Schutmaat’s “Grays the Mountain Sends”
Until the end of the month the gallery at the Aperture Foundation (in the Chelsea section of Manhattan) is exhibiting a show of photographs by Bryan Schutmaat entitled Grays the Mountain Sends. The work earned Mr. Schutmaat this year’s Aperture Portfolio Prize.
The series of photographs examine a place: a mining town in the western United States. But the place is not a particular geographical place, because the pictures come from at least as far apart as Brisbee, Arizona and Butte, Montana. They are more about the place that these particular places are about. That place will be unfamiliar to anyone who spends his life wholly on either of the two coasts or only knows the West as a place to ski. The pictures are stark—land despoiled of natural beauty; people with a kind of seriousness that borders on hardness. The vast open spaces of the metaphorical West is there, but it is not the expansive blue skies or the iconic red emptiness punctuated by strange formations of the Monument Valley. It is the vastness of desolation. The land itself is defaced.Rocky and barren to begin with, men gash its surface and gut it to extract whatever mineral will return a profit for the owners. When the profits disappear (usually by market forces having nothing to do with these small towns), the lands are abandoned as are the men who were brought there to disembowel it. The land is left littered with scarps, what scars the men have are not entirely visible.
The Aperture Gallery has an odd way of displaying this exhibition, especially considering it is the work which one their major prize. It is set off in a room which serves as a meeting room or library as part of the book shop of the foundation. When you enter, the first impression is of a somewhat oddly decorated conference room, and, indeed, when I was there, three of the photographs were laying on the table.
But on closer inspection, , you realize there is nothing decorative about any of the photographs. In fact, there is only one, Alpine Lake, Gallatin National Forest, Montana, 2011, which can lay claim to any sort of conventional beauty. That is a photograph of a mountain lake, right at about the tree line. The lake is surrounded by pine trees, and the work seems composed like a painting. The background pines seem arranged and colored in a mannered way. And a fallen trunk, perpendicular to the vertical background trees, frames the lake. But however much the composition tries to draw the eyes to the foreground, the viewer’s interest keeps wandering back to the mountain and the cloudy sky, both of the same washed out, mottled grayish color. The mountain and the ominous sky seem to be communicating something, perhaps the “grays” of title of the series.
It is perhaps not unplanned that the only photograph showing tranquil beauty is also the only one to show no signs of human contact. The relation between the mountain and men in this country is filled with conflict and violence. The humans who come to the mountain attempt to scar it, breach it and rob from it. In some cases that try to disfigure it for their own purposes as in Gold Mine, Lead, South Dakota, 2011. But as that photograph shows, even massive machines cannot more than mar the face; the mountain seems to absorb the efforts. Granite defeats steel not by breaking it but rather by making it irrelevant.
Even when men merely try to coexist, the mountain always outlasts them, as plainly shown in Abandoned Homestead, above. The weathered house occupies the middle ground, surrounded by pines with a shed to the side. The pines, like those in Alpine Lake, recede into the distance and ascend the mountain. The farther back the trees go, the more abstract and mannered they appear, almost as tough they were merely parts of a pattern. The mountain again towers in the distance, again communicating with the gray, cloud-filled sky. In the foreground, an abandon car decomposes like the carcass of an animal; with all the valuable part stripped, it lays splayed like consumed prey.
I indulge in these reflections rather than formal analysis of the works because Mr. Schutmaat intentionally undertook this project as a narrative (rather than visually aesthetic) undertaking. Schutmaat grew up in Texas but was living in Bozeman, Montana, when developed an interest in a group of Western writers, chief among them Richard Hugo, but also the writers most associated with him. Schutmaat uses as an introduction to the series a passage from an autobiographical essay by William Kittredge, who was a colleague of Hugo’s at the University of Montana, beginning in the late 1960s. The title of Schutmaat’s series comes from Hugo’s most famous poem, “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” which is set forth below.
Schutmaat had taken photographs of Midwestern and Western themes before the project at the Aperture. His series “Heartland” comprised photos of people-less landscapes and hardscapes of the rural areas of the American Midwest. By focusing on odd or uniquely rural objects (ranging from bric-a-brac to gas stations), the selections has the feel of a cultural anthropological examination of the area. The series “Western Frieze,” also about objects and structures made by people, this time about the West, was designed to show, according to Schutmaat, that the West “harbors a certain mystique born from wilderness” and what has happened to it. Again, by collecting artifacts, without showing people, the series seems analytical.
Hugo evidently caused Schutmaat to take a different approach, one in which focused as much on the inhabitants as their material culture. American Photo quotes Schutmaat as saying: “Hugo’s poems were often inspired by real-life towns he called ‘triggering towns,’ and so I began visiting them, searching for material just as he did.” And in some cases Hugo directs Schutmaat to the very image he finds. In the Hugo poem below there is a line “the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall.” Schutmaat was able to find that very image in Ellie, Silver City, Nevada, 2012. The waitress’s red hair is the most vibrant color in all the photographs, and it takes up much of the center of the picture. And we see it because she is looking away. Like in Hugo’s poem, youth and desirability is not for the inhabitants of these mountain towns. Ellie undoubtedly has better in store for her than this empty dinner. She will likely become, in the words of Hugo’s poem, one of “the best liked girls / who leave each year for Butte.”
Ellie is in fact the only woman portrayed. But, like Hugo’s poetry, this series is about the men who came to these towns and how the place, the mountain, affects them. Schutmaat may have been inspired to examine these men by Hugo, but his take is entirely different. Hugo’s influence comes from his hard-boiled manner of expression. His point of view is always that of one who understands the inevitability of a hard life, and probably a short one. He does not try to elicit sympathy or even empathy, he merely states just the facts, the brass tacks. It is the viewpoint of anti-heroes and those who have given up. It is this point of view, and the sinewy imagery he uses to convey it, that more than hints at the noir writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Although Hugo’s style conveys occasional vivid images (the conceit of Schutmaat’s photo series comes from the poem below), they are generally delivered at face value, with no underlying aesthetic concept; the rhythm that it conveys is that of the common man existentialist.
That of course is enough to get Richard Hugo noticed by other writers, and one poem is enough to become anthologized. Hugo’s influence has been more among prose writers, especially those who write hard-boiled detective or crime stories. It is possible to see how the barren images of his poetry could excite someone like Schutmaat to go explore this strange and barren human-scape, but Schutmaat’s aesthetic is different. It does not strike a pose or emphasize the narrator. And, unlike hard-boiled writers, Schutmaat’s work reveals empathy. This is likely due to a completely different aesthetic.
In a February 201 interview with Aaron Schuman Schutmaat explained his own artistic point of view:
“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.”
Schutmaat in fact belongs much more comfortably to the tradition of realistic empathy for the underclass. Derek, Big Timber, Montana, 2011 illustrates a young man who is anything but the cynical, hard-bitten poor man’s existentialist. Standing in a field of indistinct long grass blowing in the wind, he has not given up, however far he might be from getting out. For getting out is what appears to be his preferred choice is; he has not decided that his destiny requires him to submit to the granite (in the background as always) and grow a flinty heart.
The fascinating experience of this exhibit is seeing the different outcomes of the mountain-man conflict. Some show distinct signs of bowing under the encounter. The portrait Casey, Philipsburg, Montana, 2010 is taken in the town which Hugo’s poem describes. But the scene is not the dying center but somewhere in the open fields. Casey is not the old man who is the narrator of Hugo’s poem, but he is not a young man with his future before him, like Derek. Casey is not physically bowed, but he may be realizing that his decision has been made, his course laid in. The photograph shows how the human face can tell a story that no number of cultural artifacts can reveal. Art is about the interior experience, and there is nothing like reading the face of another to understand what grayness takes place therein.
There is a dignity in Schutmaat’s subjects that escapes Hugo’s poetry. Each portrait is a simple, seemingly artless moment in a man’s life. How Schutmaat induced his subjects to reveal an opening to their souls, and, more importantly, to allow him to capture it is a wonder. But it’s perhaps no more a mystery than that everyone desperately wants to tell his genuine story, in his way. It takes someone with immense patience, empathy and wisdom to elicit the story and to communicate it, however.
The choice open to the men of these rural mountain mining towns is not simply to escape or succumb. In fact, most of the portraits are of those who find a way to endure, defiantly or with quiet self-assurance. Buckmaster, Rawlins, Wyoming, 2011 shows a man, neither young nor on the cusp of old age, who looks as if he has no regrets on his choice. He is not a miner, or evidently even dependent on mining or so it seems. Schutmaat emphasizes his intent stare by the shallow focus, which reveals the deep wrinkles in his face. His blue eyes and red hair and reddish face, however, show a man who has not given in and has no plan to do so soon.
Each of the men portrayed has his own story, apparent in part in their faces, their expressions, their posture, their clothes and their settings. The photographs, which do not rely on any technique or technical trickery beyond the ability to see a story, all treat their subjects with respect and communicate the universally shared feelings of ambiguity, regret and defiance felt in those rare cases we chose to consider our lot. In most of these instances the moment is not dramatic, although in the right circumstances they may be. And those circumstances are captured in Wes, near Kellogg, Idaho, 2011. Wes looks directly into the camera with an expression of single-mindedness. What drives him is perhaps related to his tattoos and his crew-cut, both characteristics not common among these portraits. He has neither self-pity nor overweening self-pride. His attitude is disciplined, but relaxed, amid the disorder and dilapidation behind him. Schutmaat again uses the shallow focus draw our attention to Wes’s facial expressions, but it is hard to ignore the chaos behind him, including a little girl, perhaps his sister, whom, like him, it seems cruel to subject to this life. What is in store for Wes is far from apparent, but from his expression we see that he intends to take matters in his own hands. it is difficult to imagine, however, how something ordered will arise from this entropy. If it is possible, perhaps someone with the determination of Wes can accomplish it. It is also possible that all that energy will be dissipated in even more entropy.
The Aperture show contains other portraits and revealing still lifes (of sorts) of the material culture of the men and women who live in these places. There is an additional reason to go to 27th Street for this event: the Aperture Gallery has the prepublication copy of the book which contains all the photos in the series (some not on display). The book is handsomely produced by Silas Finch and is due for publication on October 28. Unfortunately, it has been sold out for quite a while. So it is likely that the only way you can see these penetrating photographs is to attend the exhibition. And of course, the actual prints, far larger than the book, reveal details that repay close study.
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Below I set out Richard Hugo’s most famous poem, which influenced Schutmaat’s project. The poem itself is something like a portrait. But it is quite direct, filled with something like self-pity, which is not evident in any of the photographs in the Aperture show. It is a poem that captures, perhaps, a particular place at a particular time. Schutmaat, however, has been able to capture emotions that are valid for all times.
Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg
from Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo (NY: W.W. Norton ©1984)
by Richard Hugo
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?
Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.