the Canadian prairie.
Underlying Saskatchewan’s sense of place is a linear aesthetic. Straight lines dominate the landscape. The province is criss-crossed by an astonishing network of municipal roads that extend from the 49th to the 54th parallel. These gravel and dirt roads add up to 102,000 miles, and are given their own dedicated map, simply titled “Saskatchewan Grid Road Map,” priced $1.75. For the rural inhabitants these roads are usually the most direct route between communities and often provide the only access to farms. And, as I experienced, they are used by the many grain trucks that hurtle along at demonic speeds, approaching in huge clouds of dust that pelt your car with stones as they pass. Straight lines are not only on the landscape, they also protrude from it. The extreme flatness exaggerates the presence of anything vertical. Grain elevators tower up majestically, looking like cathedrals of agriculture. Even people in the landscape, or just a simple fence post, seem to take on a monumental presence as they rise up from the land.
I had arrived in Saskatchewan during its centennial. It was a celebration of the incorporation of the province and the pioneering spirit of its founders — the homesteaders who scratched a living out of a barren land, where the number of farms increased from 1,500 in 1886 to 56,000 by 1906. But the Saskatchewan I discovered told a more complex story. Although the province is still predominantly agricultural, the majority of the population now lives in cities. Throughout the landscape I saw abandoned farms in various stages of decay, their yards littered with rusting cars. The rural culture was clearly in decline. But even in the cities, the presence of the prairie is always there — the inescapable flatness, the huge enveloping sky, and the piercing wind that blows through everything in its path.
12.03.2010 at 13:47
Although you captured the rough raw edges of the province that are present in a cold winters day. I must say looking at these images does not remind me of the province that I call home. Perhaps its my love that over looks the the ugly around me, or it can be explained as your outsiders view. Maybe only the ugly is captured on a grey snowy day in Saskatchewan.
Maybe I have misunderstood your intent in gathering these particular images together. I do however have no doubt that these images were captured through a very narrow lens and as a result this photo essay is not at all a fair representation of the province.
12.04.2010 at 13:24
It was interesting to read your comments. I certainly did not see Saskatchewan as an ugly place, and I do not see my photographs from there either. In fact I found the province to be a very beautiful place, and living in the flatlands of East Anglia in the UK (please see my previous essay on Places) I felt a strong connection to Saskatchewan's sense of place. It is the beauty that I saw there which I have tried to capture in my photographs. For me, the abandoned farm house, the combine at work at dusk, the hutterite girl, the pink sweat pants on the fence, the grid road, orange palm tree in Saskatoon, etc etc, are part of Saskatchewan's beauty.
I urge you go to look at the slide show again and you'll see there is no grey snowy day in any of the photographs. And I think that if you look closely you will not see ugliness in the things I photograph.
All those things are part of Saskatchewan's mystery and beauty and they should be celebrated.
12.05.2010 at 14:46
Thank you, Justin, for sharing your photos. I grew up in Moose Jaw, left in the 1980s to go to art school and start my career, but my family and I return every year to visit my parents and my sisters and their families. My ancestors settled in the Canadian prairies in the late 1880s — possibly even before that. I spent a lot of my adult life downplaying my association with such an "unglamorous" place, but have since come to terms with my connections to it.
I completely agree with you about the linear aesthetic. It seems all of the bottom half of Saskatchewan is dominated by hectares, sections, acres, etc. — all of which I still don't understand how many of one make up another. You see these grid lines from the air, and they intersect rivers, meet up with roads. In full summer, the rectangle shapes take on different colours, depending on what is planted in fields and what is blooming at the time.
I've often referred to the palimpsestic qualities of the prairies, especially in Moose Jaw, where you see former aspects of itself peeking through attempts at contemporizing buildings, neighbourhoods, businesses. In my own area of study I find myself returning to the prairies to examine the material and visual culture of the place.
I also agree with Bre in that you've probably chosen the least attractive month to photograph Saskatchewan. Any kind of harvest is complete, and the landscape looks quite barren if there is no snow yet. Your photographs are honest, though. Saskatchewan can display huge aesthetic contrasts.
12.05.2010 at 19:16
I loved the photos because you captured the Saskatchewan my mom described to us (she was born in Moose Jaw). According to her, there was always sky and distance (why she loved kd lang's video).
If anything you captured the beauty that cuts through the everyday (even the supposedly poor and abandoned).
12.06.2010 at 12:55
Many thanks for your comments. You point out one of the common misunderstandings of flat landscapes: that they are "unglamorous." The flat landscape of the Fens here in East Anglia is seen as being equally so.
But you also point out that once you feel a connection to such places you can understand how to appreciate them. I certainly feel that such landscapes are very special places, which have as you rightly say, a unique visual and material culture.
Moose Jaw was probably my favourite place in Saskatchewan. It was a very comfortable place to be, and very visually interesting. It is where I would like these photographs to have their first public exhibition in Saskatchewan.
The photographs were actually taken in the months of September and October while the harvest was still on, as the second photograph shows.
I should emphasise two things about this essay:
I certainly did not set out to produce an objective representation of Saskatchewan. As a visual artist / ethnographer I am inspired by certain things and aesthetics. My photographs tell the story of how I have engaged with a place. But at the same time they only show what it there for me to point the camera at.
Second, this is still very much a work in progress, and I hope to have an opportunity to visit Saskatchewan again in the near future during a different time of year.
12.06.2010 at 13:03
Many thanks for your words. It means a lot to hear that I have been able to depict the Saskatchewan you heard about in stories from your Mom.
When it works well, one of the wonderful things about photography is that it can communicate thoughts and emotions which can produce very personal connections with an audience, far beyond what the photographer imagined.
To know that this is happening tells me I am doing something right.
12.18.2010 at 09:35
Some amazing photography. My favourites are images 5 and 18 in your slide show.
It reminded me of when I travelled across southern Africa a couple of years ago, and there to the horizons seemed infinite. It may sound a silly thing to say, but I grew up in one of London's concrete jungles and the concept of space is not existent. In London there is barely enough room to 'swing a cat' and I often look back at the photos I took to remind myself of what it feels like to be the only person standing in all directions between the horizon and my camera.
These photos evoked a similar feeling. Thanks for sharing!
01.02.2011 at 15:55
Wonderful photo essay on a very photogenic province - thanks for sharing. Good observation of the intricate network of rural roads - amazing for such a sparsely populated province. I traveled these extensively during a collaborative web based mapping project which documents the remaining and quickly disappearing grain elevators from the Canadian prairie landscape: