Inspired by the writings of Richard Hugo and others, Bryan Schutmaat's Grays the Mountain Sends poetically delves into the landscapes, faces, atmospheres and lives of small mountain towns and mining communities throughout the American West.
(Grays the Mountain Sends recently won the Aperture Portfolio Prize and the Daylight Photo Award.
AS - Aaron Schuman
AS: To start, how did you first get into photography?
BS: I wish I had a cool story about how I got into photography, but I don't. I took an Introduction to Photography while getting my BA in History, and fell in love. That's it. Early on, I liked street-photography best – Winogrand was my hero. I saw the 1964 exhibition at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville, and it blew my mind. He made all these great pictures with the same tools that I was using at the time; just a handheld 35mm camera and rolls of Tri-X. Of course, his pictures were infinitely better than what I could've hoped to achieve, but still in some fundamental way they didn't look unlike something I could do. So I felt emboldened about what could be done with a camera and ambition.
AS: What initially drew you to the small, working-class Western towns that you've photographed in Grays the Mountain Sends?
BS: Taking pictures of blue-collar life in the American West came naturally to me. I've long been intrigued by the West and its geography, history, beauty, myths – those familiar things that make people feel that westward pull. When it comes to art, I've always tended to been more moved by simple depictions of ordinary people, like 19th century French painting, post-war films from Italy, American short-stories and poems; works that usually fall under some category of "realism" and deal with working-class protagonists. That's the kind of stuff I'm most interested in – visually, culturally, and narratively.
AS: More particularly, it seems like you’ve portrayed it as quite a masculine environment – what drew you specifically to the men in such places?
BS: In late 2010, I found myself living in Bozeman, Montana and I soon got absorbed in literature about the region, reading books by writers who employed a tough, somewhat masculine style of writing – Richard Ford, William Kittredge, Raymond Carver, and especially the poet Richard Hugo. Hugo’s best-known poem – and the one that really stuck with me – is “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg”, which is his take on hardscrabble life in a burnt-out mining town in Montana. Furthermore, the industries that emerged in the wake of Manifest Destiny, such as mining, are both now and have historically been male-dominated.
AS: Throughout the project, you've photographed quite a few weathered and weary middle-aged men – but you've also photographed several teenage boys, who seem slightly different to their elders. Did you sense a disparity between the generations, or could you see these younger, fresh-faced boys gradually transforming into echoes of the older men in years to come?
BS: While working on the project, I got to thinking about my father and his imperfect life. I thought about my childhood, and how he provided for me by working in construction, back in Texas. A generational narrative came into play – a dialogue between youth and old age, past expectations and current reality. How potent is hope today compared with yesterday? Has it gone bust, or do we just have to dig deeper? And what is left for posterity, when we use up the land in the ways that we've seen in the West (and elsewhere)? A lot of young men who are growing up in old mining towns are would-be miners, but they have to find different lines of work. I don’t know if this implies a big change or a cultural shift occurring. But ultimately, I want viewers to wonder about what will become of the boys – will they get out of town, or wind up like the old timers who are worn down like the mountains around them? The stories of some of these men run parallel to those of the towns they live in, or even of the nation at large: once young and full of promise, now their great expectations have been shed somewhere during the course of history. With photographs, which say so little, the boys’ lives are open-ended, and their will is free. Thus, their fate is up to the viewer’s reading. These young men aren’t yet fully beleaguered by the forces of time and circumstance – the “grays the mountain sends”. The last portrait in the series is of a boy leaning against his car. Maybe he’s about to hit the road to seek greener pastures.
AS: Although both the environments and the people that you've photographed seem quite rough and hard-worn, there are certain rustic, romantic motifs within your work as well – which are aligned with traditions of “realism”, as well as with the mythologies of the “Wild West”, and the contemporary reality that you found there.
BS: This was difficult for me, because documentary work that exposes people’s realities and the hardships they undergo typically entails a political component and a call for action, whereas I approached my project with an almost entirely poetic eye. But context, history, and struggle affect poetry significantly.
AS: Documentary photography – and particularly that of the early twentieth century: Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”, Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, W. Eugene Smith’s work for Life, etc. – has often been criticized retrospectively as a form of 'class-tourism'; it has been accused of, in many ways, romanticizing or heroicizing hard labor, struggle and poverty. When making this work, how did you negotiate the balance between the realities you encountered and their inherent poetic undertones?
BS: I’m reminded of the title character in the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink – this high-minded playwright whose work is meant to speak on behalf of the common man, although by the end of the film he’s deemed a tourist with a typewriter. His writing was really in service of himself, which I think is the case with a lot of ‘concerned’ photographers. One major problem arises when photographers enter troubled regions and entertain the illusion that the work they do there will bring about direct positive change for those people whom they perceive as terribly unfortunate. Photography that presents itself under the pretense of helping others but is really just made for sake of photography genuinely bothers me, particularly when it comes from an elevated viewpoint that’s patronizing. To think my role as an artist puts me above anyone, or makes me know what’s best, would be a flawed line of thought. I don’t have lofty ideals; I maintain a humble voice, and really, I can’t claim my purpose is for anything but trying to get good pictures. This means that I may have relinquished some other responsibilities that many people think belong to photographers. But I’m okay with that.
AS: In a very general sense, it seems to me that American documentary photography has shifted its focus quite dramatically in the last decade or so; in the latter-half of the twentieth century, spurred on by Robert Frank's The Americans and so on, the central themes primarily centered around cities and the rapid growth of suburbia, culminating in the heightened 'suburban-gothic' tendencies of the 1990s. But since the turn of the century, the focus has shifted more towards the rural, small-town, back-woods communities that seem to have somehow escaped suburban sprawl, or reflect an imagined America of bygone days (whether that be Davy Crockett's 'Frontier', Mark Twain's Mississippi, or Thornton Wilder's 'Our Town'). Why, in a country and culture which is fundamentally white-collar, middle-class, and suburban these days - with highways, supermarkets, gas stations, shopping malls, housing developments, etc. on nearly every horizon - do you think such increasingly rare places still resonate with meaning for us? Is it a matter of nostalgia, or something more?
BS: I think such places still resonate with meaning precisely due to the fact that most of the United States is as you've described it. With mass expansion and commercial development forever altering the face of America, its wilderness is in peril, and small towns are becoming economically obsolete, losing their identities to chain stores and dead architecture, and dying out. Perhaps like an endangered species, it's the increasing scarcity of this subject matter that has renewed an interest in it. The majority of today's population is living in a homogenized and demoralizing atmosphere, thus we turn to what’s in the distance, in the past, or in our imaginations, for respite from the drabness we regularly encounter.
AS: Along with that of many other photographers, the work of Alec Soth seems to have been particularly inspirational to you - on you're blog, you even tell a story of coming across an old school-bus in the wilds of Wyoming, photographing it, and then quickly recognizing it as the site of one of his photographs in Broken Manual; could you discuss the impact that he and his work has had on you, and your own practice?
BS: Alec is great. He was my teacher, and is somewhat of a friend, but I don't know if my association with him helps me out, given the clear influence he's had on me. It's a really good question, but hopefully you'll let me dodge it.
AS: In the artist statement that accompanies Grays the Mountain Sends, you specifically draw attention to the fact that you are using a large-format view camera. Firstly, why is that important, photographically and otherwise?
BS: A large-format camera is important foremost because of the formal qualities it affords – its clarity, descriptive ability, the way it renders space, depth of field, and so on. So using it was an aesthetic decision more than anything. But the physicality of the camera definitely had an impact on the work too, particularly the portraits. It's an impressive tool: big, wooden, robust, with bellows, sitting atop a tripod, and requiring a dark cloth. Even though it's a newer camera, it has an old timey feel, which I think disarms people to some extent. I'm not just some guy buzzing around with a DSLR. When I’m talking to people, and explaining why I want to take make portraits of them, I feel that the camera’s presence somehow lends credibility to my purpose. Then, when I have them sitting for me, they see the time and commitment it takes to operate the camera. They understand that I’m invested in what I’m doing, and I feel like that helps me get them to open up and give me more.
AS: Secondly, why is it important to you that the viewer knows that you are using such equipment?
BS: It isn’t entirely necessary for viewers to know what equipment I use, and it probably wouldn’t change their reading of the series if it were left unsaid. But when I tell people that the photographs were taken on a large-format camera, and if they’re familiar with how such a camera is used, it gives them a sense of the process, which implies a shared experience between my sitters and me. Pictures can’t be taken on the fly with a big, slow camera; you have to engage in a substantial way with whomever you’re shooting. With this in mind, I hope viewers will think about the stories behind the photos, or stories the sitters told me. I guess I just want to evoke curiosity as much as possible.
SEESAW MAGAZINE: '"Grays the Mountain Sends: In Conversation with Bryan Schutmaat', by Aaron Schuman