The history of the colonial West is closely tied to the history of early American photography, as 19th-century settlers sought to construct a visual narrative around what they considered the “untamed” land, therefore legitimizing its occupation. Almost 200 years later, Bryan Schutmaat’s exhibition River Sun, on view through February 4, features a contemporary take on landscape and portrait photography of the American West. Schutmaat’s images, taken between 2011 and 2021, not only represent the region’s remarkable landscapes and its inhabitants with a keenly poetic eye, but also prompt viewers to reflect on the tensions that define our relationship to the land.
River Sun features large-format, analog photographs from several series of images taken across the Southwest. Among them, Grays the Mountain Sends captures the afterlives of once-booming mining towns that were later devastated by shifting economic, political, and technological tides. One of three photographs on view from the series, Gold Mine (2011) depicts the striated façade of a mountain carved up with roadways where vehicles were used to transport mined materials. In the image, however, no sign of human life or industrial activity is visible. Instead, the pathways are blanketed with a fresh coat of undisturbed white snow. The work forefronts the longevity of the landscape: human activity may boom or bust, but the integrity of the mountain endures. The land no longer expresses the promise of an expansionist project, but rather a kind of stolid indifference to the vicissitudes of humanity.
Schutmaat’s landscapes are presented alongside solemn images of the built environment that encourage viewers to consider industrial form but also to grapple with the social and economic legacy of industry. Bins (2020) depicts a towering series of six cylindrical, metal grain bins with long chutes coalescing at the top of the frame. Rendering the scene in black and white, Schutmaat’s straightforward presentation encourages sustained contemplation of the aesthetic and structural qualities of these objects in a way that recalls the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Gas Sign (1983), on the other hand, reveals more about the historical conditions of the moment the photograph was taken. A “GAS” sign, with the “A” and the “S” hollowed out due to years of neglect, stands in an empty field in the center of the frame. The gas station is long gone. The sweeping landscapes taken by photographers such as Carlton Watkins and Alvin Coburn have almost come full circle. These images are testaments to the failed state of industrial and agricultural labor in the United States.
One of the most striking features of the exhibition is the collection of portraits that deny viewers access to the subjects’ faces, complicating humanist tropes of a photographic tradition that includes Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. Kris #3 and Kris #4 (both 2017), find the subject in various states of remove from the viewer. In the first work, a man in a dirtied white t-shirt lies in a field with one arm draped over his face and the other holding a beer; and in the second, the subject stands on the opposite side of a screen door, his hand pressed against it. Rather than rely on the expressive, often sentimental power of a subject’s face, Schutmaat attunes viewers to how the body interacts with the environment and with the photographer’s intervention.