Journeys across America’s great frontier are often depicted in popular culture, but Bryan Shutmaat’s latest series Vessels avoids the cliches often present when capturing this part of the world.
“It’s a project about the American southwest and its travellers, hitchhikers and drifters, making their way across the altered desert landscape,” Bryan tells It’s Nice That. “It’s an updated view of the 21st Century’s ‘open road,’ addressing a darkening era of uncertainty and anxiety.”
Shot in black and white, the series strips back any preconceived glamour you might have in mind about a nomadic travelling lifestyle in this part of the world. Set against the backdrop of the harsh desert landscapes, both manmade and natural, Bryan focuses on the people that are drawn to this unique place. “To find my portrait subjects, I usually pick up hitchhikers or introduce myself to people at campsites I find along the interstate,” he says. “On all these roads are people living in the shadows.”
Bryan, who is from Austin, Texas, has built up an incredible portfolio of clients that include The New Yorker, The Guardian and Time among many others. He has released two books of his work so far, both dealing with different aspects of rural life. “I tend to work slowly in a documentary style of photography, but I take a lot of liberties with the truth. My work is usually set in rural or remote places in the American West, and deals with ordinary working people and the land.”
Having initially studied history, Bryan completed an MFA in photography at the University of Hartford, citing the freedom of the medium as one of the main draws. “Photography is a good excuse to engage with the world and to follow curiosities. I really like the independence and constant sense of exploration I feel when making work.”
Vessels is still an ongoing project, but it is already proving a success, with a selection of the images captured so far currently exhibiting at Galerie Wouter Van Leeuwen in Amsterdam and Kunsthalle Mannheim in Germany.
In Vessels, Bryan wanted to capture how modern America was having an effect on the area and those that inhabit it. The photographs tell this story, illustrating people who have left modern life behind to roam this vast region. One particularly striking image shows a man sat on the pavement with his backpack by his side, his head and his face an entirely different colour due to the relentless rays of the sun.
The people in the series are obviously battling difficult conditions each day, and have worked through hard times. Getting close to them provides an invaluable account of life here, but their often harrowing accounts were not an easy subject for Bryan to constantly hear. It led him to question his actions and if he was doing the right thing, which informed how the series was shot. “It’s tough work to make, and I’ve heard a lot of stories of hardship and pain during the process of shooting the project,” he explains. “In my mind and heart, I’m constantly considering the ethics and purpose of what I’m doing. Finding answers is difficult but I keep on.”
Bryan had a variety of motivations for the project, hoping to tell a complex overarching story that was intertwined with personal accounts. “My motivations vary too much to pin down,” he says. “But I hope to relay the emotion and experiences of the people I meet, and more broadly, I think I’m trying to show and foreshadow the effects of our society’s current destructive path.”
Within the series the strong portraits are mixed with landscapes and buildings – often shot with a long exposure. “In America and elsewhere, our economic system wears down both people and the landscape,” he says. “I’m interested in the commonality between the two, how they shape each other, share qualities, and reflect the choices we’ve made in our society.”
Shooting such an arid and remote place, it is fitting that Bryan chose to shoot the series in black and white. It’s also refreshing to hear that there is no complex theoretical reasoning behind this decision, instead, it is just purely for aesthetics: “I could probably tell you about creative and philosophical intent, but ultimately I’m shooting in the desert,” he says. “And the desert looks best in black and white.”
GalleryBryan Schutmaat: Vessels
Bryan Schutmaat: Vessels
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.