Bryan Schutmaat, County Road

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Trespasser (here). Hardcover with tip-in image, 6.75×10 inches, 104 pages, with 54 tritone plates on uncoated paper. There are no texts or essays, aside from a short excerpt from a poem by Wendell Berry. Design by Cody Haltom. In an edition of 1500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The black-and-white photograph on the cover of Bryan Schutmaat’s County Road is something akin to an invitation. It looks down a long dirt road surrounded by dark enveloping trees, creating a contrast between the lightness of the path ahead and the rich blackness nearby, with an interrupting blurred line of a sagging wire or a crack in the car windshield slanting across the composition. Images of empty American roads have a long history in photography, oftentimes highlighting the vastness of the land (particularly in the West), the textural straightness of the road, or the lonely silence that seems to envelop the moment. In this case, Schutmaat seems to be both setting a contemplative mood and defining a particular place, asking us to join him in a meditative journey down a quiet gravelly road in Texas.

Schutmaat first started to gain attention in the art world roughly a decade ago with his project Grays the Mountain Sends, which took form both as a 2013 photobook and a 2014 gallery show (reviewed here). Coming out of the MFA program at the University of Hartford, Schutmaat made muted color images of anonymous American mining towns, mountain communities, and backcountry homesteads that captured a resonant sense of dead end abandonment. The people he photographed (largely men) held the weight of that weary desperation in their eyes, and Schutmaat’s approach was unexpectedly measured and attentive, his understated sensitivity giving each image a refrain of melancholy grace.

His next project Good Goddamn (a 2017 photobook) shifted gears a bit, turning to subtle black-and-white image making and coming in closer to the rhythms of a single subject. The series documents the last few days before his friend Kris was heading off to prison, capturing the resigned wistfulness found in the fleeting freedom of a hunting trip, a few runs through the gloppy mud in his truck, and some savored cigarettes and beers out in the woods. Kris is largely seen more indirectly than Schutmaat’s earlier portraits, the blur, cropping, and misdirection adding a softening gentleness to the personal encounters. These intimacies are then supported by observations of the surroundings – the creek, the truck, the stray blossoms in the thickets, the roadside grasses, and the dirt roads – creating a modest but atmospheric narrative. An image of Kris’s hand pressed against a closed screen door seems to foreshadow the barriers that would soon constrain his world, with other images of his slumped shoulders, his arm thrown over his eyes while resting, and his arm hung over the steering wheel of the truck attesting to the worn out, drained mood of those final days.

County Road continues Schutmaat’s nuanced exploration of black-and-white expressiveness. But while Schutmaat’s portraits have always been a strength, this series strips away any individuals, leaving behind just the modulated consideration of the surroundings. The images in the photobook were made in 2020, so perhaps we can attribute the elimination of the portraits to the constraints of the pandemic. It could be that Schutmaat drove around on the backroads of Leon county in rural Texas by himself when the lockdowns prevented other kinds of encounters; or it could be that Schutmaat simply decided that “portraits” of the roads themselves would provide all the storytelling scaffolding he needed, the lulling rhythm found between peering down the road ahead and off to the sides here and there proving the forward momentum of the photobook. Schutmaat’s photographs in this collection feel more solitary and inward than ever before, with time stretching out more expansively and poetically; this patience has always been present in his work, but it feels encouraged in County Road, pulling his aesthetics toward those of Raymond Meeks, John Gossage, and Tim Carpenter.

A handful of photographs of roads offer a kind of backbone to County Road, each one a centering reminder, when it appears, of where we are traveling. Each of the roads is of course different – sometimes paved, sometimes dirt, with weedy ditches, grassy meadows, dense tunneled forests, and wide open flatlands variously glimpsed along the edges. Along the way, the midday sun flares through the dirty windshield, and the moon rises over layers of misty grey. County Road is organized into discrete sequences of roughly ten to twelve images (almost like poetic stanzas), the sections separated by simple brown pages that match the endpapers; the road images are sprinkled through most of the sections, bringing us back again and again to the central theme, like the chorus of a song.

Schutmaat’s observations of the passing landscape along these roads are infused with humble wonder, where things routinely overlooked are transformed into unexpectedly engaging discoveries. Many images find understated beauty in meadows, wildflowers, grasses, and weeds, noticing the shine of leaves, the sparkle of small blossoms, the undulations of waving fields, and even the loveliness hidden in scrubby undergrowth. Ponds and creeks dot the nearby landscape, and a few animals (a horse or two, and several dogs, one with a gloriously scraggly wet tail) look back at us, or go about their business seemingly unperturbed by our intrusions. As Schutmaat looks around, he seems to see the grandeur in it all, eventually looking up into the night sky, where a mist of pinprick stars fills the cosmic space.

Along these rural roads, the human presence has clearly thinned out, with many houses, barns, trailers, and other structures seemingly left to rot. Like many photographers before him, Schutmaat sees the beauty in these ruins, paying attention to the angles of doors falling off their hinges, the crumbling drywall left on the stairs, the layering of old doors and windows, and the shadows that fall across decaying walls. What has been left behind doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in any hurry, the boarded up and sagging buildings slowly being reclaimed by nature; plastic chairs are still stacked along an outside wall, junked cars sit in the tall grass, and an old tire has rolled down into the creek, the natural and manufactured becoming more intermingled with each passing season.

Schutmaat often brings a formalist eye to his finds, noticing the linear arrangements of fence posts, train tracks, telephone poles, and flower stems. Clusters of grain bins and their connecting piping offer more industrial forms and geometries for Schutmaat to play with, and images of broken glass on the road, peeling paint on a wall, and crisscrossed wires against a brick warehouse revel in textural harmonies. The softness of filtered light is its own subject in a few cases, as seen through tree branches, a curtained window, and the crackle of a moody campfire. What these crisply composed and ordered pictures tell us is that Schutmaat knows his photographic history, and is leveraging lessons learned from past masters in the crafting of his own personal visual narrative.

In many ways, a flip through County Road recalls the sequences of Minor White, where images were ordered into a flow that evoked a certain emotional state. In this case, Schutmaat is breaking down and reordering snippets of time, creating rhythms and connections that pull us along. The Wendell Berry poem fragment at the beginning of the book balances both heavy despair and modest optimism, seeing the world continuing to turn in the passing of seasons, and County Road evokes a similar balancing of moods. While there is plenty to find dispiriting in contemporary life (particularly if we root this body of work in the isolation of the pandemic), Schutmaat has returned to the nostalgic pleasures of driving down an empty road and spending enough time to notice its enduringly modest magic. In this way, it is reassuringly familiar, but still fresh and precise enough in its execution to feel relevant.

Collector’s POV: Bryan Schutmaat is represented by Sasha Wolf Projects in New York (here), Marshall Gallery in Los Angeles (here), Kominek Gallery in Berlin (here), and Galerie Wouter van Leeuwen in Amsterdam (here). Schutmaat’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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