Sitting at a Big Star Bar picnic table and talking over beers with Bryan Schutmaat, Art Attack realizes that time is just absolutely flying past us. Here we are a mere 30 minutes into the interview, and we feel like we could chat with Bryan indefinitely about anything and everything, but mostly photography.
Schutmaat is the recipient of the 2011 Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship from the Houston Center for Photography, and his show at the institution opens this evening. Entitled Grays The Mountain Sends - a line from Richard Hugo's "Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg" - the collection of ten photographs comes from a series Schutmaat is shooting in the Rocky Mountains, currently still in progress.
Technically still a resident of Houston, Bryan found himself in Bozeman, Montana, where his girlfriend is attending school. As such, Bozeman has been his base of operations for this series. "Butte, Montana is really what started the project," he declares. "It's only an hour away from my front door. It's faded. It's a town where you can really sense the history..."
"I was investigating what other people had done in Montana," Schutmaat explains as we discuss the title of the exhibition, "because that's where I found myself. I've always had an affinity for the West. I think there's a big difference between what [Hugo]'s communicating in the poem and what I'm communicating in the pictures. The poem is kind of bitter, and I think the pictures are a lot more tender than his words."
Schutmaat himself has a bit of tenderness to his appearance - a towering, bearded figure, his striking images from mining territory seem wonderfully apropos, shot on Portra film with his bulky 4x5 camera. The photographs carry a depth that plunges beyond the simple surface image, implying a weighty - although not necessarily heavy-laden - tale hidden within their subjects. "I think it's really disarming, it's kind of a trust builder," he says of the cumbersome camera, and when discussing his photos, "I'm just more concentrated on these personal experiences, these intimate portraits - stuff that's a little more heartfelt." It certainly shows in the scenes on display.
In the midst of our dialogue about cameras, photography, and the need to create, Schutmaat is delightfully honest, and even a bit self-deprecating. "It's all really new (work); I feel weird about showing it, actually," he admits with a nervous hesitation. The body of work features landscapes and interiors as well, but is his first concentrated foray into portraiture. "One of my instructors, Alec Soth, says a good portrait is like a pop song - you can't say why (it's good)," he relays. Schutmaat's hopes for this new work are simple: "I just want to relay the experiences of these people that I meet; they are really extraordinary 'ordinary people.'"
There's no agenda, no political message tucked within this work - just an honest desire to depict. In fact, when we ask Bryan why the work is important, he replies, "I don't know that it is - I don't know that any photography really is." These are curious words for a photographer, but as he elaborates we understand his sentiment.
"Photography is really unimportant in the grand scheme of things. If you really want to help the world, or if you really want to say something of great significance - I don't know if photography is the greatest way to do that," he adds.
"Photography is fun," Bryan continues, "and it's interesting and beautiful, and I totally think it makes the world a better place - I'm absolutely convinced of that. It's part of this big fire that's burning that makes life interesting and worth living."
"If you're going to quote me on that, let me read it first so I can make sure I don't sound like a jerk," Schutmaat says quickly afterward. Ripped out of context, the quotes might lend a reader to believe such is the case, but in truth Bryan is rather honestly proffering an opinion that most lensmen wouldn't dare utter. It's a refreshing take that doesn't detract from the beauty of the work Schutmaat is creating. Rather, it gives the work an almost temporal immediacy, bolstering its significance.
As our chat begins to dissolve into matters of less importance and another round of beer is procured, we inquire as to why Bryan began making photographs in the first place. He sighs and exhales briskly, shaking his head and declaring, "Whatever it was that started me - I can't pinpoint that."
"But now, I take pictures because I have to; it's a curse, a virus. Once you start thinking like a photographer, you won't stop," he reveals - a conundrum that resonates deep within our soul.
"It just makes your life better, just like anything," Bryan says in grand summation. "These simple felicities you get from drinking a cold beer, or playing a sport you like, or having sex. It just makes your life better - photography totally has the capacity to make one's life better."
We couldn't agree more.
Bryan Schutmaat's Grays The Mountain Sends is on display at the Houston Center for Photography (1441 West Alabama) now through June 19, 2011. An opening reception will be held tonight at 6:30 p.m., with a talk by the artist at 5:30 p.m.