Bryan Schutmaat likes to roam. From Colorado mining towns to sun-soaked deserts, Schutmaat has photographed great swaths of the American West in his gritty, expansive, award-winning projects.
Earlier this year he won a Guggenheim Fellowship for his ongoing study of the travelers, hitchhikers, and drifters of the Southwest. Like his subjects, Schutmaat has a knack for moving, and capturing the people and places he encounters along the way. But what happens when the artist can no longer travel?
“County Road” is Schutmaat’s newest, quickest, and closest project yet, and it is currently on view at Lora Reynolds Gallery. Created during the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak, the black and white photo series captures scenes along the rural routes between Austin — where the artist currently lives — and Leon County, the site of Schutmaat’s family farm. Although his previous projects take on the American spirit in all its vast, fraught facets, “County Road” is a quieter, more intimate look at the backroads of Schutmaat’s memory, and the workings of his (mostly) confined mind.
Lauren Moya Ford: So much of your work is made on the road, and this latest project is no exception. Your pictures take the viewer to places that are hard to get to, and you’ve talked about the role ‘trespassing’ in your process. But this is the first time you’ve photographed during a global pandemic. How did your relationship to work travel change during lockdown?
Bryan Schutmaat: It’s funny, even though this project has ‘road’ in its title and was made by driving around Texas, I don’t think of it as a road project. This is probably because all of the subject matter was relatively close to home, and I had traversed these parts of the state many times before, so it was all familiar to me. During work on “County Road,” each night I returned to my own bed, whereas in my normal work on the road out West, I sleep in my tent in the middle of nowhere or in faraway motel rooms. That’s how I typically shoot, and my senses tend to be more agile when I’m out there. During the early days of the pandemic, travel was highly discouraged. I’ve been working on a project off and on for several years that’s set on Southwestern desert highways, but COVID-19 postponed these efforts. A lot of the people I photograph on the road are from vulnerable parts of the population, and they might not have access to healthcare or assistance if they were to get sick, so to be in close proximity to them would be unethical. Like everyone during lockdown, I was at home most of the time, waiting out this global setback and reading the news with consternation. And like others, I was eager to get outside when possible — to exercise, breathe fresh air, see some greenery. Getting lost on dirt roads and taking pictures outside Austin was my way to break the monotony of indoor activity. It was a diversion that led to the exhibition.
LMF: In the case of “County Road” and previous roving projects, how do you know when to stop the car to photograph something?
BS: When I’m out shooting, there’s very little conscious reasoning for my decisions, so don’t have a good answer for this question. When I see something that moves me, I pull over to give it a closer look and maybe I’ll take photos, but I can rarely articulate why any given subject matter moves me. That said, houses are a longstanding photographic trope, so if I see a good house, I’ll usually stop the car.
LMF: I’ve just moved back to Austin after five years of living abroad. The places in your photographs – all taken within a couple hours’ drive from here – strike me as familiar, but also foreign. Central Texas has a pretty particular color palette, so I think it’s partly because “County Road” is in black and white. What’s the role of color here (or lack thereof)?
BS: I knew the work would be in black and white from the outset, so I didn’t consider color very much at all. But I think you’re correct to say that Central Texas has a particular palette, especially in the spring as wildflowers emerge and the trees and fields become stunningly green. I don’t think I could have made color pictures in this place and time without the work being too syrupy, plus vivid color would seem incongruous in relation to the general mood and anxious feelings during this time. Many of the pictures in County Road are of nature. I usually favor photos of the natural world that are beautiful yet also ambiguous or even foreboding at times — photos that are simultaneously about the comfort nature brings as well as its total indifference to human struggle. I also thought that black and white and some of the low light tones I captured would help to convey this emotional duality.
LMF: Your previous projects have featured penetrating portraits of the people who inhabit the place you’re photographing. I’m guessing that you didn’t do that for this series because of health and safety concerns. How did the lack of an obvious human element impact the way the project evolved?
BS: Portraiture — finding people, making connections, and taking the photos — tends to take up a lot more time and energy than landscapes, so the exclusion of people made things easier in terms of logistics. However, doing work without human subjects also saddened me a bit. Throughout the pandemic, I think everyone has really realized that the significance of human connection can’t be underestimated. Online video calls, for instance, are no substitute for face to face human connection. We all need that, and hopefully most of us get what we need from our loved ones. But this need is also partly met at work, whether that’s friendly conversation with colleagues at the office or a sense of community when a retailer engages with her customers or a shared purpose when workers build something alongside one another. We get a lot from work beyond a paycheck. Often for me, the social fulfillment in my work life comes from meeting and talking to strangers, sharing stories, exchanging experiences, and basically just using photography as a way to exercise love for fellow people. I haven’t gotten to do this much in 2020, and I miss it.
LMF: In past series you’ve also used a large format camera to capture wide, surveying views. But in “County Road” the scale shrinks. You seem to focus on individual characters in nature, many of them caught in motion: blooming flowers, flowing creeks, swaying grasses. What drew you to nature during this project?
BS: Initially, I was drawn to nature in search of respite. On backroads among the meadows and trees, you can find a small world that doesn’t feel as if it’s in turmoil, which was relieving, if only for a moment. In my work, I’ve always liked to measure humankind against the vastness of the natural world and its scale of time. It brings us down to size and offers perspective. At risk of sounding cheesy, I’ll quote Hal Borlad: “Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” These seem important lessons when we’re collectively trying to make it through a hard time.
I also think the shift of scale in my photographic approach has something to do with a practical adjustment to the local geography. In my large format work in the desert and mountain west, there are grand vistas, striking geology, and endless plains — subject matter that is frankly in short supply in Central Texas, where a of sense distance and the vastness of the horizon isn’t as prominent, so to make interesting pictures, you have to change focus and get closer. I paid more attention to the shape of things nearer to my lens, not in the distance but more so beneath my nose. It also helped that I used a small format hand camera rather than a 4×5 view camera. I could stick the camera in the grass at ankle height and experiment a little more.
LMF: In your Open Curtain podcast interview, you talk about being a slower creative mind, like Leonard Cohen. This was your fastest project yet, made at a moment when COVID-19 seems to slow time for many people. Can you tell me more about your understanding of time and pacing within your photographic process?
BS: It seems like the division between my modes of working out West with large format versus nearby with a small camera is becoming a theme in my replies! When I said about working slow like Leonard Cohen, I was referring to my large format work out West. With that work, I tend to be slow as hell. I only take a couple trips per year, then I sit on the negatives for a while before evaluating the images and figuring out how they fit into the larger body of work. Suffice it to say that the more time I have the better it is for me. As this work bakes, in the meantime, I feel a need to produce something closer to home — just to shoot more freely and to get what’s inside of me out. In 2017, for instance, I made a project about my friend Kris called ‘Good Goddamn.’ I shot the photos over the course of a few days and produced a book without much ado or deliberation. I think of ‘County Road’ as somewhat of a sequel or continuation of ‘Good Goddamn.’ It’s cathartic work and less sociopolitical than my documentary work on the road. For these projects I’ve talked in the past about John Cassavetes being an influence. He seemed to make movies somewhat impulsively, relying often on the process of filmmaking itself to find their meaning. Perhaps during COVID-19, it’s a good time to be creative in the spirit of Cassavetes, not just because creativity helps us in dark times but because everyone looks at this stretch of time as somewhat of a waste, and even though everyone is putting pressure on themselves to finish their novels or artistic pursuits. At the end of this all, just getting through it in one piece will be enough, so it’s great time to take risks and make work and express whatever one needs to
“Bryan Schutmaat: County Road” is on view at Lora Reynolds Gallery through Nov. 7.