The Mirage of the Wide and Open
Bryan Schutmaat on persistence, masculinity and our era of uncertainty
Haines Eason: Our mutual friend Marcus Myers pointed me to your work. Perhaps intentionally, he first showed me your Montana landscapes and portraits. The goat under glass of course grabs my attention, the poet Richard Hugo being an early hero of mine—I’m thinking of the poem “The Milltown Union Bar.” But it’s those Montana portraits I want to begin with.
What I see in the faces of your subjects is trust. I’ve lived in Butte; I know how careful one has to be when the talk turns personal, and I know talk must have turned personal for you to get those shots. Talk to me about how you convinced your subjects to trust you.
Bryan Schutmaat: I really don’t have a good answer for how I gain trust. There’s no secret. I just try to be kind and honest. I tell people what I’m doing and what I’d like from them. Often they’re generous and accepting of me. Sometimes I have long conversations with people before I make portraits. I ask about their lives, their families, what they think of what’s going on in the world and so on. This can establish a small bond. In other instances, the setting or circumstances at hand require that I ask to take the pictures right away, and in these instances, if the resulting images convey any deep sense of trust or rapport between the subject and me, it might be an illusion. (Photographs are oftentimes illusions, even though the medium is usually purported to be truthful.) If I can, I take a lot of time with portraits, and the reservations people might have at the outset somehow fade away the longer we’re together. That said, I’ve also taken portraits in a matter of seconds that feel full of emotion and trust, so it remains a mystery to me.
HE: Talk to me about those long conversations. I want to explore your career in whole, but, selfishly, I want to stay with your Montana subjects. There's a subject from Grays the Mountain Sends. His greasy hair contrasted with the subtle uniqueness and cleanliness of his shirt… His bleary eyes—wet from drink? It seems you’re in his home. How did this portrait begin, and what did you all discuss?
BS: It’s funny that you ask about him specifically regarding this topic, because he and I barely conversed. I don’t remember the little that we talked about, but I do remember he only allowed me to take one shot. This was in a coal mining region of Wyoming. I had become friendly with his daughter who was a waitress in a cafe where I was having lunch, and when he came in to dine and visit, she facilitated our encounter. She helped me take a number of photos in that cafe.
HE: Just one shot—that would almost scare me off of shooting the subject at all. Does fear come into play in those moments? How do you manage pressure in general? Looking over Grays the Mountain Sends, there are shots from within what appear to be subjects’ homes, shots on private property. Surely, given the intensity of some subjects’ expressions, there was some urgency?
BS: Yeah, I get nervous when I’m shooting. I tend to feel uneasy when introducing myself and making initial contact, but once I get the “okay” to make pictures of people or the insides of their homes, etc., the social anxiety can often transform into concern about my ability. I recognize how great the subject matter is in front of my lens, and I want to capture it well. There’s always a fear that I’ll fall short somehow—that I won’t take the picture I should. Internally, I feel frantic in these moments, when the light is just right but fading, or when I feel like a portrait subject is just about to check out. Moments and conditions for good photos are fleeting and I fear I’ll miss them.
HE: The transformation of the anxiety around an introduction with a subject into an anxiety around ability is fascinating to me... None of this described anxiety comes through in your photos. Instead, what I perceive is a great care taken with each scene and individual. Do you feel this anxiety in some way results in your final images? I.e., do you feel it is necessary to your process, or do you feel it inhibits you? Sorry to pile on, but: Have you always had to work with or around anxiety as an artist?
BS: I don’t mean to make myself seem too high strung! Perhaps anxiety isn’t the best word to describe what I experience, but when I’m caught up in a moment, I do get a bit amped up inside, especially if it feels as though the photo I want to take may elude me. There have been plenty of shoots when I’m prepared and the conditions are right and my subjects are really eager, and in those instances I feel better—maybe even calm and good, you could say. I don’t think a sense of anxiety is necessary to my work, and I wish I never felt it, so I’d say it’s more inhibiting when it does arise, but maybe there’s an aspect of those feelings that drives me. It’s hard to say. I’m a baseball fan, and I love to see good pitching. Sometimes pitchers thrive off pressure, anger and big moments. In a jam with runners on, there are some great pitchers who lock in, and the adverse circumstances help their velocity, command and concentration, whereas with some guys, those circumstances just cause them to lose their composure and things unravel. Maybe there’s a parallel here to photography and having to execute something well at the right time.
But on the topic of anxiety, I have become increasingly interested in our culture’s collective anxiety. The new work I’m making expressly responds to what I perceive as a new era of uncertainty in the 21st century.
HE: How does your home life and youth inform your work? You grew up in a suburban area of Houston, in what I think you told me was a pretty normal household… Take me there.
BS: Yes, I grew up outside Houston. Like a lot of suburbs during this time, it grew rapidly during my youth. I saw the forest and pastures near my house transformed into shopping centers and parking lots. From a young age, I felt a sense of fear and loss in relation to what was happening to the environment, and I think that has stuck with me and shows in my photos today. At the same time, my father worked in construction, building apartment housing, so the suburban growth that I saw as alarming even as a kid was also something my family’s well-being relied on. My father’s persistence in providing ingrained in me a lot of ideas about masculinity that I would later analyze in my practice. Without him, my work wouldn’t be what it is. And without my mother, my work wouldn’t exist at all. She was a stay-at-home mom who always encouraged creativity in the household—drawing, music, any form of expression. I don’t think I would have pursued photography if not for her and how she taught me to see the world.
HE: Does it require some effort to reconcile your Austin life, and your life as a wide-traveling artist, with the lives of your subjects? Does your life come into play as a subject of conversation when you are shooting?
BS: Yes, when I talk to people and want to gain trust, I have to be open and honest, so in conversations I’ll talk about myself and my life if it comes up, certainly. However, I tend to be the person asking more questions, since being inquisitive is an integral part of my process as a photographer. I’ve had no trouble making connections with people from different walks of life, and my subjects and I have a lot more in common than one might expect. You’re too polite to say it bluntly, but your question points to the frequent imbalance in class and access to opportunity between me and many of the people I photograph. I grappled with the ethics of this and haven’t found answers to the questions I ask myself, but I still make the work despite this complexity.
HE: Talk to me about your focus as an artist. The rural, the wild, the out-of-bounds, the hurt… These all seem to capture your attention. Why?
BS: I think this goes back to a prior question about my upbringing in Houston. The immensity of Houston with its sprawl and endless concrete made me want to escape, so when I first began photographing, I headed elsewhere. I took road trips into the mountains, wilderness and rural small towns. After the allure of the landscape wore off, I started looking around at the realities of people who lived there. I witnessed what agriculture and industry were doing to the environment. My romantic naivety soon died. The promise of America and what many ordinary people experience is at odds, and this is what I felt compelled to say something about.
HE: How do your subjects receive your finished work? Do they enjoy it? Do you stay in touch with them?
BS: I’m asked this question often, and I like to tell a story from when I first began photographing strangers. I met a guy who worked at a truckstop in Three Forks, Montana. We talked a little while, then I meticulously made his portrait on my large-format camera. Some weeks later I returned with the photo to show him, thinking it might affect him in some way, but all he said was, “Looks like me.” For people interested in art photography, we put a lot of gravity on these encounters and their results. But for the people I photograph, I think, on average, it’s not very important to them. (That said, I’ve had some very powerful experiences because of the camera—portrait sessions that end in hugs and tears—but that’s really rare.) While I try to identify with people and make human connections through photography, my sense is that in the eyes of my subjects, I’m usually just someone they’re being generous to for a little while. I come in and out of their lives like an appliance repairman.
HE: Who of your subjects across all your projects has moved you or impacted you the most?
BS: This is too difficult to answer since I’ve met so many people—all with unique stories and things to say. In the past couple years, something that has really stuck with me—and that says so much about America—is a story I heard from a young hitchhiker I met in Arizona. He had attempted suicide a couple years before our encounter. In a state of despondence and disarray, he sliced his neck, aiming to bleed to death. But the cut wasn’t deep enough. The young man passed out, and somebody miraculously came to his rescue while unconscious. Paramedics were dispatched. On the ride to the hospital, he flatlined. He died momentarily before they brought him back to life. This intense experience changed him. Upon healing, he found a new vision for his life and wanted everything to change. However, he was thrown into further disarray by a medical bill of $84,000 that was issued after his hospitalization for the suicide attempt. He told me that he would never have that kind of money for as long as he lived, so he hit the road to escape the debt and to get away from everything. He now lives on the highway, hitchhiking from town to town and sleeping outside or in abandoned roadside houses. He told me: “You know, being dead for that moment made me realize that I don’t want to die. Out here it ain’t so bad.” Despite the circumstances, he somehow held on.
HE: Does your work have a larger meaning?
BS: I like to think so. I hope so, at least.
HE: Who are you addressing through your work? Robert Frank is one of my favorite photographers, and he famously turned our eyes on ourselves via The Americans. I point to him because your work and his, to me, are in a vein. How does this sit with you?
BS: Oh man, The Americans isn’t a photobook about America, it’s the photobook about America. Frank was such an enormous figure in photo history that it’s difficult to make work without evidence of his influence, especially when dealing with subject matter like mine. And he’s on my mind often. His sense of poetry, social criticism and love is something to aspire to. If in your mind there’s any proximity between his work and mine, I’m cool with that.
Bryan Schutmaat is a Texas-based photographer whose work has been widely exhibited and published in the United States and abroad. He has won numerous awards, including the Aperture Portfolio Prize and an Aaron Siskind Fellowship. Bryan's photos can be found in many collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Baltimore Museum of Art and Pier 24 Photography.