Islands of the Blest is a collaboration by an American photographer, Bryan Schutmaat (b. 1983 Houston, Texas, currently resides in Austin, Texas), and an American writer, Ashlyn Davis (b. 1986 Port Arthur, Texas, currently resides in Austin, Texas) constructing a historical narrative that explores the American expansion into the “West”. Schutmaat and Davis created this photobook utilizing found photographs that were residing in the digital public archives of the United States Library of Congress and the United States Geological Survey.
I had initially suspected that Schutmaat is the visually oriented contributor while Davis would be the story teller who provides the essence of the story line. In an interview with the pair, I was a way off-base as Schutmaat has an undergraduate degree in History while Davis was a photo major and subsequently changing to art history with an emphasis on photography for her graduate studies. They point to their mutual aesthetical and historical literacy.
Davis states “I had been thinking about the complexities of the West for quite some time, so this project was not only a way to think about the photographic antecedents of Bryan’s work, but for me to explore the history of these landscapes through the shared history of the public archive. This photobook evolved out of preparing for a prelude exhibition to Schutmaat’s beautiful photobook Grays the Mountain Sends published by Silas Finch in 2013. The concept was to collect and exhibit historical photographs of the American West, which resulted in the pair making an extensive road trip from West Texas through New Mexico, Utah and Arizona visiting national parks while reading to each other history books on the American West. We think we still hope that it (the photobook) is not a true narrative but more of a poem.”
The subjects appear to have been captured in the midst of an act, doing something, which is really unknown to the reader, thus perplexing and yet intriguing. Their effort appears to be related to working in the mines or mining claims; essentially searching for their fortunes. Another aspect that I find interesting is the mash up of ambiguous portraits and grand landscape photographs, each with a uniqueness in framing, perspective and scale between the two. The individuals are framed close and tight without much environmental context, while the landscape images are made from a distance to create an open grandeur in scale. As such it appears that the landscape is overwhelming the individual while attempting to establish a place that might be characteristic of the American West; mountainous, rugged, difficult, rough and tumble.
This photobook reminds me the meandering rural Colorado landscape that borders the I-70 interstate highway and is a conduit between Grand Junction and Denver. There are still some old gold mine towns intermingled with structures dating back to the turn of the 20th century; towns with their wonderfully descriptive names; Idaho Springs, Turkey Gulch, Breeze, Lawson, Georgetown, Silver Plume, Loveland, Dillon, Silvertorne, Frisco, Eagle, Avon, Beaver Creek, & Minturn. These old towns seem to be calling me from the highway to stop and spend some time exploring their passages and memories.
As to the development of the book, Davis goes on to say “we both went through several rounds of independent sequencing before we got to the final version, although one thing Bryan was really great at was sequencing. He was thinking more conceptually, whereas I was initially thinking a bit more literally up until the end and then I think I turned super conceptual. So if anything, that was the tension. We didn’t go into these archives with a specific story in mind. The photos really did a lot of the speaking and we did a lot of the listening to them and to each other before the more nuanced narratives or stanzas began to emerge. I think that patience is integral to the photobook form – it’s like meditating. There are both aesthetic and narrative elements that lead the eye from one image to the next.”
I would agree that they did achieve their goal; this is a very poetic body of work.
This photobook has a heavy cloth cover with staple binding (saddle stitch), black & white photographs that are offset printed with UV inks on uncoated paper, with a poem by Michael McGriff.
I choose this as one of my interesting photobooks of 2014.