“You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill 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.”
– Richard Hugo, Extract from Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg
Set in the Rocky Mountains of Mid West America, Grays the Mountain Sends by Bryan Schutmaat feels more like a poem than photo series. Which is ironic, as the title of this work comes from the poem Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg by Richard Hugo.
There is a beat and rhythm to Schutmaats work, with Grays feeling like its playing notes from a country song that gently play on loop as you make your way through the book. To avoid knee slapping as the song and story develops, Schutmaat places both the reality of what these communities have now become against the hopes and dreams of its occupants in less of a documented way and more of a mediation on the history and cultural significance of the Mid West.
These small working class towns are very much stuck in time. From the interiors of people’s homes to the look of the local bar, time has been stilled here. But with time coming to a stop, so has the town’s prospects of a returning to its once flourishing state as a mining community.
We get a strong idea of how long these men have worked the land, not only from the furnishing and aesthetics of the landscape itself, but from the worn and weary faces Schutmaat has so wonderfully captured. Tiresome looks and a sense of longing occupy Grays The Mountain Sends. Not only from those who have spent most of their adult lives in the shadow of the mountains, but the next generation that have found themselves cut off from a regular life, now following in their forefathers footsteps. You can’t but help feel the itching to get away in some of Schutmaat’s portraits, that the land has offered all it can. But life continues within the Rocky Mountains, and amongst the rubble, empty buildings, cars left abandoned in the middle of nowhere and little metal shacks that look up at the mountains beyond, there is life here. And it’s a life that comes across as being honest, hard working and tough. Its important to mention how male dominated Schutmaat’s work is. Much like the environment he is shooting in, these mining towns were typically made up of mostly men. A woman makes an appearance, but more as a poetic fleeting which has jumped straight out of Richard Hugo’s poem than a main character in this story of the mythology of the old west.
With those who occupy the landscape aside, what Schutmaat presents to us are jaw dropping scenes of natural beauty. But this beauty isn’t one we are comfortable with. We are weary, cautious of what winds of change may rumble down from the Rocky Mountains. A sombre and more emotionally charged landscape is presented to us than what we expect, projecting the thoughts and feelings of the locals back onto the landscape. There is a bleakness and calm to all the natural beauty, a clear understanding that the mining community have a huge amount of respect for the land they work on. There are hints and nudges of mans failed attempt to leave its permanent mark on the land, broken signs, falling down shacks. This is all due to the economical and financial state these rural towns found themselves in, almost to say that
One photograph in particular stopped me in my tracks as I worked my way through the book. An image of a graveyard, simple wooden gravestones and crosses look to a pink and orange mountain, glowing in the evening’s sun. Overlooking the graveyard, are static caravans, a strange view to choose given the wide opened space, but the graveyard acts as a middle point between where man meets land, and when the land takes over. Our own morality is questioned within Grays the Mountain Sends, and the question on whether these people can continue to suffer the blows of a slowly declining landscape is left hanging in the balance.
Grays The Mountain Sends can be purchased here.
Harry Rose graduated in 2014 from University of South Wales, where he studied Photographic Art. With a focus on writing about photography more than taking his own photographs, Harry writes for Darwin Magazine which he co-founded.