Grays the Mountain Sends: A Photographic Study of American Mining Towns

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Bryan Schutmaat
"Abandoned Homestead, Red Mountain Mining District, Colorado," 2011, from Bryan Schutmaat's series "Grays the Mountain Sends." Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Bryan Schutmaat’s series “Grays the Mountain Sends” documents a constellation of fading mining towns in and around the Rocky Mountains through still lifes, portraiture and landscapes. Schutmaat calls the project “a meditation on small-town life, the landscape and more importantly, the inner landscapes of common men.”

The images are simple, unadorned: ice and snow grip a winding road cut into a terraced mountainside; a young man stands alone in a field, prairie grass flattened by the wind, his clothes neat, hair combed, a baseball cap in one hand; an abandoned pickup truck succumbs to the forest, weeds claiming its tires, leaves covering the crumpled hood—it lists like a foundering boat. This is quiet work that inspires contemplation. Every photograph invites further study, another angle, letting the viewer reach into the stillness and attempt to fill in the story.

“I’ve always felt an affinity for the West—the mountains, the grandeur, its mythic history and so on,” Schutmaat explains. “In 2010 I found myself living for a while in Bozeman, Montana, and I got interested in the surrounding towns … After shooting for a little while in Butte, Montana—an amazing mining town that got my creative energy going—I began traveling to small towns all over the West in search of faces and scenes that resonated emotionally with me.”

Schutmaat shot the series from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2012, focusing on mining towns. He had a narrative in mind, something about Manifest Destiny, masculinity and the idea of the American West, but tried to “let the photos guide” him. Schutmaat chose an excerpt from the Richard Hugo poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” for his project’s title because the Hugo work suggests “the interplay between human emotion and our surrounding environments.” In his photographs Schutmaat also alludes to Hugo’s penchant for using the outside world as a metaphor for the inner life of man.

In one of Schutmaat’s portraits we see a bearded man sitting on a dirt embankment, open land stretching behind him, a mountain range soft in the distance. Wearing sharp, dark blue jeans and a slightly faded checkered shirt, he sits arms crossed, legs drawn up, almost folded into himself as if leaning forward to hear someone whisper in one ear. The man is looking at something outside the frame, but he’s not seeing; his gaze is inward.

In another image a lone house sits in a clearing on the side of a hill, the remains of its gravel driveway fighting a losing battle against the scrubby grass. The house, with its peeling paint and mismatched roof, seems impossibly fragile, poised on the edge of a precipice from which it will surely tumble. The scavenged remains of a motor vehicle lie in a heap further up the driveway, a windblown scattering of bleached bones.

The people who populate—as sparsely as they do these vast stretches of America—“Grays the Mountain Sends” are almost entirely depicted alone, a decision Schutmaat made in the editing room. He had shot photographs of people in groups, but once he was able to look at the project as a whole, those images just didn’t fit. “In many ways this work is about loneliness, isolation and social neglect,” Schutmaat explains. “Photos of men who are alone also call to mind the masculine notion of rugged individualism that was ingrained in the mentality that founded the West.”

Schutmaat thinks of his editing approach in musical terms. “It’s like a troubadour’s ballad, I suppose. Within the series, the individual photos are like musical notes with snippets of lyrical content. The photos that are dissonant notes have to be omitted. And the photos that have immaterial lyrical content need to be omitted as well.” He admits that this meant some great photos didn’t make the cut and sometimes a lesser photo did because of the note it struck.

Many photographers in recent years have depicted the decay of once-bustling American towns. Schutmaat acknowledges that “a blurb-style description of this project probably wouldn’t excite people too much.” But there is an uncommon depth to his work, and its ability to “move people,” he says, is ultimately more important than the concept, “especially if that concept is for the mere sake of newness.”

Schutmaat has taken a subject that, in the hands of most, would yield nothing more than familiar cliches, and somehow made us see it with fresh eyes. In “Grays the Mountain Sends” we see images of solitude and impermanence that vibrate along their own frequency, full of a hidden energy.

Related Article:

Bryan Schutmaat Photo Gallery


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