I understand that there is a ranch house for me to sleep in and a man who will meet me once my odometer turns its fiftieth mile from the highway, but these details are inconsequential to the meditation at hand.
Every so often I find myself with a handful of homeless pictures. These images come about as a matter of process, pictures made during in between moments when the only compelling reason to press the shutter is to be antithetical to the idea that every photograph encapsulates a completed story. These pictures are notes, tones, mile markers on the way to destinations, things which have caused me to screech to a halt on the open, empty highway, mistakes, distractions from the main event, and studies in composition that likely have no useful thread outside of being pages in a photographer’s sketchbook. The thesis supporting these kinds of pictures is the notion that photography is a process that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the boxes we’ve become so adept at putting images into–this one is photojournalistic, that one an artistic, and so on. It is a topic that has managed to creep into a lot of conversations lately, the way a photographer can quickly rise and fall simply by smashing them against some chosen, arbitrary paradigm. It is like judging a word by counting its syllables or choosing a paint because of its smell. Perhaps I am getting a little carried away, but I believe that process is important and outtakes–these photographic waypoints—are instrumental in charting our own, unique trajectory as photographers.
Now you have the philosophical underpinnings on the importance of outtakes. What follows are all the personal details from a journal on the process of making them.
* * *
The mile markers tick off the great ocean separating my home in Denver from the island cities of the north; Cheyenne, Sheridan, Billings. The shoreline of the Rocky Mountains to the west stands in sharp contrast to the expansive flats to the east, those tracts of land so open that you feel like you’re floating on the stillness of a body of water that has found its own level. It is beautiful, quiet, grays and greens with a deep blue and purple atmosphere that pulls itself down to the earth like some icy, celestial blanket.
Keep going north and the names become less and less familiar. Klein. Roundup. Grass Range. Each one a smaller island, a lower volume, a tonal nuance more refined than the previous. These are the places where extroverts go to die, where the silence is pronounced like the God of the Old Testament, so sacred, so perfect that its music has no human ear in which it can resonate. It is not wrathful, rather impartial, Jack Londonish in its regard for the individual’s relationship with whatever he or she has come to understand as the Greater, the forces of entropy, the seasons that slowly turn water to ice and back again, cracking apart even the soundest of boulders, those things that we foolishly regard as permanent. When the story is written from the outside, these places become spaces into which one disappears. It is a fair reading from afar, the way that the transmissions from an aircraft that suddenly go silent can lead one to the conclusion that the plane has crashed. But from the inside, there was never a vanishing, just the realization that our course has always been laid out in front of us with its finality long since a foregone conclusion. We are already vanished, already come from–and going to–the same, perfect silence.
* * *
It is past midnight by the time I get to Billings. I have friends in town that I should see, but it is late. For the moment, at least, I am not in a state of mind to make small talk, to uncloak myself, to give myself reason to forget that I want nothing more than to be invisible, disintegrated, one of the vanished. I get a room on the east edge of town, sleep until sunrise, and continue north into the deeper sea of Montana as it teeters over the steep threshold of winter. I know where I am going–it is the third time I have been in the area in less than a year. The Missouri River Breaks, a place where the land itself seems to vanish from the vast plains, slipping downward in relief as though mountains have been punched into the ground rather than sprung up from it.
I turn the car from the two-lane onto a gravel strip extending in a straight line eastward, out over the horizon. Behind me is one of the buttes of the Little Rockies, a mountain-looking outcropping with an appearance made all the more pronounced by the fact that it is surrounded by the downward breaks and the flat, open country. I am headed interior, into the rural heart of Phillips county, sixty miles or so. The road is relatively kept, but rain turns the clay substrate into a slick mud that has the consistency of toothpaste and the viscosity of Valvoline. It has been raining all afternoon, but what the hell. I have got a sleeping bag and water in the back of the car and the worst-case scenario is not all that bad.
I have been sent to photograph buffalo but, I will confess, it is the furthest thing from my mind as the car clicks tracks along its rocky course. For me, Montana has always been a love story, a point on the map where the useless tools of reason and rationale disappear into the sky like millions of little starlings migrating gracelessly into the blue-grey ether above. I understand that there is a ranch house for me to sleep in and a man who will meet me once my odometer turns its fiftieth mile from the highway, but these details are inconsequential to the meditation at hand. I have become wisps of stratospheric cloud and the road ahead of me presents only the illusion of choice. I could not drive it any different if I tried.