“The American West is so vast – it feels to me like an infinite place from which to constantly draw subject matter and inspiration,” says Bryan Schutmaat. He’s the latest in a long line of photographers to have found a rich source of imagery in that rugged, majestic, myth-steeped region – a line which includes Ansel Adams and his sweeping landscapes, to Dorothea Lange and her urgent social documentary.
Texan-born Schutmaat is best known for his acclaimed photobook, Grays the Mountain Sends, which was published in 2013. Grays portrays the mountain towns and former mining communities of the West through melancholic portraits of weatherbeaten old timers and heart-stopping landscapes – all shot in large-format, the same format used by Adams and Lange. It’s a poetic, wistful hymn to hope lost in the wake of history.
Another book followed, Island of the Blest, co-edited with Ashlyn Davis, this time with pictures still of the West taken not by Schutmaat himself but by other photographers between the 1870s and 1970s, and drawn from public archives.
Now, between editorial assignments for clients such as Harper’s, Businessweek and the New York Times, Schutmaat is working on another project in the West – Vessels – about the hitchhikers who dot the desolate stretches of roads waiting for a ride.
“In the past in the States it was a thing where, if you were in your early 20s and you wanted an adventure, you’d pack your bag and go on the road – but now it’s not done so often,” he says.
“If you see someone by the road there’s a story there. These people come from all over the place and they’re attracted to the road, or thrust onto the road, for a variety of reasons. I like to hear about where they’re coming from, where they’re going to, what circumstances in life have led them to the road.”
Although his work reveals a fascination with rural life, Schutmaat wasn’t particularly outdoorsy himself, growing up in suburban Houston. His thing was skateboarding in the city and performing in punk bands, but in his 20s his interests broadened to include travel and taking pictures with a 35mm analogue camera. After a degree in History, he was set for a career as a high school History teacher, before a change of heart led him to a Masters in photography.
He discovered large-format while attending a course with photographer Richard Renaldi in 2009 at the International Centre for Photography, and he has predominantly photographed in 4×5 ever since. “There was something about the optics of a large-format camera that appealed to me,” he says. “Then for landscapes, just the clarity, the detail… it’s just so beautiful.”
Unlike some large-format devotees, for whom the painstaking process is part of the pleasure, Schutmaat has a different, perhaps more pragmatic, angle. “The cliché with large-format is that, because it’s so labour-intensive and so costly, there’s a certainty you bring to every frame. You don’t want to take a picture that you don’t think is going to work so you’re careful, there’s this meticulous quality that lots of large-format photographers have,” he says.
“I can’t say I have that entirely. Especially with landscape work, I’m most interested in light. Clearly the content, the narrative of the photo, the concept that’s being communicated is important but so often light is what ignites the photo, gives it interest. And light is very ephemeral. There are certain qualities of light that only last for a moment and then they’re gone. I sometimes lament the fact that I can’t take as many frames as I’d like, given the cost. I feel I’m missing opportunities.”
Nonetheless, he has no doubt it’s worth it. “I think there’s a certain aspect of large-format photography that’s romanticised when really it’s just a pain in the ass, but I’ll undergo that pain in the ass if it will get me where I want to go aesthetically,” he says.
“It renders everything much more beautifully. I’m not one of these people who’s so committed to film that they’d never go digital. I’d happily go digital if a digital camera could do what an analogue camera can. But it’s still not there – and I don’t think it ever will be. So by default I’ve become one of these film-forever snobs.”
Calling all film-forever snobs: The Intrepid Camera Co. is crowdfunding to produce an affordable 8×10 camera to accompany their wildly popular 4×5.
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Sponsored by Intrepid Camera Co.: This feature was made possible with the support of Intrepid Camera Co. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.