Grays the Mountain Sends: In Conversation with Bryan Schutmaat
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
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.
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, 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.