La Furia Umana
  • I’m not like evereybody else
    The Kinks
  • E che, sono forse al mondo per realizzare delle idee?
    Max Stirner
  • (No ideas but in things)
    W.C. Williams
SCOTT MACDONALD / Peter Hutton: Hudson River Filmmaker 

SCOTT MACDONALD / Peter Hutton: Hudson River Filmmaker 

The pioneering art historian Barbara Novak’s famous distinction between two approaches to American landscape in nineteenth-century painting – “grand opera” and “the still small voice” – remains useful for twentieth-century cinema, and not merely as a theoretical construct that assists in distinguishing different kinds of work developing from different aesthetic sensibilities[1]. The two areas of contemporary cinema that conform to Novak’s categories are responses to some of the same historical developments that produced the paintings that are surveyed in her profoundly influential book, Nature and Culture; and their positions vis-à-vis contemporary culture are analogous to the positions occupied by the “grand operatic” painters and the “Luminists” (and a bit later, the “Tonalists”) with regard to mid-nineteenth-century commercial development.

To a significant degree, the grand landscape epitomized by Frederic Edwin Church and the “Rocky Mountain school” (Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Hill) became, and has remained, the literal, as well as one of the historical, backgrounds of commercial films, from the earliest attempts to interest filmgoers in natural scenes, to John Ford’s depiction of Monument Valley in such films as Stagecoach (1939), Fort Apache (1948), and The Searchers (1956), and to more recent popular films such as Dances with Wolves (1990), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), What Dreams May Come (1998), and Into the Wild (2007); and it has played a major role in the history of independent feature filmmaking, from Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1921) to Babette Mangolte’s The Sky on Location (1983), Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1984) and Robert Fricke’s Baraka (1993) and Samsara (2011). But the “still small voices” of Luminism and Tonalism are also alive, not as a major influence on commercial cinema, but as sensibilities of considerable use in coming to terms with a number of accomplished American independent filmmakers of recent decades, including Larry Gottheim, James Benning, Sharon Lockhart, Nathaniel Dorsky, Leighton Pierce, and perhaps most obviously, Peter Hutton (1944-2016).

Art historians have defined “Luminism” in a variety of ways since John Baur coined the term in the 1940s, to refer to the work of John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Gifford, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Henry Lane, and to selected paintings by some Hudson River School painters, especially Thomas Cole and Frederic Church[2]. Generally, Novak and others have described the Luminists as offering a more meditative route to the spiritual than that provided by the awe-inspiring paintings of Church, Bierstadt, and Moran: “In contrast to the operatic landscape, Luminism is classic rather than baroque, contained rather than expansive, aristocratic rather than democratic, private not public, introverted not gregarious, exploring a state of being rather than becoming.”[3] Stylistically, Luminism is identified with a particular rendering of atmospheric effects—specifically, as Angela Miller puts it, a “Resonant, light-suffused atmosphere [that] melded topographic divisions into a visually seamless whole,”[4] often presented in comparatively small compositions extended along the horizontal. Generally, the paintings betray little or no evidence of the artists’ “labor trail” so obvious in contemporaneous, European impressionist painting and in modernist work in general.

There seems little point in exploring the origins of cinema for an individual progenitor of the Luminist sensibility evident in more recent, independent films. Film scholars are in the process of reconstructing early American film history, and while landscape has, so far, played a relatively small role in this process, it is clear that even during the dawn of cinema history the depiction of landscape, or at least “landscape,” was considered significant. While landscape is not a central issue in the widely-known actualities and proto-narratives produced by the Edison Studio and the Lumière Brothers in the 1890s, the “landscape film” was an early genre of American filmmaking. The Library of Congress lists dozens of titles that claim as their central focus not only American landscapes but also, in a good many instances, precisely those landscapes made popular by the Hudson River and Rocky Mountain painters of the nineteenth century: the Catskill Mountains, Kaaterskill Falls, Niagara Falls, Yosemite Valley, Yellowstone.[5] However, while the titles of many of the early films identify landscape as their subject, it must be said that most of them are really about railroad travel through landscape and are more fully focused on the railroad tracks into the landscapes than on the landscapes themselves.

Faced with the challenge of turning the new medium of cinema into a popular, economically successful enterprise, early filmmakers did the obvious: they attempted to impress viewers; and the last thing they could be expected to do is produce films that appealed to a meditative sensibility. By the late 1920s, however, as filmmakers began to reflect on cinema’s high-speed commercial development and on modern development in general, premonitions of a more meditative sensibility are evident in Ralph Steiner’s H20 (1929) and in Henwar Rodakiewicz’s Portrait of a Young Man (1931). In these two films, and particularly in Portrait, a sensibility close to what would later inform Peter Hutton’s work is already in evidence.

During his nearly half-century as an independent filmmaker, Hutton made a meditative gaze, especially a gaze on qualities of light and atmosphere, his fundamental rhetorical gesture, and in many instances he, quite consciously, provided viewers with film experiences that stand in relation to popular movie-going and to the dynamics of most independent cinema, precisely as “the still small voice” of Luminist painting stands in relation to the more aggressive dynamics of the more widely popular “operatic” school of nineteenth-century landscape painting. Hutton:

Most people go to films to get some kind of hit, some kind of overwhelming experience, whether it’s like an amusement park ride or an ideological, informational hit that gives you a critical insight into an issue or an idea. But for those few people who feel they need a reprieve occasionally, who want to cleanse the palate a bit, whether for spiritual or physiological reasons, these films seem to be somewhat effective.

 I’ve never felt that my films are very important in terms of the History of Cinema. They offer a little detour from such grand concepts. They appeal primarily to people who enjoy looking at nature, or who enjoy having a moment to study something that’s not fraught with information. The experience of my films is a little like daydreaming. It’s about taking the time to just sit down and look at things, which I don’t think is a very Western preoccupation. A lot of influences on me when I was younger were more Eastern. They suggested a contemplative way of looking—whether at painting, sculpture, architecture, or just a landscape—where the more time you spend actually looking at things, the more they reveal themselves in ways that you don’t expect.

 For the most part, people don’t allow themselves the time or the circumstances to get into a relationship with the world that provides freedom to actually look at things. There’s always an overriding design or mission behind their negotiation with life. I think when you have the occasion to step away from agendas, whether it’s through circumstance or out of some kind of emotional necessity—then you’re often struck by the incredible epiphanies of nature. These are often very subtle things, right at the edge of most people’s sensibilities. My films try to record and to offer some of these experiences.[6]

 Each of Hutton’s mature films offers an extended meditative experience made up of a series of individual meditations. Landscape (for Manon) (1987) and New York Portrait, Part I (1976) can serve as representative instances. Landscape (for Manon) is not literally “extended”—it is only eighteen minutes long; New York Portrait, Part I, sixteen minutes—but for most viewers the experiences Hutton provides in these films feel extended, as a result of his timing and the unusual serenity of his images and especially their remarkable silence. Earl A. Powell has discussed the “contemplative sublime” of Fitz Henry Lane and Martin Johnson Heade as characterized by the “stillness and serenity of frozen time” and, in the case of Lane’s 1864 paintings of Brace’s Rock, by “the extreme sublime of silence.”[7] Hutton’s films create an analogous silence, and just as the “silence” of the Brace’s Rock paintings seems especially powerful because of the historical context of the Civil War, the literal silence of Hutton’s films is particularly dramatic because of the nature of our era and the increasingly “noisy” way in which film generally functions in our lives.[8] For a contemporary audience weaned and socialized by television and the Internet, Hutton’s combination of a meditative gaze on serene, black-and-white imagery presented in total silence can be almost shocking.

Over the decades, Hutton shot films in a wide variety of locations: New York City, Boston and San Francisco; Poland, Thailand, China, Iceland, Ethiopia—and in New York’s Hudson Valley, sometimes in conscious homage to nineteenth-century painting. Indeed, he understood that he was hired to teach at Bard College in some measure because Bard, located in Annandale-on-Hudson, has often marketed its Hudson Valley locale. After moving to Bard, Hutton completed a series of films conceived as tributes to Hudson River painting. Much of the imagery in Landscape (for Manon) is suggestive of Cole’s Catskill paintings—some of Hutton’s imagery was made in and around Kaaterskill Clove—and the title of a second film, In Titan’s Goblet (1991), refers to Cole’s 1833 painting, The Titan’s Goblet.[9] The third and fourth of Hutton’s Hudson Valley films, Study of a River (1996) and Time and Tide (2000), explore the Hudson River itself, often from positions on the river. Before Hutton moved to San Francisco to study sculpture, then filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, he spent some years as a merchant seaman—and his experiences on ocean-going freighters (“Being on the ship forced me to slow down, and allowed me to take time to look”) often carried over into his experiences traveling and filming from barges and other watercraft on the Hudson.[10]

Landscape (for Manon) is made up of twenty-two shots. The first and last shots frame the film as a tribute to Hutton’s then-young daughter, Manon Hutton-De Wys: in the film’s delicate and arresting final shot, we see her face in close-up, double exposed with mottled light (the inscription “for Manon” concludes the film). The film’s opening image of a toy train moving along the top of a single railroad track seen from above (that it is a toy train is not clear until late in the twenty-five-second shot) not only confirms that the film is a tribute to Manon, it also suggests that Hutton saw himself rendered a “visual child” by his move to the Hudson Valley—though, of course, the specific reference to the train is a reminder that his cinematic exploration follows a long tradition of industrial exploration and development in this particular region.

I do not know whether Hutton’s decision to begin his first Hudson Valley landscape film with the image of a tiny train is specifically a nod to the train in Thomas Cole’s River in the Catskills (1843) or just a fascinating coincidence, but either way, the two trains have a related function. In his study of River in the Catskills, Alan Wallach has suggested that, “Painted in the early days of steam traction, this scene along the short-lived Canajoharie and Catskill Railroad is probably the first serious oil painting in the history of art to incorporate an image of a train…”[11] For Wallach the inclusion of this train was not Cole’s way of normalizing industrial development in the Hudson Valley, but an attempt at an “anti-pastoral”: a break from the previous pastoral landscape tradition that expressed Cole’s frustration with unrestrained industrialization. Hutton’s image actually includes two references to trains: the tiny toy train is moving along a real train track (presumably a rail of the Amtrak line that follows the eastern bank of the Hudson). If, as Wallach suggests, Cole’s train evokes an early moment in the industrialization of the Hudson Valley and provides an implicit warning, Hutton’s double-train image suggests the longing of a postlapsarian artist for a return to a prelapsarian world—or at least for a recognition that cinema is not only a child of the industrial revolution, but that modern cinema can be redirected toward a retrieval of the purity of vision that Cole was afraid was being lost, for the benefit of a new generation. 

The organization of the other twenty shots of Landscape (for Manon) is distinctive and memorable. With two exceptions, each individual shot is separated from the next by two to five seconds of darkness. The variation in the lengths of these moments of darkness seems a function of intuitive timing that has to do with allowing the viewer to “digest” one image and to prepare for the next. The timing of the particular images is quite sedate, and indeed seems calculated to confront the tendencies of commercial film editing: in general, the more “exciting” a commercial film becomes, the more heavily edited the film is. In fact, the best-known contribution of the Soviet montage school of editing was the “montage” itself, a device for intensifying the density of editing in climactic sequences, so as to thoroughly engage viewers in their secondhand participation in the action depicted and force them to feel its symbolic import. The average length of a shot in a contemporary commercial film is under ten seconds, and, of course, in advertisements and in music videos, individual shots are often shorter. In contrast, the lengths of the twenty-two shots in Landscape (for Manon), in seconds, are 25, 27, 11/27, 18, 27, 27, 15, 21, 38, 49, 49, 53, 45, 39/34, 26, 28, 15, 25, 19, 31 (the slashes indicate two instances when one shot is followed, without a pause, by another). The particular length of any one shot is a function of the subtle events revealed in the shots, but even a cursory look at Hutton’s overall timing reveals that Landscape opens at a serene pace and then dramatically slows down; the moments where the editing is least frequent occur almost at the center of the film.

The development of the overall timing of Landscape (for Manon) is confirmed by the specifics of the imagery. After the toy train shot and a remarkable shot in which a bare tree seems to develop a glow, shots 3 through 8 depict trees blowing in the breeze or, sometimes, a wind, in early autumn. These relatively active images lead to a series of much quieter images of landscape, most of which include views of the Catskills. Further, Hutton’s landscape images generally develop in a manner that creates an unusual perceptual process. Some images can seem, at first, like still photographs (this is particularly the case once the film’s first eight images, as slow-paced as they are, have provided immediately apparent motion). It is only if and when one accepts this apparent stillness that a subtler form of motion begins to tease the eye and mind, and we realize that what seemed to be still is actually a part of a much larger order of motion: the cloud masses are gradually, relentlessly shifting through the space defined by the frame; the subtleties of chiaroscuro and composition are continually evolving; and what originally appeared (at least to a commercial filmgoing sensibility) to be “dead” is, in fact, not only very much alive, but part of an order of motion that dwarfs the rectangular world delimited by the camera.

What the Luminists accomplished by making their presence as working artists invisible—except in the general sense that it is the implicit dexterity of their “frozen” views that allows particular spaces to speak directly to the spectator’s senses, mind, and spirit—Hutton accomplishes by making his presence as filmmaker invisible: except for the play of the toy train image, the double exposure at the film’s conclusion, and an inconspicuous moment of zooming at the beginning of shot 20, Hutton’s only filmic “device” is spatial and temporal composition. Hutton allows a revelation of the motion of the world to speak directly to the viewer. Indeed, this perceptual subtlety and implicitly spiritual connection is Hutton’s gift to the sleeping child in the film’s closing shot, and to the filmgoer-as-sleeping-child. We are often more oblivious than children to the visual subtleties of the world.

While Landscape (for Manon) and In Titan’s Goblet are Hutton’s most obvious tributes to nineteenth-century painting, Hutton’s Luminist sensibility is not confined to his landscape work in the Hudson Valley: Skagafjörður [2004], shot in the Skagafjörður region of Iceland, is among his most remarkable Luminist works. Further, Hutton’s portraits of cities—New York, Near Sleep, for Saskia (1972); New York Portrait, Parts I and II (1980); New York Portrait, Part III (1990); Budapest Portrait (1986); Lodz Symphony (1993); and his depiction of his native Detroit in Three Landscapes (2013)—resonate with the same meditative approach evident in the landscape films. In several instances, in fact, his New York City images provide obvious parallels to the Luminists, especially to Heade and Lane.[12]

That a cityscape of Manhattan can remind us of a Fitz Henry Lane harbor is less surprising if we remember that what may seem a quiet location to early-twenty-first-century eyes—a harbor with sailing ships—was, a century ago, a dynamic industrial arena. Of course, Lane’s handling of a harbor had the impact of freezing this activity into a proto-surreal frozen moment—an effect very similar to what Hutton achieves by choosing quiet moments in a metropolis and cinematically meditating on them in extended shots. In New York Portrait, Part I, this meditative sensibility is confirmed not only by Hutton’s tendency to divide individual shots (or in a few cases, pairs or triads of shots) from one another by moments of darkness, as he does in Landscape (for Manon), but also by his frequent use of fades in and out to introduce and conclude particular shots.

Several particular shots of New York Portrait, Part I deserve comment. In shot 6, for example, we observe a downtown Manhattan skyline in silhouette, stretching across the bottom of the image; above the buildings is a sky full of clouds. As happens so often in Landscape (for Manon), the image is so still that, at first, we are not sure it isn’t a still photograph. But the length of the shot allows us to adjust and realize that the clouds are gradually shifting through the space of the frame: instead of taking the conventional route of locating a moment of “action” within the “world” of the frame, Hutton implicitly locates the space delimited by his frame within the shifting forces of the larger world that surrounds his filmmaking—a strategy that evokes Thomas Cole’s View of Boston (1837-39), in which the painter embeds the distant city within the rural landscape that surrounds Boston and within the cloudscape visible above the scene.

By far the longest shot in New York Portrait, Part I (2 minutes, 18 seconds) confirms the implications of shot 6. The image is a “skyscape”; all we see are sky and clouds—and at first one, then several distant flocks of pigeons looping through the sky, moving in and out of the framed space and, within the framed space, in and out of the light so that at one moment the birds seem white, the next moment black. One minute into the shot, an even more distant airplane enters the frame and for a full minute is seen moving further and further away, from the upper left toward the lower center of the image. At some point during this accidental choreography (“accidental” because Hutton obviously couldn’t control the particular motions of birds and plane; “choreography” because he chose the space knowing birds and plane would move through it), we become aware of a third “layer” of motion—visible in the distance beyond the birds and plane but implicitly conditioning every motion they make. Gradually shifting clouds are altering the look of the frame and breathing new graphic life into the space even as we focus on the activities in the comparative foreground. The shot is an emblem of Hutton’s commitment to an intensification of our sense of the particular as a means of putting us in touch with the general, of helping us to see what is within our world as a means of providing us with a more complete, and deeper, awareness of the world he and we are within.

My arguing for an analogy between Luminist painting and Hutton’s filmmaking has so far sidestepped an important dimension of Hutton’s work, a dimension evident in many of Hutton’s films, and especially In Titan’s Goblet—a dimension of Hutton’s imagery that, at least on one level, conflicts with what I have been calling his Luminist sensibility. While it is true that Hutton, as film artist, “gets out of the way” of the scenes he depicts, as fully as Lane, Heade, and Kensett efface themselves from the scenes they depict, Hutton is trapped, in a way the painters were not, by the limitations of the mechanical-chemical technology he uses. Hutton’s attraction to low-light outdoor conditions sometimes causes his imagery to be somewhat grainy. This graininess is the mechanical-chemical version of the particulars of moment-to-moment perception that fascinated Monet, Seurat, and other Impressionists and produced paintings of rural and urban scenes that critics have seen as fundamentally different from Luminist work: paintings that reveal the fundamental transience of perception and experience, rather than—as in Luminist work—the fundamental, divine harmony and solidity behind, or within, momentary appearance.

The most useful art-historical analogy to this dimension of Hutton’s work is not Luminism, but the somewhat later evolution of American Tonalism. David A. Cleveland has explained:

In the four decades from 1880 to 1920 the Tonalist movement of intimate landscape painting flourished in America. Soulful, deeply expressive landscapes by artists such as George Inness, Alexander Wyant, J. Francis Murphy, Dwight Tryon, and Charles Warren Eaton—with Whistler’s low-toned decorative Nocturnes an ever-tantalizing presence—limn the nostalgic uncertainties of fin-de-siècle America…. The moody, often   melancholy evocations summoned by Tonalist landscapes, in which autumnal, sunset, and nocturnal themes predominate, followed from the horrors of the Civil War, while the failures of Reconstruction, the anxieties of a boom-and-bust economy, and Darwinian doubts only added to the undertone of vague displacement that haunts these precincts of embodied memory[13].

There is a Tonalist element to many of Hutton’s films, and in some instances it reflects Hutton’s concern about broader political issues (especially environmentally political issues). A smoky landscape midway through In Titan’s Goblet may at first seem to be a lovely natural phenomenon, but in fact this was the smoke from a runaway fire in a rubber tire graveyard—not an environmental catastrophe but for Hutton an implicit recognition that landscape art sometimes glosses over elements that endanger the beauty of the scenes depicted. The considerable graininess of the imagery in In Titan’s Goblet is, of course, a function of Hutton’s shooting in low-light conditions—but it also references the fundamental elements of emulsion-based photography in a manner that evokes the highly textural quality of the brushwork in Ralph Albert Blakelock’s Tonalist “Moonlights.”

Because Hutton, child of the twentieth century that he was, chose to be a film artist, he could not help but confront the implications of this choice, even when he was using his mechanical-chemical apparatus to achieve a meditative sensibility. Just as his meditative gaze makes no fundamental distinction between rural and urban locales—both are places in which people live, and both are in a continual process of transformation by both societal and natural forces—Hutton makes no fundamental distinction between material realities outside and inside the camera. The function of filmmaking, for Hutton, is to use the camera as a means of creating moments that reveal both outer and inner realities, the material and the spiritual, as the fundamental unity that in fact they are.

Hutton’s most elaborate Hudson Valley film, Time and Tide (2000), was his second film to document the river itself—Study of a River, finished in 1996, is a stunning evocation of the Hudson in winter (there is also Hutton’s rarely seen 2002 comparative study of the Hudson and China’s Yangtse River: Two Rivers)[14].Time and Tide was also, at 35 minutes, Hutton’s longest film in twenty-five years, approximately the same length as two early films—July ’71 in San Francisco, Living at Beach Street, Working at Canyon Cinema, Swimming in the Valley of the Moon (1971) and Images of Asian Music (A Diary from Life 1973-74) (1974). And it includes the first color imagery Hutton had used in his own work since In Marin County (1970).

Time and Tide is also Hutton’s first film to include “recycled” imagery (“recycled cinema,” the making of films out of previous films, is a pervasive tendency in recent filmmaking). In this instance, what is recycled is a complete film from the early twentieth century: Down the River, produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1903. Down the River is actually what we would call a trip up the Hudson, from Haverstraw to Newberg—in mostly pixilated imagery that emphasizes the river’s commercial importance: boats zip around the river and trains along it, at impossible speeds, which nevertheless express turn-of-the-century excitement with modernity’s exploitation of this natural resource.

Time and Tide was also Hutton’s most candid confrontation of the ways in which filmmaking itself was a part of modern industrial society. After the presentation of Down the River, Time and Tide slows down to the meditative pace typical of Hutton, and moves us first down the Hudson and into various sectors of New York Harbor, then back up the Hudson all the way to a General Electric factory (identified by a large light-sign[15]), and finally back down to the Hudson Highlands area (south of Poughkeepsie and north of Haverstraw). As this description may suggest, Time and Tide includes imagery of the river and its natural surroundings and imagery of New York City, as well as industrial sites up and down the river.

There is no seasonal consistency in the imagery in Time and Tide: we see the Hudson in all seasons and weathers. In Time and Tide any change from one shot to the next may move us from black-and-white to color or vice versa, and from one season to another. The variability of the imagery in Time and Tide reveals Hutton’s recognition that, year after year, year in and year out, the Hudson provided him with a continually evolving panorama that could never be taken for granted, either cinematically or environmentally.

As Hutton understood, his films, and emulsion-based photography and filmmaking in general, involve not only a chemical process, but particularly dirty one. Early in Time and Tide a tanker passes Hutton’s camera, from left to right, revealing its name in reverse, one word at a time: first, “Pioneer,” then “Chemical Pioneer.” This name encapsulates a crucial dimension of Time and Tide: Hutton’s awareness not only of the historical complicity of cinematic beauty and environmental damage, but his recognition of his own position within this history. As a filmmaker, Hutton was, at least until his switch to digital in Three Landscapes, inevitably a chemical film pioneer. Though he used cinema to move us away from unmitigated “progress” (defined as ever-accelerating consumption of goods, and of film imagery) and toward forms of contemplation typical of nineteenth-century landscape painting, his methods were made possible by the world’s most famous photo-chemical company, Kodak. More fully and more obviously than any of Hutton’s earlier films, Time and Tide reflects its maker’s recognition that his travels on the river have brought him near to the heart of (environmental) darkness, represented by the elegant and playful GE sign, and that he, like all of us, would need to face the implications of this history. Hutton: “I purposely put an image of the General Electric logo in the middle of the film, just to say, ‘There are other issues inherent in this very beautiful bucolic landscape; there is something underneath this surface that’s not so beautiful.’ GE polluted the Hudson river with PCBs for many years, within legal limits, of course, but with terrible consequences.”[16]

During the final years before his death in June of 2016 Hutton was expanding his work in several directions. Both At Sea (2009) and Three Landscapes are panoramic works that include three disparate locations and visual explorations. At Sea depicts the life of seagoing vessels: part 1 was shot in a shipbuilding facility in Okpo, Korea; part 2, on a container ship sailing from Montreal, Canada to Hamburg, Germany; and part 3 at a shipbreaking facility in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Three Landscapes includes a depiction of post-industrial Detroit, activities at the Afar Depression in Ethiopia (the lowest point in Africa), and autumn in the pastoral Hudson Valley. Each of these panoramic triads suggests a global awareness, but is also a rumination on the life cycle and on personal history.

At sixty minutes, At Sea is Hutton’s epic. It powerfully reconfirmed for those who had followed his career Hutton’s stature as a visual artist[17]. At Sea is unusual within Hutton’s work since the three sections, though disparate in geography (and in formal ways as well) document a single meta-process: the birth, life, and death of ocean-going freighters and container ships. The ships within each section of the film are, of course, different ships—but all ships are at one or another point in this process. As in Cole’s The Voyage of Life (1839-40), the distinct ages of commercial sailing vessels in At Sea are represented both by literal content and by the use of changes in chiaroscuro and color: the shipbuilding sequence is in bright, almost childlike colors, and the ships under construction look almost like toys; the containers on the ship making the voyage from Montreal to Hamburg are colorful, though the seriousness of the voyage itself is obvious; and our view—Hutton films from behind the window of the bridge—is sometimes obscured by weather conditions. The shipbreaking sequence is filmed in black and white and focuses as fully on laborers doing demanding work as on the ships under deconstruction. That At Sea was made as Hutton neared conventional retirement age (he was 62 when the film was finished) may suggest a more personal reading of the film’s three sections. Was Hutton feeling a bit “at sea” as he looked forward to the coming years?

The three sections of Three Landscapes, the final film completed during Hutton’s lifetime, suggest, in somewhat different ways, an ongoing rumination on aging. The opening section is a meditation on the city of Detroit in decay—and since Hutton was born in Detroit and grew up there before the city’s economic downturn, his depiction of Detroit reads as a visual dirge to the passing of time as it has affected both his hometown and himself. The second section, filmed during Hutton’s pilgrimage to the Afar Depression—the site of an unfinished film by his longtime friend, filmmaker Robert Gardner—was Hutton’s way of honoring their long friendship by completing a project Gardner had begun. The third “landscape,” the last Hutton would complete, returns him to the Hudson Valley at harvest time.

Hutton used the two panoramic films to move more fully into the gallery world. In 2015 Ed Halter curated an installation show, “Nature is a Discipline,” at the Miguel Abreu Gallery in New York City; the show included installation versions of At Sea and Three Landscapes, as well as Tulare Road (2015), an installation by James Benning—though Benning and Hutton had been close friends and cine-philosophical colleagues for decades, this was the first time they had worked together in this way. And in February, 2016, the Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica opened a show, “Peter Hutton/Film Stills”: Hutton’s inventive photographic enlargements of frames from his films.       

When Peter Hutton died (like Cole, too soon—and much too quickly) in June of 2016, he left behind a particularly distinguished contribution to modern cinema and to the long history of landscape depiction—and now to the evolving history of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site and to the record of Cole’s accomplishments and influence on other artists. Of course, Thomas Cole was more than an accomplished artist – he was also an influential teacher. On a hilltop directly across the Hudson from the Thomas Cole Site is the Olana State Historic Site, the home and grounds designed by Cole’s remarkable student, Frederic Edwin Church. The formative teacher-student relationship of Cole and Church is documented in Master, Mentor, Master: Thomas Cole & Frederic Church, a monograph produced by the Cole Historic Site in 2014, and explored in John Wilmerding’s catalog essay.

Like Cole, Hutton was a teacher. He worked with filmmaking students at various institutions: California Institute of the Arts, Hampshire College, Harvard University, the State University of New York at Purchase, and from 1985 on, at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson—just across the river and a few miles down Route 9G from the Cole Site and Olana.

As a teacher, Hutton was gifted and charismatic (and the chair of Bard’s Film and Electronic Arts Department for many years). Throughout his teaching career, he was important to many young filmmakers, most famously, perhaps, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who studied with Hutton at Hampshire College and has called him “a powerful influence on me and dozens of others” and “a national treasure.”[18] Indeed, the stately pacing of Burns’ best work seems to reflect the persistent serenity of Hutton’s films.

Because Hutton was committed to the textures and tonalities of celluloid cinema and resisted a move to digital filming until very recently, we are left with a collection of 16mm prints of Hutton’s films (in most cases the negatives are, I believe, intact)—most of which remain in good shape. Since options for showing 16mm films have diminished considerably in recent years, Hutton’s films will, at least for a time, be less available to cineastes and art lovers than they should be—at least as they were meant to be seen (some of the Hutton films are available, in low-resolution versions, on YouTube). Surely the major film archives will continue to make Hutton’s work available, and one can hope that before long, first-rate digital versions of the films will become feasible and allow the audience for this master of landscape and cityscape to grow—just as the audience for the Cole paintings that were so important to Hutton continues to expand. 

Scott MacDonald 

[1]See Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), chapters 2 and 3

[2]Baur apparently coined “Luminism” in “American Luminism, a Neglected Aspect of the Realist Movement in Nineteenth-Century American Painting,” Perspective USA, no. 9 (Autumn 1954): 90-98. Ila Weiss reviews discussion of the topic in chapter 1 of Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newmark: University of Delaware Press/Associated University Presses, 1987); and the term is debated throughoutAmerican Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, a collection of overviews edited by John Wilmerding and published in 1980 by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of a major exhibition.

[3]Novak, Nature and Culture: 32.

[4]Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993): 243.

[5]For a listing of these films, see Iris Cahn, “The Changing Landscape of Modernity: Early Film and America’s ‘Great Picture’ Tradition,” Wide Angle18, no. 3 (July, 1996): 85-100.

[6]Hutton, in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 243-44.

[7]See Powell’s overview of Luminism, “Luminism and the American Sublime,” in Wilmerding, American Light: 80, 81. See note 3.

[8]Of course, commercial cinema was never truly silent: audiences have always made themselves heard, and musical accompaniment was a nearly automatic dimension of the film experience until sound-on-film made sound inevitable in commercial cinema. Even those silent films produced by American independent filmmakers of the 1960s—Stan Brakhage is the most prominent example—for whom sound seemed an expensive, and, for a visual artist, an aesthetically unnecessary extra, were generally characterized by heavy editing (and sometimes shocking imagery), causing the films to seem visually “noisy,” even without soundtracks

[9]The relationships between Hutton’s film and Cole’s bizarre painting are implicit. Much of Hutton’s In Titan’s Goblet focuses on a rubber fire that men on bulldozers are attempting to extinguish. The bulldozers are filmed from a considerable distance and the result is that they look like toys. This distortion in size echoes the even more obvious distortion of scale evident in Cole’s painting.

[10]Hutton interview in A Critical Cinema 3: 252

[11]Alan Wallach, “Thomas Cole’s ‘River in the Catskills’ as Antipastoral,” Art Bulletin 84, no 2 (June 2002): 335. Wallach explains (in his note 4) that others have argued that J. M. W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (1844) deserves this title.

[12]Also, the fact that Hutton’s urban images are frequently reminiscent of the Luminists doesn’t mean that the Luminists were a conscious reference. In fact, the particular images in the New York Portrait films suggest not just panting, but nineteenth-century photography. Shot 7 in New York Portrait, Part II, seems an obvious homage to Charles Sheeler, whose painting and photography Hutton admired, and who—in collaboration with Paul Strand—made the breakthrough city portrait, Manhatta (1921), which intercuts between poetic texts and imagery of Lower Manhattan—a forerunner to Hutton’s depictions of New York. And several images in New York Portrait, Part I, are reminiscent of Alfred Stieglitz. Indeed, the history of photography clearly plays an important role in Hutton’s thinking: it’s a relationship that could sustain a considerable discussion.

[13]David A. Cleveland, A History of American Tonalism: 1880-1920 (Manchester, VT/New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2010): xiii.

[14]Hutton: Two Rivers “was the most ambitious thing I’d done…. The Two Rivers project came out of my interest in the Hudson River and in Hudson himself and the various recollections of his journeys to the New World…. When I wrote the proposal for Diane Shamash [“who ran Minetta Brook until she died”—“a fairy godmother to me and to a lot of other artists”], I commented on the environmentalist issues facing both rivers: the Hudson was very much in the news because of General Electric and the PCB controversy; at the time, I thought the dredging of the Hudson would be part of the film…. There was also environmentalist resistance in China to the damming of the Yangtze and the resulting damage to the Three Gorges….

I also thought this was a very interesting idea because my imagery of each river was preceded by a great painterly tradition: I thought it would be interesting to think about how these specific landscapes influenced particular aspects of Chinese and American painting.” Interview with Peter Hutton, in Scott MacDonald, Adventures of Perception: Cinema as Exploration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009): 226-227.

[15]Actually, the General Electric sign was not filmed on the Hudson River, but on the Mohawk River in Schenectady—this break in the geographic continuity of Time and Tide (it would be visible to few outside New York State) confirms Hutton’s commitment to a polemical use of the image.

[16]Interview with Hutton in Adventures of Perception: 222.

[17]In 2010 Film Comment published the results of a poll of aficionados of independent cinema, and At Sea was voted the best avant-garde film of the decade.

[18]Ken Burns, letter to The Independent 20, no.2 (March 1997): 7.