Headwaters

“I AM NOT AN ARTIST”

Illustration by Morgan Krieg

 

BY JESSIE MAZUR

I “never thought of myself as an artist,” my boyfriend said, adjusting the glasses he resents.

He said this shortly after he spent an entire evening smashing light bulbs and plates on the tile floor of his underground studio apartment, attempting to photograph the exact moment of impact using a sound-triggered strobe light. Three plates and eight lightbulbs to be exact, because, “you have to be disciplined in your f*ckery,” he said, whatever that means.

Hunter is a photojournalist, but his denial of the label of “artist” surprised me. The man I’ve spent the last two years getting to know is moody, uncompromising and frequently indulges in creative tangents into the early hours of the morning. Stereotypes suggest that my boyfriend, if anyone, has earned the label of artist. Yet his perception is different from mine.

Determined to extract the inner artist I knew was in there, I kidnapped him. And on a six-hour drive over the Going-to-the-Sun Road and back, I probed. I pulled up to an overlook above St. Mary Lake and handed him some chewed-up colored pencils from my toddler’s backpack and a piece of paper, then asked him to draw the scene before us.

The results were dismal.

“What are those?” I asked, pointing to some ugly dark streaks on the paper.

“I don’t know, whatever you want. Trees.”

“Why are they black?”

“They’re burnt.”

Clearly, this was not his medium.

“Why represent a scene myself when there’s a piece of technology that can do it better?” he grumbled.

“There’s enough beautiful stuff in the real world. Why you gotta make shit up?”

I admit, Hunter’s inclination for creativity isn’t obvious upon first glance. He dresses like a moth. He says he likes earth tones. But when I look around at Glacier Park I see the earth sporting vibrant purples, reds, blues, and many shades of green that Hunter’s closet lacks. His favorite color is drab olive. I know this because he told me, “Drab olive is my favorite color.” Some days he wears nothing but drab olive from his hat to his athletic T-shirt and hiking pants to his Chacos and flannel – this work uniform, if you will, allows him to shoot in most weather conditions and provides flexibility to perform the scaffold climbing, fence post balancing and lying in mud that photography often requires. More important, it camouflages him to slink around unnoticed in newsworthy situations.

Hunter hates being noticed. He hates to be noticed so much, he recently purchased a black Honda CRV, the world’s least noticeable car. The moth motif is a strategic advantage in his line of work. It came in handy when Hunter photographed Kalispell’s Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020. At the time, the presence of armed militia and rising tensions of many protesters who hadn’t left their house in months posed a real risk of violence, accidental or otherwise. Hunter paired his drab olive Patagonia jacket with his Carhartt khakis so no one could tell what side he was on. One of the resulting pictures, featuring a bright yellow umbrella surrounded by chaos, was picked up by NBC. It looked pretty artistic to me.

“Why can’t any photographer take a good photo at a protest?” I asked.

“Pictures are like looking through a keyhole. It’s up to the individual photojournalist to present a series of keyholes that tries to put together as much of the room as possible. When you’re a good photographer, you can fit more in.”

“Are you an artist?” I asked him, as the last of the day’s golden light streaked over the mountain peaks coming down the west side of the pass.

“Define artist,” he said.

“You define artist,” I retorted.

“I think art in its simplest form is translating something from one medium to another — Stop here,” he interrupted himself. “This light is what I’m talking about right here. This is the good shit.”

I pulled the car over and waited while he translated the alpenglow moment into 24 million cohesive pixels in 1/800 of a second. On the remainder of the drive, he droned on about the difference between objective, subjective and trans-subjective art, which I took as my cue to check out of the conversation and reflect. Someone else will look at that photo as a pretty picture of some mountains. To me, it represents the solitude of a fall evening, the depth of a conversation prompted by an unanswerable question, two years’ worth of eye-rolling and shit-giving, and an artist too near-sighted to recognize the artistry in his own work.

 

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