The Land that Gives Birth to Freedom: Bryan Schutmaat’s Grays the Mountain Sends

The Land that Gives Birth to Freedom: Bryan Schutmaat’s Grays the Mountain Sends

In front of such landscapes it is easy to sympathize with those who lived out the early acts of our national misunderstanding of space. Little wonder that Americans said so confidently and unqualifiedly that they were free. How could they be otherwise — they were alone, or so it seemed. And they had gotten there as a result of their own effort.

Robert Adams “In the Nineteenth-Century West”, in Why People Photograph

I wonder what my father saw in his most secret sight of the right life. It’s my guess he wanted to live out his life surrounded by friends and children and fertile fields of his own designing. I think he wanted to die believing he had been in on the creation of a good sweet place.

Those old pilgrims believed stories in which the West was a promise, a far away place where decent people could escape the wreckage of the old world and start over. Come to me, the dream whispers, and you can have one more chance.

— Epigram to Grays The Mountain Sends, from William Kittredge’s “White People in Paradise” in Who Owns the West?

 

I.

Grays The Mountain Sends is a group of pictures that seem to have been made in the wake of a tidal wave. The photographs are fashioned from a sensitivity for the brittleness of hope and the inextinguishable will to dream, despite the deadweight of sadness that remains in a land so full of promise, and so riven by a studious neglect. The American West is the seedbed of American mythology, home to its essential, interwoven narratives of promise, freedom and prosperity — a place still infused with the ancestral hope of reinvention. To make a group of photographs in that region is to contend with the idea of an entire nation, to reckon with the arc of its history, and to interrogate the distance it has travelled from its birth to our present moment. These images suggest that distance is in the lifeblood of this nation — perhaps the distance that was brought to the continent by those who settled here, carrying their sorrows and expectations along with them; perhaps the history of distance from power embedded in the forging of a nation that has its beginnings in a fugitive idea, or perhaps the sorrowful distance that separates those who benefitted from the settling of the frontier from those who were its victims. However it may be, the lifeblood of these images is to be found in the difficult poetry of a land made up of distance, and in the alternating tranquility and sadness that it bequeathes to those who inhabit, and are shaped by it. It would be fair to say of these images what William Kittredge said of the poet Richard Hugo, whose poetry served as an inspiration for these photographs: ‘they love the singing distances and the dreams of people who inhabit them.’

The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bell 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?

Richard Hugo “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” in Making Certain It Goes On

The sequence of photographs begins with the figure of the mine, or more accurately the rictus carved into the slopes where mining has once been and no longer remains. The scene is illuminated by the long half-light of the early morning, covered in soft shadow and a red the colour of fading blood. But for the beauty of the palette we might linger more purposefully on the epic violence done to this mountain in order to dredge it into such an orderly set of stairs. What has departed the scene is the explosive force of extraction, and along with it the labour that sustained its efforts. A literal boom created this landscape, and the quiet emptiness in which it now stands is the familiar quiet of a tidal wave retreating, leaving a silence in its wake to be filled by the indifferent procession of time.

The overarching metaphor of the mine is in a sense a metonym for America, or a metaphor that speaks to its affinity for the adventurous construction of opportunity, its intense and extractive relationship to prosperity, and for the relationship of those things to depletion, exhaustion, power and hope. The mine also points up the activity of the photographer in the construction of the images we are invited to read. The camera enables him to go prospecting for rich seams from which to thresh out a story that can make the problem of history present for us in visceral terms, in terms consonant with our uneasy neglect of our own history, and our tendency toward its perpetual repetition.

We try hard not to be sentimental, not to feel more emotion for a subject than it deserves. (…) If the open America we loved is gone, then its recollection and the grief that it inspires may be useless. The force of this argument comes from our shock at the state of the current West. When else has a region of more than a million square miles been so damaged in so short a time? We catch ourselves thinking, in the bitterness that can accompany the unexpected sound of an aluminium can bending underfoot, that it would have been merciful if Columbus had been wrong and the world flat, with an edge from which to fall, rather than a circular cage that returns us to our mistakes. The geography seems hopeless.

— Robert Adams “In The Nineteenth-Century West” in Why People Photograph

What Bryan has sought out and encountered is a West that still awaits its prodigal return – a collection of mining towns characterised by an uneven marriage of competing complexities having to do with perseverance and hope, neglect and transformative beauty, isolation and joy. These factors are set within a landscape made over by wars both local and far distant — those that ceded the frontier to the immigrants who displaced the First Nations, those that characterised the interminable struggle for survival against thin yields and failing crops, those that forced so many to flee the snowstorms and dust bowls that pushed so many ever further westward, and those smaller ones now waged in the stubborn act of persisting at a height from which the world can be seen so clearly, and at such a steep cost.

Maybe raiding bears or eelworms made them quit,
or daddy died, or when they planted wheat
dead Flatheads killed the plant. That stove
without a grate can’t warm the ghost.
Tools would still be good if cleaned, but mortar
flakes and log walls sag. Even if you shored,
cars would still boom by beyond the fence, no glance
from drivers as you till the lunar dust.

— Richard Hugo, “Montana Ranch Abandoned” in Making Certain It Goes On

 

II.

In Grays, each photograph insists upon cohesion, insists upon a continuity of colour and form that drives us toward the paradoxical question of whether this land belongs to its inhabitants, or its inhabitants to the land. Much as Bryan’s Heartland project was a work centred in landscapes that dealt with inheritance and the intergenerational dynamics of history, in Grays the portraits of middle-aged men are often characterised by an interrogatory look that asks us not only about the function of the gaze we return to them, but also about the relation of their appearance to a lifetime, and of that lifetime to the place of its making. The recurrence of colour integrates subject with setting, develops resonance, illustrates the prevalence of labour visible not only in posture but garb, pointing the question of that labour toward the condition of the terrain in which we find each subject. Overwhelmingly these are the faces of workers, possessed of a weathered stoicism that does not seem romantic, but rather more complex, unvarnished and matter-of-fact. Complex, because their care-worn faces belong to a landscape they do not seem to covet or grasp, but rather merely to accept, and complex because that acceptance seems to offer few if any guarantees.

These portraits reflect on a problem that stretches through the frame of Hugo’s poetry, and the expansiveness of Schutmaat’s narrative, and they ask of us how sustainable the whole edifice of hope in the American West may be, when measured against a bedrock that has been so infrequently replenished. The wandering bison have long since been killed off, the wolves no longer prowl, the prairie is no more full of horses but rather broken down cars, and deserted homes run to shacks by the irrepressible passage of the seasons. The symbols from which the land derived its vitality are both iconic and absent, pinned against walls or nailed up under glass vitrines. It seems cold comfort that taxidermists keep alive what has long since died out. What remains is to be found in acute isolation, an isolation that is at times mind-bendingly beautiful, but vibrant in an essentially private way.

You could love here, not the lovely goat
in plexiglass nor the elk shot
in the middle of a joke, but honest drunks,
crossed swords above the bar, three men hung
in the bad painting, others riding off
on the phony green horizon. The owner,
fresh from orphan wars, loves too
but bad as you. He keeps improving things
but can’t cut the bodies down.

— Richard Hugo, “The Milltown Union Bar” in Making Certain It Goes On

History here speaks in the space between the portraits and the landscapes, between subjects, and across the steadily building rhythm of each grouped stanza of photographs. Those subjects who are youthful and not prematurely aged seem anachronistic, and tend to stand with a steady patience that suggests little optimistic expectation. They counterpoint the age of the older men that surround them, but they too speak back to the weathered beauties of the land they inhabit, and in that reciprocal dialogue we come to understand something of the intensity with which so much vast unbroken emptiness must force one in on oneself, into the silent company of one’s own thoughts. How long one could walk or drive through these plains, or in the shadows of these mountains without questioning the trajectory of a still unsettled life? Was the West only ever a tale to be told? Will its unchecked cycles of growth and hibernation be the equal of the future that awaits its inhabitants? The alternating exchange between portrait and landscape continually insists on the question of what prospects lay ahead, if indeed they are not to be found only in the stories that gave this land its vast original invention.

Once, the whole country faced west. (…) America’s size in the imagination was limitless. After Europeans settled and changed it, working from the coasts inland, its size in the imagination shrank. Like the centre of a dying fire, the Great Plains held that original vision longest.

— Ian Frazier, The Great Plains

In my essay on Bryan’s Heartland photographs I wrote: What are the kinds of faces that would populate these landscapes? The re-imagined histories illustrated in the places of work and prayer that Bryan photographs lead me to think that they would be working people, largely modest of means if perhaps not of ambition, as flawed or righteous as any other but more representative of a forgotten middle America than most. The kinds of spaces described in these images suggest lives of long and often quiet hours, routines made up of brief large gatherings and lengthier more solitary time – they speak of labour and the lack thereof, religion and small-town community, tradition, government, neglect. These photographs bring to mind Robert Adams’ analysis of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Woman”, wherein he says:

The bravery she was concerned to picture was usually set against the most common ordeal – tiredness, having to last. It is perhaps an especially American subject, endurance being one of the few glories open to many in a country where freedom is more valued than justice

While in Heartland we were not given portraits depicting the inhabitants of the places shown in the images, in Grays we are invited to imagine the breadth and depth of labour, time and ambitious expectation that has created or defined the spaces in which Bryan has photographed. More than this, we are invited to reconcile our intimation of the scale of aspiration and activity that has been invested here with the rolling silence in which we find our subjects – we are invited to close the gap between original vision and aftermath. Some bitterness, but also some tender hope is to be found in the portraits. Nothing on the order of the miracle needed for resurrection, but sufficient to remind us that this seclusion offers more than the comforts of its own eccentricities. Sufficient to remind us that sincerity can be the by-product of an unforgiving life, even if only with one’s private hopes and long-remembered joys.

In one interior we see an assortment of cut-out wildlife photographs of wolves and bison in the wild, tacked up against the back door of a fairly humble room, shielded by thin gauzy curtains — a last pictorial memento that sits atop a row of coat hooks, awaiting the moment when it becomes necessary to put on shirts or heavy coats and head out into the weather of the day. In another interior we see a small white prancing horse that sits atop an old television set like a hood ornament on a fine vintage car — its exaggerated grace both comic and sad. In yet another we see a ram mounted under glass above the curtain rail of a bar, its proud head resplendent in white beneath the orb of glass, its gaze fixed on an invisible horizon. In yet another interior we see an otter mounted on a wooden limb atop a shelf beneath which lay discarded egg cartons, an empty case of Miller beer and an old television glowing with the black and white image of Raquel Welch, above whom sits a half-eaten tub of peanut butter. From this panoply of incidental detail we can disentangle an unbroken sense of pride – pride of effort and achievement, love of land and game, and an affection for even the most humble of dwellings that suggests to us that warmth and simple pleasures are not mutually exclusive with the business of living in a dying town. There is in this dichotomy between interior and exterior landscape a sense of the mountains being a sweet and silent place from which to watch the world, and measure the passage of time.

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.

— Richard Hugo “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” in Making Certain It Goes On

 

III.

Thoreau, a look is what a man gets when he tries to inhabit something, something like America. Take your look – from your look, I’d say you did pretty well. Nearly anybody would say you look like a man who grew up around here, but I think I’d say what there is around here grew up in you. What I’m saying is you’re the one that’s inhabited. I guess a look is what a man gets not so much from inhabiting something, as from something that’s inhabiting him. Maybe this is what it is that inhabits a house. In all my life I’ve never been in anything so crowded, so full of something as the rooms of a vacant house. Sometimes I think only vacant houses are occupied – that’s something I knew as a boy, but I had nobody to tell me that’s what an inhabitant is. An inhabitant is what you can’t take away from a house.

Alan Trachtenberg “Wright Morris’s ‘Photo-Texts’”, The Yale Journal of Criticism – Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 1996

The advent of popular American mythology largely coincided with the cinema and photography, and America’s cultural pre-eminence is as much a product of a habit of looking given to us down the ages by the silver screen and the camera lens. Something of that boundless spirit of adventure, and of that reverential wonder that characterised the early survey photographs of the West remains in our way of seeing it even now – something of the sense of being among the first to discover a place so seemingly without end. We intimate the vast scale of history from the weathered crevices of mountain peaks, and see the seasons in the cadence of prairie grass blown steadily by the wind. And so perhaps the signal success of this work is the language it has found to stitch together the history we see in the landscapes with the startling lucidity of its portraits, which give cadence, structure and human mystery to a place that is at once mythical, and drearily mundane. We begin to see the landscape through the filter of their gaze, and in that suspended effort of disbelief we take a sober accounting of the heavy cost borne by those whose hopes were ill-suited to the stewardship of this space.

‘Eighty-nine was bad. At least a hundred
children died, the ones with money planted
in this far spot from the town. The corn
etched in these stones was popular that year.
‘Our dearest is gone.’ The poorer ones
used wood for markers. Their names
got weaker every winter. Now gray wood
offers a blank sacrifice to rot.

The yard and nearly every grave are fenced.
Something in this space must be defined —
where the lot you paid too much for ends
or where the body must not slide beyond.
The yard should have a limit like the town.
The last one buried here: 1938. The next
to last: 1911 from a long disease.

— Richard Hugo “Graves at Elkhorn” in Making Certain It Goes On

So often in these photographs we are given a beauty that is of a piece with the kind that Reyner Banham wrote about in his essay on the Desert Cantos pictures made by Richard Misrach in the 1980s. That is, we are given scenes that “will be forever shot through with the irony that this beauty is the product of a careless human ambition to produce something entirely different.” In one such image, we see a white saloon car abandoned at the dead end curve of a snaking mountain path that opens onto the glorious fir-tipped ridges beyond. The effort invested in taming this terrain sufficiently for it to be traversed by car is now invisible, as is the owner of the vehicle who, on a particular day, pulled off at a bend in the road and walked, finally, away. The habit of abandonment so redolent of the dejected face of these fading mining towns turns the landscape into a reliquary for hope – hope that is embedded in the withering boards of wooden houses once raised up in resolute expectation. There is poetry even in the abandonment, but the photographs question the experience of coming afterward, of inheriting this littered string of desertions and finding a means to live purposefully with it.

In places, this protean West of fading mining towns seems a landscape stunned into immobility by the receding shockwave of a last failing Western Boom; it resolves itself in a beautiful blend of growth and ossification that gathers up against the perimeter of mountains like strange flotsam along a shore. In the super-wide expanse of the West, it seems that you have all of this majestic and troubled space so long as you never seek to surpass it. This western space exists in a landscape not so much bounded at its extremes by a ridge, fence or barrier of some kind, as by a sudden acceleration into a bustling contemporaneity with which it is essentially inconsistent, with which it is not coincident in time, and by which it is in some essential way neglected. The comfort of that neglect lies in the relatively uninterrupted seclusion that it offers to those who seek out such openness. In the end, we cannot help but to believe that where the West ends, time speeds away.

The West has ended, it would seem, as the nation’s vacant lot, a place we valued at first for the wildflowers, and because the kids could play there, but where eventually we stole over and dumped the hedge clippings, and then the crankcase oil and dog manure, until finally now it has become such an eyesore that we hope someone will just buy it and build and get the thing over with.

— Robert Adams “In The Nineteenth-Century West” in Why People Photograph

What Bryan’s photographs have sought to bring to vivid and poetic life is what Robert Adams dubbed the ‘tragic progression’ of the hardscrabble life of the West. His images act together to disinter the linkage between the masculine original vision of manifest destiny embodied in the West, and the legacy now being bequeathed to those men that continue to work at persisting in its diminished embrace. These men are depicted in isolation in order to entice us into greater proximity, both with them and with what remains of the homesteader’s original hope for a future made out of this earth. It is an earth that has a unique relation to distance: from the Native American domestication of the horse to the wagon trail’s early domestication of the frontier, to the opening of the mountain passes by rail to the suburbanisation of tract lands by the highway system, even up to the revolutionary innovations of the internet in Silicon Valley, this land has been bound up with the continual process of reinventing space, and with it our capacity to master, to distort and to transcend it. For such an extraordinary record of change, and in spite of a setting so clearly capable of inspiration, the returns seem meagre, the enormous history of effort misjudged.

The work is unabashedly romantic and uncompromisingly frank. It professes its unadulterated affection for a subject it has both invented and discovered, while never confusing that affection with a basis for optimism. What the pictures seem to say is that arduousness and distance are proper to this place — that they are endemic and essential features of a landscape that shapes the lives that are led here. When measured against the immensity of these mountains, forests and hills, it seems clear that our hopes will give out like the mines before ever the land might finally be defeated. It is a landscape that offers few guarantees, other than the opportunity to spend a life contending with the colossal, at times untrammelled, and deeply complex beauty with which it surrounds you, in the solace that a life spent failing to grasp its meaning will not have been entirely wasted.

Photo edit by Bryan Schutmaat, with many thanks.
Artist(s): Medium: schutmaat[at]gmail.com Site: http://www.bryanschutmaat.com/

6 Responses to The Land that Gives Birth to Freedom: Bryan Schutmaat’s Grays the Mountain Sends

  1. Fantastic work !!! Bravo !!!

  2. These words, and quotes are as beautiful as the images – extremely well done here, for both parties. The author, and the photographer.

  3. Thanks for making me aware of this amazing work. Breathtaking.

  4. bravo!!!
    very nice work!!

  5. Exquisite. Such expression. I travel a parallel trajectory of thought as a result of strangely coming upon a similar inheritance.

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