Grays the Mountain Sends: In Conversation with Bryan Schutmaat
by Aaron Schuman

February 2013

This essay was originally published in Hotshoe, Issue #182, Feb./March 2013.

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.

AS - Aaron Schuman
BS - Bryan Schutmaat

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 introductory photo course while getting my BA in History, and fell in love. Early on, 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 depicted in Grays the Mountain Sends?

BS: When it comes to art, I've always tended to been more moved by simple depictions of ordinary people, like nineteenth century French paintings, postwar films from Italy, American short- stories and poems; works that usually fall under some category of "realism", and deal with working-class protagonists. So taking pictures of blue-collar life in the American West came naturally to me. I've long been intrigued by the West – its geography, history, beauty, myths; those familiar things that make people feel that westward pull. Although small and sometimes desolate, these towns convey a rich sense of history and labor heritage. I wanted to analyze them from the perspective of the workers who shaped them. This called to mind the rugged, individual efforts that founded the West – the things men have built, what they've hoped for, what they can be proud of, what got away from them, and what fell between the cracks. I could see all of this reflected in the beaten environment as well, as if there was a visual and emotional commonality amongst the people and the place. Something that's obvious but often overlooked is the fact that human effort and experience is recorded on the surfaces of everyday scenes. So in these mountain towns, which seem far from the American Dream, every structure built and later abandoned is a relic of hope.

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 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. 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 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.
In photography, the West's narrative is built around perceptions of Manifest Destiny, and the answer to its promise. The motifs found in my work that bring this to mind are an effort to contribute to that ongoing conversation. But in the end, I'm interested in different things. The early photographers of the West – Jackson, Watkins, Muybridge, and so on – were often commissioned by the government and private industries to take alluring photos of the landscape in order to help populate its farther reaches, and to get the economy moving out there. Their pictures of majestic views and abundant landscapes affirmed not only the beauty of the West, but also the opportunities promised to those people strong-willed enough to settle there. Subsequent photographers have addressed this promise, and most have refuted it, recognizing that the West's various bounties have been depleted, mishandled, or out of reach for most ordinary people. I wanted all of this referenced in my work, but mainly as a backdrop on which to examine the world at a personal level that involves specific individuals.

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.

That said, you mentioned Lange. I think she was one of the first photographers to denounce the West's grand promise, since the westward path she depicted in An American Exodus led to despair, not opportunity. She was a documentary photographer whose political agenda benefited from the stark portrayal of America's underprivileged. But still, she showed great poetic interest in her subjects, and the melancholy relationship between land and people. Lange is a big influence on me, and I wouldn't side with anyone who labeled her and her ilk as "class tourists". In most cases, the FSA photographers adequately conveyed the realities of their subject; if they're culpable of heroicizing the underclass, they did so precisely by showing such realities and the toll they took on the spirit. I know there's nothing heroic, romantic, or fun about backbreaking labor and poverty. But to overcome or endure it, with dignity and resolve, deserves admiration and honor. And the guys in my pictures are working class, not destitute; they're just dealing with life, not asking for anything. They're tough as nails and they'll get by no matter what comes their way – without help, pity or pats on the back. So to recognize their character and strength isn't the same as romanticizing their way of life.

AS: In a very general sense, 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 now fundamentally white-collar, middle-class, and suburban – with highways, gas stations, shopping malls, housing developments, and so on, on nearly every horizon – do such increasingly rare places still resonate with meaning for us? Is it a matter of nostalgia, or something more?

BS: I photograph in small towns and rural areas because I like life better there, and feel at ease there. That might sound odd, as Grays the Mountain Sends is kind of a downer, but trust me; if I were to do a project in the city, it would be even sadder.

More generally, I think that 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.

Also, with so much work having already been done about cities and sprawl – New Topographics and the subsequent trends – maybe now there's a shared impulse among photographers to seek out what's on the fringes, or what appears to be vanishing. This tendency has been fruitful. I'm thinking of work by Laura McPhee, Justine Kurland, Mike Smith, Raymond Meeks, Lucas Foglia, Alec Soth, Ron Jude and more. Whether its idyllic country living or eccentrics on society's margins that these photographers fix their lenses on, this work all seems propelled by a deep longing – a longing which wouldn't be there if it weren't for the country's sorry state.

I often experience this kind of longing. Recently, I drove from New York to Houston for the holidays. It sounds cynical, but there wasn't a moment along the way during which I took pleasure in looking at the landscape; albeit, I was trying to make good time, so I didn't get off the interstate highways. But along this route, it was extremely rare to see a horizon untouched by billboards, parking lots, fast food, or some kind of commercial activity fouling up the view. In a way, a lot of photographers during the latter-half of the twentieth century were looking at the world from the big interstate, bearing witness to the radical and destructive changes as they were happening. Now all this ugly stuff is here, it continues to grow, and we're tired of it. It seems like photographers today are getting off the interstates and taking the back roads. Finally, when we find the remote places that don't conform to corporate culture, we breathe a sigh of relief.
So in a sense it's about escape – and yes, maybe nostalgia or even exoticism – but I hesitate to simplify it with just these terms. All of these unsightly, urban landscapes are a foil to quiet, rural landscapes. And for dwellers of cities and suburbs, it's important to look closely at ways of life that differ from metro areas – doing so helps us gain perspective, and makes us consider how we live in our own surroundings, what we build, how our choices affect others, how we can be different, and so on. We need to see such alternatives in today's age, to remind us what life could be, and what's at sake if the current course remains.


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