Bryan Schutmaat became well known for his series ‘Grays The Mountain Sends’ (Badger, 2017), which is a series of portraits and landscape based on mountain and mining communities in the American West (Fig: 1). The images are quite striking and completely with visual impact. They also seem to me as being quite classic in the style of Ansel Adams (Fig: 2), albeit in colour and they really stand alone in their own right even before you begin to consider the portraiture that Schutmaat presents in this series (Fig: 3). Together though, these images paint a picture of a rugged land and it impact on the people who live there. This series is cinematic, which I always feel is another way of saying that this is typical of American culture and the way that we are used to seeing it delivered through popular culture and learned knowledge of places that we have never been. Schutmaat’s images depict an aesthetic quality of an American dream that does not exist yet people are still compelled to seek it, as argued by Suzanne Keller: “the dream of community, ambiguous and ambivalent though it is, permeates the national past and is an undertone of the present” (Keller, 1988: 173). And this is what I sense Schutmaat is aiming for with ‘Grays the Mountain Sends,’ he is effectively questioning how we understand the US, as Gerry Badger points out, he is part of an emerging group pf American photographers who “have been examining America’s interior myth and realities for a number of years” (2017), moving on to compare the work of Schutmaat to that of Walker Evans by stating that he, as Evans before him are searching for “America profound” (2017), and this again places a clear link back to the FSA.
I really enjoy the grandeur set up by the landscape supported by quite intimate portraits. It is as if the mountain range in Schutmaat’s images is also one of the rugged characters that he is inviting us to study. These images really resonate with me in what I am aiming to achieve with my project. A clear takeaway for my work is Schutmaat’s considered approach to both his portraits and landscapes. He has carefully selected these scenes, which play a strong role in grounding, context, and a clear sense of where this is. Currently, my own landscapes have been far too quick and have been considered filling the gap that moves you from one portrait to another. A clear area of development for me.
According to Schutmaat, this work was inspired by the poetry of Richard Hugo (2014). When listening to Alec Soth taking with Gem Fletcher (2020) he considered that poetry and photography are far too similar to coincide together. Although there are some aspects of his that ring true, however not in the case of ‘Grays the Mountain Sends,’ which comfortably work in unison; this of course is always subjective.
Schutmaat also works effectively with black and white. For his series ‘Good God Damn’ (2017) he created a short series on a character by the name of Kris, during his last days of freedom before going to prison (Fig: 4). Again, Schutmaat beautifully juxtaposes portraits with landscape and details to create a deep and meaningful connection to Kris, even though we understand very little about him or what he has done to warrant incarceration. The images in this series are technically looser (Fig: 5 & 6) than this in ‘Grays’ yet suit the narrative of a man living his last days of freedom. And once again, the landscape images really provide a sense of place, in this case a wintry Texas, and also key insights into the kind of life that Kris leads. Badger notes the crucial role that the Texan landscape plays in this series. As I discussed above, and as Badger also points out, this landscape is one of the characters of this narrative (2017). This is how I must also start to consider place moving forward. I am interested in photographing people, yet it is in the landscape that is the common denominator when focusing in on a community, it is the thing that connects everyone. It is crucial to analyse in greater detail the characteristics of this space that makes it unique to here. That said, the idea of the cinematic in my own work is also quite attractive as I have been gravitating towards a particular aesthetic that has been informed by the quintessential documentary work of the FSA and consumption of the community ideal as a localised ‘American Dream,’ steeped in myth and its unattainable qualities. It is important to consider the constructed nature of all photographs, even those of a documentary nature. To cast the landscape as a character, it is because there is an understanding of the subjective. Knowing which characteristics to accentuate. Moving forward, I aim to also consider which characteristics best suit the way that I am portraying the space to show the character of this community.
Schutmaat also draws attention to his photography in this series, which is something that I have discussed during the module. There is a distinct use of motion blur and grain and a perceived low tech approach in the images, which exposes the means of production in the photographs. When Badger discusses the cast of characters he also included the truck and the rifle (Fig: 7 & 8). I would also argue that Schutmaat is also one of the characters cast in the series, which is plainly shown in the way that he is openly displaying the means in which he is creating his images; Schutmaat is clearly an accomplished technical photographer as seen in his ‘Grays’ series; here he is showing you the strings.
Badger, G., 2017. Bryan Schutmaat Good Goddamn Book review by Gerry Badger. [Online]
Available at: https://www.1000wordsmag.com/bryan-schutmaat/ [Accessed 01 August 2020].
Keller, S., 1988. The American Dream of Community: An unfinished Agenda. Sociological Forum, 3(2), pp. 167-183.
Schutmaat, B., 2014. Grays the Mountain Send. [Online] Available at: http://www.bryanschutmaat.com/grays [Accessed 1 August 2020].
Schutmaat, B., 2017. Good God Damn. 1 ed. s.l.:Schutmaat.
Soth, A., 2020. The Messy Truth: Alec Soth – On Portraiture [Interview] (23 July 2020).