In his series ‘Grays the Mountain Sends’, Bryan Schutmaat has photographed small mountain towns and mining communities in the American West. The photographs are subtle and evocative representations of the everyday, while the people and the landscapes in them look rugged, worn out, perhaps even abused. The scars on the landscape are equally visible in the faces of the people which inhabit this area. The series as a whole depicts an insular community, either in decline or already on the edge of society – a community poetically described by the American writer William Kittredge whose literary work inspired this project.
The American West is historically perceived as a land of aspirations and hope. From the California gold rush in the mid-19th century to the gambling boom in Las Vegas in the 1950s, in many ways the West signifies the American Dream. In Schutmaat photographs, however, this dream seems to have been crushed by poverty and a sense of psychological and physical entrapment. In other words, the historical connotations of the American West stand in complete contrast to the ‘reality’ photographed in this series. The dream, in Schutmaat’s photographs, has been replaced by alienation, boredom and stagnation.
In Schutmaat’s body of work the relationship between the landscape and its people creates a powerful allegory that informs the series as a whole. Just as much the land is marked by the mining activities, the men too are marked by hard and repetitive labour (or lack thereof more recently). On closer inspection, the entire series only features two female subjects: one is as an actress depicted in a black and white film on TV, the other is a young waitress – her red hair covers her face as she is turned away from the camera. Her body language reaffirms her position as an outsider within the photographic series but perhaps also within this male-dominated working environment. Beyond this, the lack of female subjects in this series further underlines the impression that this is a community without a future.
‘Grays the Mountain Sends’ was photographed on a 4×5 inch plate camera – a photographic method which requires the use of a tripod, a light meter and other tools that would slow down the physical act of taking the photograph. The images thus appear as if they were carefully composed, designed and crafted (in the true sense of the word). Yet the beauty that Schutmaat discovered in these communities is not only promoted through the interplay between colour and light, it partially relates to the banality of his subjects: a roast chicken in the oven, images of wolves plastered on a door, an elderly man sitting in a pick up truck. It’s a if Schutmaat’s comparably slow photographic method is actually reflected in a community in which time appears to have stopped moving.