Matt Hamon wants you to think of photographs like you might an open-ended novel — a set of unfolding scenes that encourage you to invent a story and characters.
That's why the pictures of Iceland and the American West in his exhibition, "Ratljóst," don't have titles or locations posted on the gallery walls at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.
"I want there to be this entry point and this space for a viewer to come and interact with the work in their own way, imagining or guessing or putting things together that aren't completely proscribed by the titles," said Hamon, a University of Montana art professor.
Both sets of photographs capture landscapes, buildings and structures, sometimes with small figures, that you can think of almost like a movie.
Curator Jeremy Canwell said they attempt to "recapture that 19th century, uncodified experience of the natural world, where now, after the advent of photography and all of the landscape photographs we've all seen, we don't know how to look at anything with fresh eyes anymore."
Hamon studied photography while earning his MFA, but his interests took him into experimental drawings and sculpture. His re-commitment to the medium started six years ago when his daughter was born, and he decided he needed a form of working that was more manageable while raising a family, and she became a subject of his pictures. This show is his first dedicated exhibition here in Montana since that change.
It's not immediately obvious, but Hamon's prior photography work has largely been portraiture. For his series, "The Gleaners," he traveled to the annual buffalo hunt outside Yellowstone National Park, where a group uses primitive methods to "glean" the bison parts left by indigenous hunters. The photographs were published in art magazines as well as more mainstream media like Outside and CNN. Thanks to European interest in Western themes, the series branched into commercial work and awards.
He shot pictures at a nudist colony for "Gymnosophy," which asks candid questions about contemporary Americans' comfort with the human body. In more straightforward project, he traveled to the pipeline protests at Standing Rock.
Why, then, the shift into landscape photography? He has a long-running series called "Chinook/The Ice Eater," of pictures around the West. "The Gleaners" naturally included some landscapes, since he's interested in the environmental influence on human stories.
"Ratljóst" originated with a trip to Iceland during a sabbatical in the winter of 2018. He applied and was accepted for a SÍM Residency, and got the month of November for his project.
He intended to dive into stories about culture and industry, but found that he had difficulty breaching a particular Icelandic reticence and getting the kind of access he prefers during the limited amount of time he had.
Before traveling there, he vowed to himself that he wouldn't shoot landscapes, since the gorgeous scenery is fodder for so many pictures already. After changing tacks, he began to think about Romantic painters like Albert Bierstadt and Caspar David Friedrich, who Canwell said approached nature as "source of authentic aesthetic experience," even if that took the form of awe or terror along with beauty.
The time of year complicated a few things. The island is just south of the Arctic Circle, and daylight dwindles to around four hours by the start of December.
The weather and light, often gloomy yet stunning, almost the opposite of travel porn, provided a way forward hinted at in the title, an Icelandic word that translates roughly to "sufficient light to navigate by." (Hamon found it online, and there's debate over the accuracy of the definition, another layer of the ambiguity that he prefers.)
He rented "the cheapest car possible and drove thousands and thousands of kilometers" to find his subjects. If he found a promising scene, he would pull over and sleep in the vehicle so that he could shoot in the early morning through dusk. He often shot in dim light, he said, to stay true to a different look. (He presented the work in Iceland before he left, and people commented on his unusual take on the area.)
After returning to the U.S. and editing the images, his friend Jenny Montgomery, a poet, told him that they reminded him of one of her guilty pleasures — notoriously moody and scenic Scandinavian TV dramas.
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He began to look at them similarly. A view from a hotel room at night, the window wet with rain. The exterior of a building at night; inside, a figure washing fish hooks. A solitary fueling station or bus stop. A snowy yard at night with film-like lighting.
Some pictures include humans, animals or structures that are minuscule in their contexts — it might take a close look just to find them. A seascape, with a microburst hovering above, doesn't boast a sliver of the western coast land where it was shot. Peer very close in the center right and you can see a tiny ship.
Skógafoss is a waterfall off the southern coast where the Skógá River tumbles some 200 feet off a cliffside. At 50 feet wide, it's large enough to spark its own rainbows, and appears to be a bucolic scene from a fantasy movie in a Google Images search. Hamon's rendering is muted, with just enough gray light to hike by. A figure in a yellow coat is dwarfed by the blurred bands of whitewater behind them.
That raises another interesting point in Hamon's approach. While he's done photojournalism work, he's an art photographer and doesn't have any issues about compositing images.
That figure wasn't at the waterfall — he stitched it in later, thinking it added a missing element: character. For another image, he took pictures from five different scenes and composited together a dramatic river canyon with mountains looming in the background. While he was making it, he had a Bierstadt painting in the background to remind of him how the compositions worked, and Canwell thinks of Hamon's pictures as a modern-day version of those Romantics' vision.
There are smaller changes, too, such as removing the signs and logos from that gas station to enhance the feeling of a "quiet, spare void of loneliness." While he's open to discussing the changes, he doesn't want people to turn the show into a "Where's Waldo" game since many pictures, like a vertigo-inducing cliff, weren't altered at all.
The other half of the show comprises images of the western United States. Titled "Chinook; The Ice Eater," it's a project, and potentially a book, that's been several years in the making.
The title, "Chinook," comes from the name of the warm winds, which has a dubious translation to "the ice eater." To him, it can allude to the Western expansion, Manifest Destiny and the mythologies of the West "breaking down in these pictures" in an intentionally melancholy way, he said. The first image is of indigenous people looking to their side, seemingly "at" the other photos of the West and what it has become, he said.
The pictures were shot on the Hi-line and in Butte, Ovando, Standing Rock, Nevada, the Great Salt Lake and more.
While he used a different camera for "Chinook," it's still a medium format digital camera that allows him to scoop in enough detail to print the photos quite large while maintaining small details.
"I love that a photograph can seem to be one of thing from here, and then as you get closer and closer, it doesn't break apart, there's just more and more detail," he said, gesturing to very small horses scattered on a Montana hillside, smoke looming above them.
In the Utah photograph, a kid facing away from the camera looks down into a swimming pool, now dried up with flaking paint. It's surrounded by a chain-link fence, which should hint to the viewer that something isn't quite normal. It's a former station for the earliest nuclear bomb projects.
In the image of the Great Salt Lake, a group of people walks away from the water and toward the camera, set against a pastel sky. He said it's "almost banal" but he likes "the potential, with the ambiguity of the title (of the show) and some of the text, that nudges people in a certain direction. There's almost this apocalyptic quality to this," he said.
It might be subtle, and it depends entirely on the viewer how the images align to form a larger whole. The people in the pictures are unrelated, separated by geography and time.
He thinks of this form of exhibition as a way of as "using photography somewhat like a writer would, and so each photograph is maybe a chapter in a novel, that's fiction, but maybe the characters in that novel are based on facts and truths," he said.