Marshall Scheuttle’s comprehensive solo exhibition featured twenty-six 55×67-inch color photographs and was accompanied by full-color catalogue with essays by Holly E. Hughes, Curator for the Collection at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, and poet Danniel Schoonebeek.
The work showcased in the exhibition and catalogue was shot between 2009 and 2013 using an 8×10 view camera.
This exhibition and publication are funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, and many generous individuals.
In youth we create new sacraments, build hidden sanctuaries and cry out in defiance of our heritage. Borderland is a venture into these youthful dream songs; the time after a ritual has begun but before its resolution, the hypnopompic arena between wakefulness and sleep, the place between two worlds. My photography explores individuals who exist in this Borderland, struggling with ritual, loss and the embrace of roles that are inherently mystic. The landscapes interspersed with the portraiture are meant to exist as sanctuaries for these individuals, islands of memory and longing, a ghostly homesickness or a déjà vu of separation. Jung proposed that in this Borderland we walk eternally between two opposing forces: the Depths and the Time. Pulled by the longing for one, stretching to embrace the immediacy of the other, it is this conflict that ultimately animates the world I have attempted to create through my work.
I distinctly remember walking into a small antique store on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo, New York, in 2009. Along the shelves and floor were weathered trinkets and toys, furniture and oil paintings lined the walls. It had a distinctly familiar smell, that slightly sweet, slightly sour odor that I wane nostalgic for because it reminds me of my grandparents’ basement growing up and is particularly connected to objects of the past and the people who owned them long before their secondary market status. Amongst the vintage paraphernalia was a small selection from a series of large-scale photographs propped against the walls, some hung in place of the paintings. I was not there to shop. Instead, I had come to the space for a studio visit with an artist whose work I had only seen images of when jurying a regional exhibition a few months prior. Standing in the middle of the room was a young man; slender, tattooed, sporting a faded denim jacket whose sleeves had been cut off. As I extended my hand to introduce myself, he looked up at me, subtly smiled, and said, “Hi. I’m Marshall. Thanks so much for coming.”
Photography as a fine art medium is as ubiquitous today as painting and drawing, but the lineage is still rather short when compared to the much longer extensions throughout art history that other, more “traditional,” mediums can lay claim to. But, the impetus artists have to document the world around us is not new. After all, even Paleolithic man documented what they saw every day on the caves of Lascaux. A short art history lesson aside, photography has afforded artists a new way of seeing. Seeing outwardly through the lens and maintaining a moment of clarity whether the image is carefully composed, staged, and momentary or otherwise, photography serves as a mirror of society. Be it the documentation of a child’s first birthday party or the stuff of social media, photography captures the immediate, as well as the regrettable moments that we wish we could erase.
From Buffalo, New York, to the heart of the American mid-West, Marshall Scheuttle’s work traces the trajectory of the human psyche, specifically that of American youth. His imagery balances on the periphery of traditional landscape and portrait photography. At times, there is fluidity to the exchange of genres as the landscape acts as a surrogate for the fragility, depth, and complexity of human nature that is quintessential to Scheuttle’s work. They are not straightforward portraits. They are alternatively images that construct a complexity of narratives that, while open for interpretation from the viewer, are layered with myriad peculiarities specific to the terrain and individuals outside of mainstream American culture. Scheuttle travels across the nation, seeking out people he knows, but also documenting strangers within what Scheuttle has adapted as the “Borderland.”
The Borderland, an archetype for the exile of a place you came from is often spoken about in a biblical sense, meaning that momentary space of exclusion between civilization and the wilderness. It is a realm of uncertainty. It is about looking in and looking out. Photographer Diane Arbus once said that, “A picture is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.” In Scheuttle’s photographs the viewer becomes the outsider. We enter the Borderland only as a visitor, and perhaps as one who is not entirely welcome, yet is tolerated. What Scheuttle does offer is a serendipitous journey. While we may not know who the subjects in his images are, where they were taken, or even, as in the case of the landscapes, what time of day; Scheuttle brings us into the work by toying with our curiosity and compassion. His work does not suggest that his subjects are somehow suffering and require our empathy, but instead offers kind consideration that belies these fleeting moments. At times confrontational, Scheuttle’s subjects are also unpretentiously amicable. Whether it is an image of a young mother and her child, a bridge underpass communing with nature, or a hauntingly poignant impression of an occupied open casket, Scheuttle’s story is about the rekindling of a generation and of the human spirit.
Artists today have embraced the medium of photography, infusing it with a wide range of contemporary aesthetics and technologies that broaden our experience of the world, but also offer escape. Major contributors to the medium, such as Gregory Crewdson (American, born 1962) and Jeff Wall (Canadian, born 1946), or even emerging newcomer Sonja Brass (German, born 1968) carefully construct images that intentionally thwart our sense of reality. Scheuttle’s work, however, stands on the other side of documentation. One that is exceedingly honest and straightforward, yet extends forth into a legacy of image making that in years to come will offer up a clinical, yet reflective, composite of America. In the vein of artists like Rineke Dijkstra (Dutch, born 1959) who feel an affinity to the tradition of documentary photography, Scheuttle does not only capture a mere moment in time. Instead, he searches out the real in his subjects to apprehend those moments where a stare becomes a glance, a smirk flutters into a smile, and the landscape shifts into a memory. By bringing the life of his subjects to a momentary standstill, he has offered up the voice of a generation that is still searching to define itself.
Needless to say, I have no regrets about stepping into Scheuttle’s make-shift studio that day in 2009 and am privileged to have followed his journey this far.
And then one day you come across a sentence that Walker Evans edited out of “Lyric Documentary,” the 1964 lecture he delivered at Yale to a room full of academics:
“I cannot risk seeming to come to New Haven in the idiotic role of a sentimentalist; I would not of course dream of placing you in the role of listeners to grandfather’s moist reminiscences of some such flummery as the good old days.”
Throughout his life, as both a man and a photographer, Evans struggled with his relationship to nostalgia. He was anxious about the word when used to dismiss his work, and he was even more anxious about his compulsion to explore nostalgia in American culture. He was wary of turning toward the past—especially wary of turning toward it with longing—and Evans resented the cold satisfaction that washes over a man when he convinces himself he might relive the lives of the dead.
When his detractors failed (and let’s state for the record that his detractors failed often), it was because they failed to see Evans as he was: a photographer who ultimately refused nostalgia. When Evans looked back, and let’s state for the record that Evans looked back often—to postcards and trash and an America many assumed was finished—he refused to do so with longing. Because Evans knew that looking back with longing was the calling card of nostalgia’s most notorious whipping boy, a young lyric poet by the name of Orpheus.
And I don’t need to tell you the raw deal that nostalgia dealt Orpheus.
Walker Evans pointed his camera at contemporary America, the America of the life he had no choice but to live, and as much as his photographs refuse nostalgia, they also resist what his critics dismissed as mere “portraiture.” Evans’s are photographs of the poor who are proud, the unsure. They are men and women who are proud precisely because they are unsure that a life inside of poverty, trapped in their work as sharecroppers, is a life that allows any semblance of dignity or beauty in America.
And I don’t need to tell you that the promise of America is you’ll be beautiful because you’ll be dignified.
If Evans’s dustbowl photographs refuse to commit the injustice of portraying the men and women inside of them, and if they also refuse the very premise of a subject, it’s because Evans refuses to (v.) subject the men and women inside them to art. And I’m speaking here of the particular brand of documentary art that massages the shoulders and combs the golden unkempt hair of the hero who exposes these men and women to the world for the supposed good of humanity.
Look at Evans’s dustbowl photographs and you’ll see the failures of capitalism staring you dead in the eye. Despite his presence behind the camera, the photographer is absent. What’s present instead is the face of an America we told ourselves was finished, and it’s staring us down with disappointment and dignity.
Because they force us to confront our neglect of our neighbors and countrymen, if these photographs make anyone subject at all, they make us subject to ourselves.
Fifty years later Marshall Scheuttle is here to drive his stake into a new lyric documentary with a book of photographs he calls Borderland.
The ground Scheuttle’s photographs share with Evans’s is voiced by a sentence that Evans didn’t toss out of his lecture:
[T]he real thing that I’m talking about has purity and a certain severity, rigor, simplicity, directness, clarity, and is without artistic pretension in a self-conscious sense of the word. That’s the base of it: they’re hard and firm.
Like Evans, Scheuttle is a rover. He’s traveled with the circus, he’s been to the hinterlands, the falls, the white sands of New Mexico. He’s stood backstage and inside your living room, in the godless suburbs, the rivers of Georgia, the barking wilderness.
And when he shoots his photographs, Scheuttle likewise refuses to look back at the America of his life with longing.
The crucial difference between Scheuttle and Evans is the same one that helps articulate the warp and woof of the America we live in today. If Evans was a photographer who forced us to confront our failures by making himself absent, Scheuttle is a photographer who allows us to believe in our unwritten future by making himself present.
Even when they have their backs turned to us, the men and women inside Scheuttle’s photographs are always keenly aware of his camera. The America they know is one where the camera is always present, where one’s identity is always a search engine away, and where one must always be mindful of how one is performing one’s life.
But let’s not make the mistake of saying these men and women are aware of the photographer himself. Like Evans, Scheuttle is not portraying these men and women or making them subjects to his art. Let’s say instead that these men and women are aware of the opportunity that Scheuttle’s camera presents to them: they are the outliers of America, the people of the borderlands, and this is their chance to show America exactly who they are.
Though the outliers in Scheuttle’s photographs portray themselves, they’re also portraying the people they want to be. They invent their mythos in front of the camera and seize the promise upon which America is built. They can be anyone—proud and unsure and impoverished, firm and troubled and eager to love—and it’s thus that Scheuttle’s photographs capture an American optimism we rarely see in contemporary art.
What’s astonishing to me is that Scheuttle finds a way to include the American landscape in this making of the self. A deserted office building, an upturned tree in the forest, a mountain slowly revealing its shape against fog—each of Scheuttle’s landscapes delivers an overwhelming sense of America, the country itself, attempting to give voice to who it is and who it wants to be. There’s a low, guttural song when we look at these landscapes, and the notes are all the more striking for the lack of human ears to hear them.
But ultimately I believe these photographs push beyond the American desire to weave a mythos around the self. They are concerned, first and foremost, with the human compulsion to make. And as such they culminate in a primitive silence that resists affiliation with any nation or state. This the borderland in which Scheuttle’s photographs occur. We make a baby, we make a living, we make ourselves a mess. We’re unsure and dignified, and we make ourselves face the music.
And then one day a man comes along with a camera, and he makes us an art in which we might make a name for ourselves.