CNN Photos

Beauty, sorrow of American West

As Bryan Schutmaat was working on his project about small mountain towns in the American West, he was invited to hear old stories from mountain men over whiskey and beer. He even enjoyed a turkey dinner with some locals.

Schutmaat had always been fascinated by the West and drew inspiration mainly from literature on Montana. He said poems from Richard Hugo, who wrote about the Northwest during the Depression, often directed him to certain towns. Schutmaat tried to emanate the beauty and sorrow of Hugo’s poetry in his photos.

Schutmaat had people’s kindness supporting him through the project, but he also had car trouble, law enforcement run-ins and self doubt setting him back.

“There were some cold mornings when I woke up in my tent or in my car along some desolate highway and wondered what I was doing with my life,” he said. “Even when people stand in front of my camera, I don't think they realize how much it means to me.”

In addition to Montana, he visited Wyoming, Idaho, South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.

He shot film using a large-format camera that looks like it came out of the 19th century. It's mounted on a tripod, and Schutmaat focuses and composes the image from beneath a black sheet. He chose this set-up mainly because of the higher quality end product, but he said it also nudges his subjects to open up to him more.

“Taking a portrait is a process, and when I ask someone to sit for me, the camera somehow helps communicate that I'm serious about making a good picture and that I take pride in what I do,” he said.

Schutmaat spent a year and a half on the project. He had taken pictures out West before, but not of the people. He said he hopes to reveal some of the personal stories of his subjects but doesn’t believe there’s a great message behind his images.

“Photography, even when made in documentary mode like my work, can be and most often is a form of fiction, in my view,” he said.

He said he’s hesitant to claim his photos reveal anything about the West or its people because, like any art form, photography relies on the interpretation of the viewer.

“I don't want to make a big statement," Schutmaat said. “I just want to help people look at the world.”

Shutmaat’s project, titled “Grays the Mountain Sends,” will be on exhibition in New York starting November 1.

- Lauren Russell, CNN