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Book Review: Grays the Mountain Sends


Book Review Grays the Mountain Sends By Bryan Schutmaat Reviewed by Sarah Bradley I frequently find myself explaining to people what I do. I tell them I work at a photobook store, that I write and edit writing about photobooks, and then almost inevitably, I explain what I mean by photobook. After outlining the idea of a fine art monograph, the description can go on to include what I like in a photobook.

Grays the Mountain Sends. By Bryan Schutmaat.
Silas Finch, 2014.
 
Grays the Mountain Sends
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley

Grays the Mountain Sends (Second Edition)
Photographs by Bryan Schutmaat.
Silas Finch, 2014. 102 pp., 42 color illustrations, 11½x13½".


I frequently find myself explaining to people what I do. I tell them I work at a photobook store, that I write and edit writing about photobooks, and then almost inevitably, I explain what I mean by photobook. After outlining the idea of a fine art monograph, the description can go on to include what I like in a photobook. My favorites are often those that are discrete, self-contained works of art, objects that live with the turn of the pages, considered and designed cover to cover, executed in such a way that they stand alone. These are the books that I like best, and Bryan Schutmaat’s Grays the Mountain Sends is that kind of book.

I entirely missed Grays in its first edition. It first came out in the fall of 2013 and disappeared shortly thereafter. This second edition presents again the unique design with its characteristic steel screw post spine and fine printing on fine paper, reportedly differing only in a subtraction and addition of an image. The photographs move between landscapes, portraits and interiors with the title taking its name from a line in the Richard Hugo poem Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg. We are immediately confronted with the ruinous aspect of a mine, a scene at once breathtaking for the ingenuity of the systematic disassembling of the mountain that it depicts and the abstract beauty of this horrible human composition. While all of the landscapes bear the scars of mankind’s conquest, they are persistent in their magnificence: a decaying car and ramshackle cabin with the postcard mountain-view; the eye-boggling depth of the hilly town pock-marked with rusted-out vehicles, buildings and trash; the old bridge spanning a swiftly-moving river, softly yet insistently alive with blur.

Grays the Mountain Sends. By Bryan SchutmaatSilas Finch, 2014.

The landscapes are photographed with palpable care similar to the portraiture in the book — I’m not sure when I last saw portraits of men shot this tenderly. The shallow focus delicately captures the grace of these rough faces, weary eyes and stubbled chins. They are unexpectedly beautiful. We catch a faint smile, a far-away gaze or hardness in the eyes. Some men look broken, others only close to it. A few shots depict the young and hopeful, though they exist in a liminal state, seeming both at home and out of place. It’s difficult to imagine a future for these young men within this landscape; perhaps it belongs to no one.

Grays the Mountain Sends. By Bryan SchutmaatSilas Finch, 2014.

These men are characters that presumably once filled the unpopulated interiors that are pictured, rank with decaying traces of occupation. Nothing is new; dreams of the landscape, the promise of that western majesty hang on walls as faded posters, a figurine or a taxidermy creature, disregarded or kept pristine, encapsulated in a bubble, dead-eyed, peering outward. Idealized versions of the world that supposedly surrounds them, they are revelatory of ingrained desire, yet unmatched by the reality presented in these images. Throughout all, Schutmaat’s photographs retain a tonal uniformity, beginning in hue and extending through metaphoric interpretation.

Grays the Mountain Sends. By Bryan SchutmaatSilas Finch, 2014.

Have I mentioned that there are only two depictions of women in this book? One is on a television set; the other, with her back turned, a cascade of red hair falling down her shoulders, is a direct link to the last line of the Hugo poem of the title. Grays is without question an addition to the romanticism of the American male identity, now injured, in decline, worn ragged; all victims of a masculine lineage of short-sighted ideals that were good for no one. One could not be blamed for feeling a bit of sad-man-portrait fatigue, or that it is another eulogy for traditional American masculinity, a concept as grandiose as that of the West itself. Even so, the issues of personal identity and those of place are inevitably intertwined, and Grays’ depictions also speak to the shifting American dream, the legacy of Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, a gendered environment wrought by men. It fits into a broader, inter-disciplinary realm of literature on the American West. But all of this is quite obvious, poetically rendered and visually readable. And while Grays is all of these things, it is also something else, and it’s that other thing that catches me. People connect with this book quickly. It does what it does very well.


Grays the Mountain Sends. By Bryan SchutmaatSilas Finch, 2014.

This is the part where I confess that I have no description for what the book is doing other than this: Grays doesn't feel like a photobook, it feels like poetry. The book’s proximity to poetry is well-established, and not simply because of the title; it’s a term that has appeared in every review, essay and interview I’ve read on the work and surely its success feels more reliant on notions of poetic structure than photographic narrative. Echoing the Hugo poem, Schutmaat’s book replicates its rhythms of movement inward and outward, conflating the two, the interior/exterior becoming so integral to the narrative of self as to be indistinguishable. The precision of the edit is also apparent, adding poetic texture. Not a single image feels out of place. We don’t see women, not because Schutmaat didn’t photograph them; ultimately, they didn’t make the edit, but instead of feeling like an oversight, their absence is intentional and communicative, affording the missing women a subtle yet powerful visibility due to the impossibility of ignoring their omission.

Grays the Mountain Sends. By Bryan SchutmaatSilas Finch, 2014.

If it were positioned as a documentary project, if there was something didactic in its storytelling, the focus on American male identity might become overwhelming, but it isn’t. Rather, with Grays the Mountain Sends, Schutmaat has captured something that may be largely intangible, and assembled it to feel like more than the sum of its parts. It is a topic best described in a series of short prose or verse — or in this case, photographs, carefully arranged and secretly metered, a photographic chap book hinged in metal.—SARAH BRADLEY

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SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. Some of her work can be found on her website sebradley.com.

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