Thomas Gardiner left Canada to pursue an education in New York in 2005. But soon enough, his thoughts turned to where he grew up, in the western part of the country. “Being a foreign citizen living in another country, you think back to where you came from,” Gardiner said in a phone interview.
While still a student at Cooper Union, Gardiner began revisiting the places of his youth on summer breaks and looking at them with a new perspective. “I hadn’t been back to the prairies for quite a long time. Coming back, it looked a lot different to me after being in big cities,” he said.
Intermittently over the next five years, Gardiner traveled by car through British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, staying with friends and family and photographing along the way. He went to familiar spots, like his father’s hometown and the rapids that he used to swim in as a child during the summer, but he also looked for novelty and had plenty of interactions with strangers. The result is an intensely personal tribute of the landscape that shaped him.
Using a 4-by-5 camera, Gardiner explored this vast and beautiful environment and often came up with images capturing notes of strangeness—among them a pair of actors in KKK attire preparing backstage for a historical play as well as various murals and portraits depicting natural scenes or animals. “I’ve always loved images of animals hanging in windows, which you see everywhere on the prairies. If I happen to ever drive past one, I almost always have to stop and take a look,” he said via email.
Like Canada in general, western Canada is hard to characterize. The small towns and communities there are largely involved in the extraction of resources like oil and uranium, and the winters there can be quite harsh. When pressed to define western Canada’s western Canadian-ness, Gardiner said that towns are generally located far apart from one another and that the remoteness may have given each its own distinct look. “I always got the sense of isolation living out there, being outside of the big cities. I think that maybe propels a sort of culture,” he said.