Not every kid would be enthralled if his family took him walking around deserted historic areas. But for Richard S. Buswell, who grew up on a cattle ranch outside Helena, it was a defining part of his childhood, one that he came back to after moving around the country for medical school. "It persevered in my subconscious so when I returned to Montana, I began photographing sites that I visited with my parents at an early age," he says. "Been doing it ever since."
Buswell, now 68 and semi-retired from private practice at an allergy clinic, has spent years documenting historic artifacts in Montana ghost towns. While elements of traditional Western iconography like bison skulls, barns and farm implements appear in Buswell's lens, there's no trace of kitsch or romanticism in his photos. Instead, the unusual angles and stark black backgrounds impart a sense of beauty and morbidity that gothic art fans might appreciate. A close-up of a calf's skull looks like layers of an alien rose. A potato bucket's raggedy spikes resemble a menacing, ancient torture device. Tattered scraps of hanging canvas are labeled "Window Shade."
His photos used to be more representational of their subjects, but now many are abstract to the point that their title cards, like "Gas Lamp" and "Three Milk Cans," are the only clues to what they depict.
Buswell likes to hike to abandoned homesteads with his gear, looking for just the right shot, never taking many photos. He calls it "hunting with my camera." As he gets older, he says he feels a sense of urgency to document untended places like Comet, south of Helena, and Deer Lodge County's Coolidge, that are vandalized and decaying. He finds a kind of meditative quality to visiting abandoned homesteads. "Because I will find artifacts of people who lived there, like toys, boots, shoes and other personal artifacts, which always raises questions of, 'Whose toy was that, are they even alive anymore?'" he says. "It's a place where I go to commune with remnants and residents of Montana history."
Buswell's photos are in collections throughout the United States, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and internationally, including galleries in Scotland and France. Buswell thinks the wildness of the West intrigues people around the world.
"A lot of the American frontier history is painted by mythology, whereas the reality of the American frontier West is that it was largely harsh," he says. "You had inhabitants riddled with diseases, smallpox, diphtheria, measles, accidents that are very much the opposite of the mythology." He prefers to show the starkness of the West in his black-and-white photos.
Buswell has used the same equipment for 42 years: two manual Nikkormats, four lenses and black-and-white film, which he develops himself. "The paper is getting hard to come by because so many people have gone to digital," he says.
Buswell chooses black-and-white silver selenide gelatin prints not just for style, but because they're sturdy. He prepares a silver print then tones it with selenium, an inert metal which binds to the silver and prevents it from breaking down. He stores his photos in acid-free boxes in a climate-controlled room.
"When I'm gone and all these ghost towns and homesteads are gone, hopefully these black-and-white prints will last for centuries," he says.
Richard S. Buswell's Close to Home is on display at the Paxson Gallery in the Montana Museum of Art and Culture on the UM campus now through Aug. 3.