In 2013 one of the most beautiful photo books that I have ever seen was released. The majestic Grays the Mountain Sends by Bryan Schutmaat. A study of blue collar working class communities in rural mid west America. It quietly announced itself as a classic, and proceeded to cast it’s spell over all those lucky enough to be able to acquire it. Everything about this book exuded quality. From the solid steel post binding, the choice of paper, and the inks chosen to highlight the star of the show, Bryan Schutmaat’s gloriously cinematic images. Even the title, taken from the poem Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg by Richard Hugo, enigmatic, wistful, melancholic, was a work of art.
Now, nearly five years later, quietly and without fanfare comes his second collection of original work. This time from Schutmaat’s own newly established publishing imprint Trespasser, and entitled simply, Good Goddamn.
Whether by chance or by design, once again Schutmaat has produced an elegiac study of jaded, fractured American masculinity. With Grays he focused on the hard working, world weary souls of the mining towns in the mid west of America. Towns and communities of yesteryear. Once booming and thriving on the success of the mining industry. Now shadows of their former selves, clinging to the present with an increasingly tenuous grip. Portraits and landscapes captured and committed to paper in delicate, subdued even faded, colour tones that perfectly complimented the mood of the piece.
Whilst Good Goddamn has a similar mood feel, thereafter the similarities start to soften.
The focus of Good Goddamn is a single figure. His name is Kris and he is in fact Schutmaat’s friend. We are told the pictures show his last days of freedom before being incarcerated. The nature of his crime not specified. The duration of his sentence unimportant. These are details that are irrelevant. The purpose of the book, it seems, is to heighten the realisation that the simple acts of choice that Kris – up until that point – would not have given a seconds thought to, are about to be denied him.
Unlike the muted colour pallet chosen for Grays, Good Goddamn is shot in black and white. The choice perfect for the reflective nature of the images. Pictures of the landscape, of home. of fun being had. Taking the truck out for one last blast around the fields. Hunting, drinking beer, sitting around a fire. Days with a friend, days full of simple nothingness… the happiest days. Then (for me at least) one image that reminds us why we have been invited here…..a hand pressed against a screen door, the face on the other side in silhouette. The outline of his cap….wisps of hair. A figure…anonymous…indisting
uishable… unreachable. A barrier…. him on one side us on the other, a hand reaching out, but no contact possible. This is where the fun stops.
The images implore us also to look at them with the same eyes, with his eyes, to realise that the simplest of pleasures are worth savouring. Take nothing for granted, anything done in the moment maybe done for the last time.
Then amongst the moments of reflection and farewell, a promise…a fire kept burning and the assurance of a waiting friend. In the book’s short coda written by Schutmaat, the cold beer and open door of a statement that would, no doubt be carried through the time spent away.
Good Goddamn is a consummate exercise in restraint. Printed on sumptuous superfine paper and bound in a plain black cover, secured by simple carton staples. The title loosely hand written across the front. it is as elegant and understated as Hepburn in shades. The content as perfect as a Carver short story, and as with Carver, there is no wastage here…no start and no end. Just a snapshot,…. a moment in the life of someone that is as ordinary and unexceptional as the rest of us. However as we all know, from a personal perspective even those unexceptional moments as viewed by those around, can be incidents of earth shattering importance to us.
To be both confident and talented enough to tell a story in twenty seven pictures are skills to be recognised and applauded. Each image to be studied and appreciated, each as important as the last. It goes without saying that this is the intention of every artist who presents their work for our consumption. However, many times the sheer volume of work contained between the covers of a book leaves heads spinning and turns an artist statement into an endurance test. How many times have I returned to a title to discover that I had missed a diamond of an image. Some may consider that a treat, but would a book make sense if we skipped the odd page or two…for whatever reason? In some instances,maybe, but would the author be happy to know that those precious words that would have been agonised over and placed for a reason, were being treated with such casual abandon.
Good Goddamn is another perfect moment from Bryan Schutmaat. It is also likely to be as coveted as his first book…. and just like the cherished time depicted between it’s covers, likely to disappear as fast.