With What They Left Behind, photographer Richard Buswell gives the past its close-up. 

Richard Buswell has been photographing the same subject matter—Montana ghost towns and homesteads—with the same manual equipment for 46 years.

"I acquired my camera equipment when I was in the military, in 1971 to 1973," he says. "And I've been using the same cameras, lenses and darkroom equipment ever since. I shoot black and white film and develop my own negatives and prints."

Despite his single-minded focus and resistance to new technology, Buswell's work has shifted noticeably since his first solo show in 1992 at the University of Montana's Paxson Gallery. In the past, he's allowed himself to step back and capture panoramic vistas of ghost-town and abandoned-homestead landscapes and their tell-tale artifacts. But as one might expect from a photographer so meticulous and unwavering in his study, he's upped the ante over the course of years spent photographing essentially the same things.

Buswell's new exhibition, What They Left Behind, which opens at the Montana Museum of Art and Culture Thursday, June 8, is less documentary and more fine art. Each photograph concentrates on a single object: a doll face, the pins of a player piano, a calf spine, elk teeth, dried fish, a shoe sole, a bulb socket, a crushed radiator. There's something obsessive and exact in the way he renders each work. Rather than framing them in the natural landscape, Buswell sets the objects against black backdrops. In "Cross Cut Saws," for instance, the teeth of two saws line the left and right sides of the photograph creating a gaping black absence in the center. The darkness highlights the texture of the saws, bringing them to the forefront.

"I'm more interested in recording the personality as reflected in the items or the artifacts that have been left behind," he says. "That still has an attraction for me after 46 years because of the way the artifacts reflect on the people that used to be there."

Even in a phone interview, Buswell answers questions with measured meticulousness, like he's setting up the perfect shot. The now retired doctor grew up on a ranch on the outskirts of Helena and spent his early childhood visiting old homesteads with his parents. He doesn't question his decision to stick to one subject, but he's challenged himself to keep it fresh.

click to enlarge Richard Buswell’s new exhibit, What They Left Behind, includes images from ghost towns and old homesteads such as, from left, “Spout” and “Receipts.”
  • Richard Buswell’s new exhibit, What They Left Behind, includes images from ghost towns and old homesteads such as, from left, “Spout” and “Receipts.”

"Ghost-town photography is very popular and is done a lot in a documentary way," Buswell says. "What I'm trying to avoid is the stereotypical representation of ghost towns and homesteads. Rather, I try to find something unique that I hadn't seen before. I usually will end up exposing 15 to 20 negatives per year, because I have seen so much in 46 years of photographing that it has become a challenge to find and photograph something that I haven't seen before."

Buswell's singular interest hasn't limited his audience, and his vision of western Montana's abandoned places is far-reaching. What They Left Behind is one of more than 40 solo exhibitions he's mounted at galleries across Montana and beyond, including Connecticut, Georgia and Oklahoma. He's shown in nearly 300 group exhibits, and his work is held in just as many private collections across the U.S. and overseas.

What They Left Behind is the title of both the exhibit and Buswell's fifth and latest book. Its style—subjects framed in close-up against the isolating black backdrops, divorces the objects from their regional meaning in a way that maybe makes the photos feel more universal. The darkness adds a layer to the already haunting imagery, suspending the object in time and space. In other ways, it adds to the sense of loss and decay, and brings to the surface some deeper questions. For instance, in the intro to What They Left Behind, Yale University art curator George Miles notes:

"A print of desiccated, decaying, dried fish spawns thoughts not only of them swimming in the cold, fresh waters of Montana's rivers but also of the men and women who caught them and ostensibly preserved them for nourishment. What interrupted that plan? What became of those people? What will become of us?"

That last one is a weighty question, but if you ask Buswell about his own future you'll get a predictably matter-of-fact answer, a kind of Zen response that seems to reflect the aesthetic of his work.

"These remote locations usually require a certain amount of stamina to find them, and that's where I feel blessed," he says. "I'm 72 and in good health, but one never knows what tomorrow is going to bring. As long as I'm physically able, I'll continue photographing these places."

What They Left Behind opens at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture Thu., June 8, with a reception and talk from Richard Buswell at the Masquer Theatre in the PARTV Center from 5 to 7 PM.

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