The red and lavender desert sands of the Painted Hills in Oregon are otherworldly — distinctly somewhere else. The notion of finding a “somewhere else,” the one many Missoulians yearn for in the dead of winter, is what drove local photographer Rio Chantel in 2018 to the isolated Martian landscape of the Painted Hills.
The product of that trip, eight selections from her very first roll of 35mm film photography, is on display now at Western Cider.
“This was my 'somewhere else' that winter, but I didn’t actually get to go until July,” Chantel said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere. There’s no service, no nothing. Film is quiet and meditative because you have to take a breath and really see what you’re photographing.”
Chantel has found a niche in Missoula as a commercial photographer for local businesses, working for brands including the gallery’s host Western Cider, as well as Cloth and Crown and Green Source. But she said her specialty lies in capturing human interaction, something not on display in most landscape photography.
“When I do landscapes, it’s really about my experience with the place,” she said. “I think place is so important, because we come from the earth, and we’re always either destroying or supporting the earth.”
Her trip to the Painted Hills was more than just a trip to a desolate, but uniquely beautiful, landscape.
Her desire for somewhere else wasn’t only a search for a new location, but a new place in life. She said a waning relationship left her wanting to find a proverbial somewhere else. She gave up opportunities to find that place in order to satisfy her former partner’s searches for his somewhere else, according to her show’s artist statement.
A hurried stop at the Painted Hills on a return trip from the Oregon Coast left her just 30 minutes to capture the land she had been dreaming of for months. One couldn’t tell that her stop was so abbreviated, as each of the eight prints on display show a richly varied landscape, each stark yet balanced.
“I learned so much about accepting love from that person, and I think this trip was part of that,” she said. “Learning the kinds of sacrifices you’ll make for love.”
The eroded hills split like plump fingers curled atop the surrounding prairie ranchland. The grains of banded orange and maroon sand break into the classic warmth of 35mm film grain texturing the sky, deep and cloudless. The rich colors aren't the result of digitally cranking up the saturation either, but rather the result of rare volcanic sediments.
"It depends on the amount of moisture in the air that day and whether there’s cloud cover or not. But we got really lucky this day, I think it had maybe rained a few days before," she said. "I love color but I tend to shy away from it in my wardrobe, except for these colors. Oranges and pinks and blues. It was so calming for me to see those in a natural place."
While this gallery is her first venture into film photography, she said it won't be her last. Shooting Polaroids in between her commercial digital work has been an exercise in letting go of the control she has over every detail of a photo.
"With film I have to sit and really think about what I want, which is nice with landscapes because everything is staying still. Not so much when I'm trying to keep up with movement of human interaction," she said. "So I'm looking into some more local studies I can do with photography to bring awareness to some of the native species and how their landscape is changing."