“In very broad terms, it seems that the work made in the West during the 20th century portrays a prolonged event – a disaster, you could say – that unfolded as modernity overtook the landscape and ideologies were instilled in American culture”.
Editor’s Note: Bryan and I passed this interview back forth over 2019 due to scheduling and I think the result is much more fresh for it. I was able to find out about plans that are hatching currently and the general condition of the concepts we explored from rurality, toxicity, and the American West are more and more pertinent. I have to say that I am very impressed with Bryan’s answers, work ethic and general sense of propriety about his work. It’s often taken for granted that artists easily speak about their practice. This is not the case I can assure you.
BF: I really want to open this discussion with a question about your work that pertains to its and your geography. Namely, I want to ask you about the re-envisioning of the American West that seems to be occurring presently in your work and the work of others. Sam Contis, Matthew Genitempo and a few others are looking at the West with newer younger eyes. I do not hesitate to infer that there might be a more romantic look at the West than the way previous generations of the 70s in particular viewed it. I feel there was a certain wariness or skepticism in works by Lewis Baltz and even Robert Adams, despite the latters own form of romanticism. I am sorry to use the word “generation” as to do so kind of puts the work from varied hands and eyes into a conundrum of a misshapen agreement if I am not careful.
I posit that there are themes that are occurring which place the locality of the new west towards an indexical approach. If you think about the 1970s and 80s, you had a different group making images absorbed with the way in which post-industrial modernity was changing the western landscape. Mark Klett, Mark Ruwedel, Richard Misrach, John Divola, and Susan Lipper to a degree exemplified a methodology which questioned the motives of expansion, terraformation and urban sprawl. Lewis Baltz, but also the weird Suburbia of Bill Owens and these are just a few of the people previously who had or are still in the case of Divola and Misrach are working in the area and with these tropes whether dis-used military bases in the case of Divola or the Wall as it relates to Misrach. The frontierism of previous examinations has seemingly given way to an even more hesitant referral to the politiczed landscape. You certainly see that also in the recent work by Lipper with Domesticated Landscapes in which gender, militirzation and an unusual fantasy become part of the larger discussion regarding the west. How do you think the image-makers of now are focusing on the West given the politics and economics of our times?
BS: Man, it’s tough to say. You mentioned varied eyes and hands, and yes, the photographers, their concerns and approaches may differ too greatly for me to answer your question with much accuracy. Topics run the gamut – ecology, agriculture, indigenous people, gender, poverty, public lands, and so on – but for me and for most photographers working in the West, whatever the subject matter, our photos tend to respond to one or more of a few key ingredients: the mystique of the West, its mythic promise of prosperity, and how it has been historically represented. Using this backdrop for broader concerns – whether social, political, economic, etc – heightens criticism given that the mythos of the West is so entwined with American exceptionalism and ideas about freedom and opportunity and so on. I think you’re right to point out what you see as “locality towards index.”
In very broad terms, it seems that the work made in the West during the 20th century portrays a prolonged event – a disaster, you could say – that unfolded as modernity overtook the landscape and ideologies were instilled in American culture. Photographers currently shooting in the region are looking back at the mess, trying to make sense of the world we now inhabit. In this context, I see my work as somewhat of an elegy, so maybe it’s that plaintive point of view that accounts for the romance you noted, at least in the case of my projects. Disaster continues, new issues come into the fold, people endure, and there’s much more to say. A question continues to arise: how does the reality of today measure up to the promise of the West and its related consequences? I think every generation of serious photographers working here tries to answer this.
BF: This certainly sums up the answer I was hoping for-the idea of failure, the promises given, taken away and now its examination with so many variables-ecology is just one that I think we can agree poses a grave representational disorder when it comes to the “futurisms” of the American West with lakes drying out and water becoming a huge concern amongst many other issues.
The second question I wanted to propose to you in a similar, but slightly different way and its something that I brought up with my review of Jasper by Matthew Genitempo, which is the focus not only on the West, but a new rurality in general. There are a few people that seem to have ditched the urban environment of the Twentieth Century, almost hard-nosed in the pursuit to retreat from it. Tim Carpenter is another member of the new church of rurality that I am thinking of. I have laid out my theory about the price of housing in cities and the general drive of mega-centers of populations being unsustainable for creative types and industries in general, but perhaps I am missing other angles. I realize you are from Texas and that Texas, though not a rural certainly as it has these megacenters of populations between Houston, Austim, etc. also has vast expanses of land that qualify. Do you see a movement happening? Do feel drawn to making work like Good Goddam specifically because of what the geography is not?
BS: Yes, I think a trend is occurring, and yes, I’d say I choose my subject matter based on what the geography is not, as you put it. I shot Good Goddamn when I was living out in the country in Leon County, Texas, and I wouldn’t have done that project had I not strayed from the city for a while. For my ongoing project, I could photograph the issues I want to address in the city, yet I always finding myself driving out to the middle of nowhere in the desert. To relate this to your first question, I think photographers in the 20th century were witnessing the landscape change so quickly and radically that they were compelled to document what was happening by a sense of moral urgency. Robert Adams, for instance, photographed Denver’s new urban sprawl to object to the growth and commercial development he considered destructive. It was timely, and though I wasn’t around during that era, I assume that subject matter felt fresh, unfamiliar, even strange. By the time I came of age in the 2000s, the battle was over and the highly altered landscape was the norm. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and despite having spent much of my youth on outings to the country, I was mainly surrounded by parking lots, ugly houses, billboards, shopping centers, and so on. When I began photography, I didn’t want to engage with that. I wanted to escape it, so I set my lens on rural areas. Considering how much of America has been transformed into a homogenized corporate landscape, there’s little surprise that photographers of my generation, who were born into such an environment, are making their way off the beaten path.
“I could photograph the issues I want to address in the city, yet I always finding myself driving out to the middle of nowhere in the desert. To relate this to your first question, I think photographers in the 20th century were witnessing the landscape change so quickly and radically that they were compelled to document what was happening by a sense of moral urgency”.
BF: Yes, perhaps it is a sub-conscious refutation of corporate America’s greed, fast credit and inhuman conditions. I also think that if you were a child of the 80s or perhaps 90s in your case, the tendency to challenge those promises of video arcades, malls, and Saturday morning cartoons represent a natural inclination to speak on the disorder of the imperial American economy in the last years of its credit-enabled hay days. The landscape is certainly an image to question. In the 1920s, it was conceivable that our main concern within modernity’s clutch was to harness the effort of the landscape, to build dams, put people to work in the WPA 1930s, but the core solution to its value was not perhaps the strip-malling of its vista, but rather to tender as Teddy Roosevelt did a salutation to the beauty of the West by creating parks and vast swathes of natural land that was to be protected. We struggle with the idea of protecting our only life-sustaining resources in the quest for “progress”. This is of course, not an American trait, per se.
Good Goddamn is now in its second edition and includes quite a tough letter (expertly reprinted) from your buddy Kris who went to prison. The premise of the book is that you kind of gave him a sending off which worked out to shooting guns, driving trucks and sinking some beers. With that, there is a certain amount of male bravado, masculinity implied etc. Though the subject matter is pretty dear and close to the heart it seems, that its tenderness kind of takes those trademark traits of implied manhood and though not overly subversive, somehow turns them a bit on their head. How conscious are you when working on this or other projects in the terrain of the American West of its en-gendered male history and how difficult or easy is it to destroy or enable these stereotypes presently when there is a heavy focus on the “problematic” side of being a man?
BS: A focus on men has been consistent in most of my work, and over the years I’ve grown increasingly conscious of the issues you raise. So far, all my books both celebrate and criticize American masculinity. I find myself oscillating in some ways.
In Good Goddamn, I didn’t intend to amplify any stereotypes, but I do understand that I portrayed Kris in a certain light. To an extent, his heightened masculinity and his rough and rowdy cowboy persona is why I love the guy and what makes him fun to be around – always cracking me up and raising hell (in a good way). But it’s also his rough and rowdy cowboy persona that made him prone to recklessness and landed him behind bars, so it’s a complicated issue. Still, in our current climate, I tend to be leery of judgmental views and the growing confusion between masculinity and “toxic masculinity.” There’s a gradation in the toxicity of manly activities, and most are innocuous. When I photograph Kris with his beer, gun, and truck, I’m not trying to highlight “problematic” behavior.
Later in the book, however, I do become critical by including a photo of a coyote Kris killed and hung on a fence. In parts of Texas, stringing up dead coyotes on property lines is a common practice believed to ward off predators from harming livestock. I take exception to the act, which I see as senseless aggression (invariably performed by males). I show the picture hoping to sketch a setting for the viewer that describes the forces that have shaped Kris. It’s the world he knows. There’s room to be critical of aspects of masculinity and its pitfalls, but again, there are other performances of manhood that aren’t objectionable. Crushing beers, shooting a rifle, and off-roading may seem like toxic male bravado, but these are largely harmless activities that offer Kris small joy and a sense of freedom, especially when the social and economic world around him looks bleak. When these expressions of freedom are carried out in the days before a five-year prison sentence, I think they take on a new, emotionally-charged meaning. With this, perhaps I am trying to break down stereotypes. Behind the persona created by someone like Kris and beyond the caricature of rural white men that society has perpetuated, there are actual human beings with complex emotions and burdens. You could say I want to show the Marlboro Man type of figure when he’s not heroic, in a more complicated state, sometimes even in times of sadness and pain.
BF: I just want to be clear, I do not believe in toxic masculinity, I believe in toxic humanism in so much is that masculinity and femininity can both be a toxic trait, therefore rendering its role to only the masculine is insincere and unequal. As a man, I have come to abhor the divisions that are being created on these terms. I think we exist in anxiety-ridden bubble in which any tribal identity or castigation of another is used to justify fear, expand hierarchy and create confuses and division which is actually the opponent of a civilization that believes in equality on all terms. Masculinity is often shuttered or boxed now as something to be thought of as a threat, and perhaps that is due in large part to a historical analysis of competition and genetic longetivity towards traits and characteristics that are problematic, but I sense that if one is to see through this and to bridge any past wrongs with the men of now, we need to target less and converse more. I am digressing a bit, but I wanted to say unequivocally, that I did not want to paint you or Kris into “Toxic”.
BS:I didn’t take it that way!
BF: Great! Have you considered a follow up upon Kris’ return? I could also very much imagine you making work in or around a prison somehow.
“I show the picture hoping to sketch a setting for the viewer that describes the forces that have shaped Kris. It’s the world he knows. There’s room to be critical of aspects of masculinity and its pitfalls, but again, there are other performances of manhood that aren’t objectionable”.
BS: I’ve thought a little bit about it. That sort of story would be interesting given that laws are set up that make assimilating back into society difficult for former inmates. I don’t think Kris will have a hard time though. Before he went to prison, he worked on a nearby ranch, and he’s sure to get his job back there. I’ll definitely photograph him more in the future, but I’m not sure it’ll be related to his incarceration, which is a chapter he’ll probably want to forget. But who knows…
I’d be eager to photograph in prisons, but the all protocol and restrictions these days makes it difficult. The range of access granted to someone like Danny Lyon, for instance, back when he did work in Texas prisons, appears to be long gone.
BF: Yes, this is also a symptom of capitalism along with the bulging prision for profit populations. The access to all of these things from grain elevators to prisons to power plants etc. are now all safely tucked away and secretive. We live in a world where access has to be purchased.
BS: And because of this, I have to hop a lot of fences when I shoot. I’ve said that if I’m arrested in the future, it’ll be for trespassing in order to get a picture.
BF: Been in the clink myself for the same reasons.
I have been looking over your site and am quite impressed not only with the more personal projects, but also that you are very much a working photographer. I get the sense that many of the “art” photographers who aim at the establishment with their works are really doing other things to get paid, whether its teaching or living of their trust funds and yet, there is Bryan shooting editorial and working with Tom Claxton’s project.
I have looked at your commissions and portraits and then flipped back to your projects and there is a discernable difference in approach, but aesthetics are not so far off, which is to say that I am impressed with the level of skill that you make available for both, but also that working on editorial, it seems like you are given some license to do your thing, which means people trust you, your agent and your aesthetic with their brand or story. Do you approach everything in the same way from behind the lens? I guess the pressure to perform for “work” and shooting a project like Good GodDamn must differ a bit, but that both have associated pressures?
BS: Yes, only a scarce number of photographers live off prints sales and their art practice alone. I think a lot of photographers pretend to, but often they have other sources of income. I sell a good number of prints, but not enough to cover all my finances, so doing paid work is indispensable. Whatever the setting, I’m always trying my to make good photos, but I can’t say I approach everything the same way behind the lens, and there tends to be a difference between my art and commissioned work. With art photography, I’m trying to say something meaningful about our world and to satisfy creative needs that come from within, which sometimes overlaps with aspects of commercial photography, but generally, when I’m on a paid job, I’m mainly trying to achieve the client’s needs as best I can. Obviously, I bring my style and vision to these projects, which is why I’m hired, but I don’t let my ego get too involved with commissions, thinking of myself as more of a craftsman than some visionary type of art photographer. Even with clients who tell me “Just do your thing,” you’d be surprised by the rigidity, restrictions, and specific requests that limit the work, not to mention the subject matter, which isn’t always inspiring. Then, after the photos are shot, they’re in the clients’ hands, who might make choices in editing, design, or presentation that stray quite far from my ideals as an art photographer. Unfortunately, the paid work can get watered down at times. And that’s okay, as I see it as a different thing. This isn’t to disparage commercial photography though, since I definitely enjoy that side of the coin too, and I’ve done commissioned work I’m really proud of with certain editors and art directors who are a joy to collaborate with. I recently photographed the musician Bill Callahan for The New Yorker, and I think that portrait is as good as any I’ve done for my art projects. But in the end, my books and exhibitions are what I want to speak on my behalf and define who I am.
BF: I saw that image circulate of Bill, quite wildly and can agree about the synthesis there between commercial and artistic becoming one-fusing as it were. This is no doubt also because of the sitter being great in many ways and how you possibly approached that shoot given respect, interest etc.-all normal fair for getting results. How did you get involved with Claxton? How does that work flow help outside of financial with your own work and could you see yourself ever working with Magnum for example?
BS: Tom and I became friends in 2013 when I was living in New York. He worked at a sizable photo agency at the time. He found my work before my first book came out. I wasn’t ready to be represented then, but he was always generous with advice when I’d hit him up with questions about commercial jobs – budgeting, contracts, etc. He was always there for me, and eventually, after seeing my work evolve in the years that followed, he decided I’d be a good fit for his newly founded agency, Claxton Projects. Outside the income, I think commissioned work keeps photographers’ skills sharp. Shoots are often about problem solving and doing the best you can with what you’ve been given when conditions are less than optimal. Unlike playing a musical instrument or a sport, photography isn’t something that’s regularly practiced, so having recurring jobs that force you to shoot is a benefit. I also like the experiences – traveling, meeting interesting people, and so on.
I think it may be unlikely that Magnum will get in touch with me, but I’d welcome a call from them.
BF: HAHA, I’ll make sure to tag them in social media posts when this comes out, but I want 10%.
BF: I really love what you just said about keeping the skills sharp. That is another thing that fascinates me about the art side of things and how people produce. There is some nonsense statistic out there that says after 10,000 hours of investment, you become a master of what you pursue, be it musical instrument, swimming lessons, Spanish. I don’t know if I agree to that at “x” hours a day for “X” amount of years, but then again, how do we “practice” photography? We are literally glued to it whether we like it or not much more than 3 hours a day. With the commercial side of it or just the intrepid side of it like perhaps Mark Power’s work, I think there is some amount of truth to the idea that you cannot take breaks or you will not develop or you tend towards getting rusty or you stop taking chances. You see it a lot with “conceptual” work or work in which the artist gets known for a thing early on and then just keeps re-hashing the safe formula. When you shoot often, you try new things and your eye develops and you learn what seeing photographically means. Again, I’m digressing, but let’s not stop with the digression just yet….
….Someone told me you used to play in a punk band with Genitempo….
BS: That isn’t true, although we did first meet at a punk show one of my old bands played. It was a floor show at a roller rink in Houston, maybe 2003. These days, Matthew and I talk about starting a hardcore band that we’ll call Javelinas.
BF: Do you need a drummer? I’m in. Bet you’re a drummer though. Do you feel that the book format is the best way to represent your personal work? I know you exhibit often and the commercial work is sort of a different display and production mode, but you handle the book format very well, so I’m just curious…you are also a Hartford graduate? I believe the book is examined there quite fastidiously?
BS: We probably will need a drummer! Drummers are hard to find – so few compared to all the all guitar players , which is what I played.
Yes, I’m a believer in the photobook and see the form as somewhat of a savior of photographic meaning amidst the never-ending deluge of images in our digital age. Putting a cohesive, well-considered sequence of strong pictures between two physical covers and saying “This means something” has become more important as photography is oversaturated in so many aspects of life. The poetics of the book — the turn of the page, the reveal of the image — as well as the material choices of the book and what they communicate are all very consequential and affecting when done right. Gallery exhibitions also levy meaning, but it’s often a compromise because the physical space of the venue limits the number of pictures included as well as the way the pictures are looked at, plus they go up then come down over the course of a few months. Books are permanent. You can look at them over time, returning at different stages in life, and they mean something new, like revisiting a novel, music album, or film. And yes, I went to Hartford Art School, where the photobook is preached pretty mightily, so I was in like-minded company. I went in loving photobooks and came out loving photobooks even more.
BF: I see from your website that you have some new work in progress
ready to be exhibited. It is working under the name Vessels, which is an
interesting open-ended associative term. I can’t help but shake the feeling when I look at it that you are examining Texas, but perhaps also oil, commerce and the situation in which America or more specifically economically underprivileged Americans may be finding themselves. I look at the portraits in particular and feel a sort of “migrant, dust bowl” effect to the work. There is also that beauty found in Robert Adams work-a sort of forlorn investigation about the habitats of people, without a single soul in which to scale them. Can you tell us a bit about the new work? Is it going to be a book? Will you be showing again with Wouter van Leeuwen?
BS:It’s a project I’m shooting in the United States’ Southwest. The themes are broad, but yes, America’s thirst for fossil fuel was an impetus for the project in a lot of ways. Having grown up in Houston – an enormous, sprawling, inefficient city built on the oil industry – I’ve thought about this addiction a while. But I think of this work as more allegorical, so instead of using subject matter in the city and suburbs, I tend to focus on remote regions, desert where the fringes of civilization contravene on what remains of the wilderness.
This project includes intimate portraits of travelers – mostly hitchhikers and highway drifters who dwell along the interstate system – as well as landscapes and still life photos that reflect a country in peril. Amidst the ravages of environmental decline, economic dispossession, and societal neglect, I’m struck by the extraordinary human capacity for endurance.
More and more it seems as though we live in a new era of anxiety in which people are losing confidence in the future. I’m trying to tap into this cultural moment and create a narrative through pictures that foreshadows the risks of our society’s current, self-destructive path, which I feel is needed at this critical moment in history, as we witness but fail to understand the frailty of our ecology, economy, and social stability.
It’ll ultimately be a road book that speaks to the feeling of uncertainty in 21st century America. I’m not sure when it’ll be published, because more shooting is required. (I’ve been working on it off and on for a number of years.) But it’ll definitely be a book. In the meantime, photos from the project were just shown at Unseen in Amsterdam. This month (October 2019), a number of photos from this project will be shown in a solo exhibition at FOLA in Buenos Aires under the title “El Osete Oscuro,” then Wouter van Leeuwen and I are planning another solo show at his gallery in 2020. Some further exhibits are lined up yet not totally confirmed so I won’t mention those publicly.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Bryan Scutmaat.)