Singular Pursuit: Navigating A Digitized Art World

Bryan Schutmaat with Peter Brown

Bryan Schutmaat’s photographic work on the American West has exploded on the photographic scene this past year. Bryan is from the Clear Lake area south of Houston and has had a connection with HCP for some time. His work has been widely exhibited and published here and abroad and has won a variety of awards: this year’s Aperture Portfolio Prize; the Daylight Photo Award; Santa Fe Center's Gallerist Choice Award; and the 2011 Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship from HCP. In 2013, Dazed Magazine named him one of Paris Photo's "breakout stars.” His first monograph, Grays the Mountain Sends, was published in December by The Silas Finch Foundation and The Washington Post named it one of the top five photo books of 2013. It was also shortlisted for the Aperture Paris Photo First Book Award, and was selected by a variety of publications as a year-end "Best Book.”

Peter: Bryan, we’ve known each other now for five years and over that time a lot has changed for you. When we first met, you hadn’t had a lot of formal photographic training, yet you had put together an impressive record of exhibitions not only in this country but abroad. And your work to me, seemed remarkably of a piece. Now, five years later you have become one of the most celebrated photographers of your generation.

In this interview I’d like to do two things – first, in the magazine here, explore the way that you’ve moved from relative obscurity to someone well known in our photographic world. And second in a new move for SPOT, to go to our website where I’d like to talk about your new book, Grays The Mountain Sends. It’s being assembled as we speak and remarkably, its first edition is already sold out. A link to all the images in the book is available here, if readers want to follow:

So congratulations on your achievements and I’m happy that HCP has been able to have a hand in your success. Among other things, you were our Carol Crow Fellowship recipient in 2011.

So how did all this happen? I think it would be helpful to younger photographers for you to trace your journey over the past few years. How have you gotten your work out into the world? You seem to have created your own path and that path I think also describes an aspect of a digitized art world that continues to evolve.

Bryan: First, I want to say what a joy it is to be interviewed by you, Peter. You’re one of my favorite photographers, so this is an honor for me, and I’m thankful for it.

We first met because I sent you an email out of the blue asking if you’d give me advice on how to be a photographer – more specifically, an art photographer. I wanted to become one, but I didn’t understand how it worked, how to earn a living, how to stay sane, and so on. You invited me to your home, looked at my work, and offered me more kindness than anyone deserves, yet I left without answers to the questions I had, not because you withheld anything, but because there are no answers, at least no straight ones. I guess it works differently for anyone brave or stubborn enough to choose this path in life. You just told me that I’d be all right and that I should basically take the leap of faith – which I did. But it wasn't until 2010, when I applied to grad school, that I really began to claim myself a photographer without a self-conscious lump in my throat. I had been taking photos regularly for a number of years before then, but it was more of an intense hobby than any kind of career, and my mind and ambitions were all over the place. I had a degree in liberal arts, I was playing music, I was really interested in cinema (mostly watching and critiquing it), I was working in education. Photography, it turned out, was the best way to consolidate my creative energies into a singular pursuit, so I began to give it more time, commitment, and passion. I decided to make photography my life. Not surprisingly, I think making that decision, taking that plunge, accounts for the good things happening with me these days. It's hard to make waves if you're just dipping your toes in the water. You gotta go all in.

With that outlook, I started grad school at University of Hartford in the fall of 2010 and soon began work on what would become Grays the Mountain Sends. In early 2011, I won HCP's Carol Crow Memorial Fellowship, which really motivated me because I had to show the work a few months later as a part of the fellowship deal. Looking back, it was a hasty step forward that I probably wasn't ready for, but it got me working really hard on the project due to the deadline and the audience who would see it. After the HCP show, I continued studying and shooting off and on for Grays the Mountain Sends through the remainder of grad school. I received my degree in late 2012 with a finished project in the can, and I immediately moved to New York, where I did what I could to get it in front of people’s eyes. However, it was mainly the internet, not my physical proximity to the art world, that opened most doors. This had been my strategy all along – just putting work online, hoping that it would be seen and opportunities would arise. A bunch of blogs and online publications started showing Grays, which led to features in print magazines, and the floodgates kind of opened from there. I think recognition has a snowball effect, so it's hard to say how everything has happened. During this time, I also started submitting my work to contests – Center's Choice Awards, Aperture Portfolio Prize, Daylight Photo Awards, etc. To my surprise, I won many of them, and the exposure has lead to more press, print sales, exhibition offers, editorial assignments, and so on. They also emboldened me to send out more unsolicited emails, which, despite having emailed you, hasn't really been my thing in years past. But I do it more often now, because – why not? That's how I convinced Kevin at the Silas Finch Foundation to publish my book.

Peter: Tell me a little more specifically about the ways that you put your work online. You created your own system in a way, pretty much independent of teachers, galleries, curators, critics and the like -- and though what you did then may be superseded by newer technology now, if you could be clear about how you achieved this, I think it would be helpful. Your photographs did most of the heavy lifting of course, but I also think the way you’ve navigated the new digitized art world has been savvy and inventive.

Bryan: I should first say that I think computer screens and iPads are far from the best way to experience photography, as I’m sure you agree. Well-crafted prints and books are much better. But building exposure online can serve as a stepping stone that guides people to those optimal formats, so my hope is that people who like my pictures online will eventually see them on exhibition or buy books. Nevertheless, the internet can’t be underestimated in terms of volume. For instance, on a good day, the number of people who visit my site might be greater than the entire print run of my book. I don't really know if that's a good or bad thing, but it's a testament to the internet's power, so with that in mind, I think it’s a good idea to have a presence on the net and engage with what's happening there.

I mean, the internet is amazing in general. It’s right up there with fire or agriculture when it comes to human developments that have had the greatest impact on history. The ways that ideas and data are exchanged these days have become increasingly more democratic, more forward-thinking, and much better than yesterday’s outdated modes of hierarchical distribution. I say that with caution, but I believe it’s true in most cultural arenas.

Today, if you have something to say or show to the world, you just put it on the internet and see what happens. I did this from the very start. Like I said, I wasn’t so serious about photography when I began, but once I had a handful of photos I liked, I made a website to share them. I really don’t recommend doing this right away. Young photographers should probably spend a number of years learning how to photograph before promoting themselves. I didn’t know any better though. I spread the link to my site (full of very bad photos) via emails, instant messages, social media, and so on. This led to people blogging my photos and featuring them on small, online publications. At some point, I began to use the photo sharing service, Flickr, which increased the exposure of my pictures pretty significantly. Flickr definitely had its drawbacks, but it was a good place to learn and I came to understand the value of online community. After a while, a lot more bloggers began to post my work, and people continued to learn about who I was and what I was doing.

It has been years since I've used Flickr, however, I’ve been active on a blogging site called tumblr since 2010. On tumblr, I mainly make announcements about my work and let people know what I'm up to, but I also I use it to share the work of others, whether that's photography, film trailers, novel excerpts or whatever. It’s as if I have my own mini gallery space online to show people what I like - all with links to the respective creators. Tons of other people are doing this on tumblr as well, and it's amazing how all of the small parts of this community collectively promote work and give voice to artists who might otherwise have none. Not necessarily with tumblr, but with this kind of model, I believe that to large extent the old, elitist methods of distribution can be circumvented, and artists can gain exposure and make names for themselves without pleading with magazine editors and gallerists to make their work known. The simple but beautiful idea inherent in this manner of online dissemination is the users’ freedom to see or share whatever they want. It’s not like an institution where what goes up is dictated by people whose job it is to make qualitative decisions about what content is worthy of being seen. We’re now dealing with a many-to-many model instead of a one-to-many model. As it might be suspected, the vast majority of content on tumblr is total garbage, but the good work tends to rise to the surface while everything else fades into the digital abyss.

But this isn’t always enough. Despite my love for the internet and its community, I still think there are much-needed roles for curators, publishers, and gallerists, and I want to thrive in their world as well (but that’s not to say that they're entirely apart from the net). I guess like all of the art-oriented photographers before me, I aspire to museum walls and esteemed collections, but if my place to excel is online, that’s cool with me too. It's not a trivial platform at all, especially for those who are young and have no advocates.

Peter: And thrive you have in a more conventional world. At this point we’ll move our interview to SPOT’s website where we’ll discuss your new book, Grays the Mountain Sends.

Peter Brown, has a BA and MFA from Stanford University and has taught in the Art Departments of Stanford and Rice. His photographic awards include the Lange-Taylor Prize, the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award and the Imogen Cunningham Award—as well as fellowships from the Carnegie Foundation, the Graham Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Houston Arts Alliance. His photographs are in collections of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Menil Collection, The Museum of Modern Art New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Getty Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum and the Amon Carter Museum among others.
Brown is the author of the books West of Last Chance, Seasons of Light and On the Plains. His photos have been shown internationally and have been published in DoubleTake, The New Yorker, Texas Monthly, Aperture, LIFE, Harpers and other magazines. In 2008 he received the inaugural Glasscock School Teaching Award in recognition of his years of service at Rice. He is a founding member of The Houston Center for Photography where he is on the Advisory Council and is an Art Board member of Houston FotoFest and an Advisory Board member of the Glasscock School at Rice where he has taught photography for many years. He is currently working collaboratively on a book on Texas with the writer Joe Holley titled “Into The Heart.”

Bryan Schutmaat, holds a BA in History from the University of Houston and an MFA in photography from the University of Hartford Art School. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and is represented by Sasha Wolf Gallery in New York City.