The first time I saw a Peter Hutton film was at a screening at The MacDowell Colony several years ago when Peter was in residence. A small group of us gathered in the Colony library to watch Study of a River. A 16mm projector hummed over our shoulders as we all sat in the dark, mesmerized by this silent, black-and-white film. It was like watching a contemporary version of a Hudson River School painting come to life before my eyes. I’ve never forgotten the experience of seeing that film—of sitting silently watching ice and ships drift over the Hudson River.
Experience is central to Hutton’s creative approach. There are no special effects or dramatic story arcs in a Peter Hutton work. Whatever your expectations are of cinema, set them aside. Hutton’s sublimely nuanced creations are everything commercial movies are not—subtle, completely silent, thoughtful, and devoid of narrative. Hutton’s films are more like meditations or visual poems—they linger over landscapes and scenes, capturing both dramatic and mundane moments that would otherwise be lost.
I was not surprised to learn that Hutton began his art career as a painter. He has a painter’s eye—a contemplative style that is completely radical in today’s culture. He uses old movie cameras not for nostalgic effect, but as a vehicle to focus the viewer’s attention. There are no sounds, special effects, or fancy tracking shots to distract us. Hutton’s camera is like an extension of his own body. We see what he sees. We experience what he experiences.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to watch Hutton’s film At Sea, which is currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. The piece was named the best avant-garde film of the decade by Film Comment magazine and is part of the museum’s FreePort series, which invites contemporary artists to explore the roles of trade, exchange and translation in relation to the museum’s collection.
Hutton’s film chronicles the birth, life, and death of a colossal container ship. It begins with a container ship being built in one of the world’s largest shipyards in South Korea. Hutton then records the ship’s journey across the Atlantic from Montreal to Hamburg. His film ends in Chittagong, Bangladesh, where he captures the dangerous and mesmerizing process of ship breaking at a maritime graveyard on the shores of the Bay of Bengal.
Ship breaking allows materials from the ship, especially steel, to be reused. Most ships have a lifespan of just a few decades before repairs become uneconomical and the ship is scrapped. Today, most ship breaking yards are in developing countries because labor costs are lower and environmental and labor regulations virtually non-existent. According to eye-witness accounts, waste from the scrapped ships is drained and dumped directly into the Bay of Bengal. The prevalence of highly toxic materials in the ship breaking yard is causing serious health problems in the local population and in local wildlife.
But these are facts I discovered in my own research, not through Hutton’s film. He is not a journalist or a traditional documentary filmmaker. There are no heavy-handed diatribes or talking heads in At Sea. As viewers, we simply observe these men working, posing and smiling in front of the camera, and risking their lives in this surreal, post-industrial landscape. The effect is very different from watching a traditional documentary. We aren’t pelted with shocking statistics or heart-wrenching stories. We simply find ourselves glimpsing the everyday reality of these men. This is hard work. Dangerous. Slow and tedious.
The Peabody Essex has a exquisite collection of ship models. For the first time in the museum’s history, a highly detailed model depicting the ship-breaking of an industrial tanker has been created by Michael Wall and Peter Hutton. Commissioned specifically for this exhibition, it may be the only such model of its kind in existence.
A former merchant seaman, Hutton has spent nearly forty years traveling around the world, often by cargo ship, to create his remarkable films. I was interested to learn more about Hutton’s experiences at sea and his approach to film-making. Peter kindly supplied me with still images for this article, and Mike Plante, the editor and publisher of Cinemad, graciously agreed to share his interview with this highly acclaimed filmmaker.
As Mike points out in his introduction on the Cinemad website, what may be most remarkable about Peter Hutton is that his films manage to be avant-garde without being pretentious. (Not an easy task.)
In the following interview with Plante, Hutton discusses how traveling and being at sea trained his eye as an artist how painting and Eastern art have influenced his filmmaking. He also explains the importance of craft and practice and describes why his films are more like sketchbooks than highly polished artworks.
“I wanted to keep everything very simple,” Hutton says. “Cinema tends to be this additive thing, it gets more complicated technologically…It’s very expensive and complicated logistically. I wanted to do it alone, keep it personal and private. Almost like making sketchbooks. The more I kept it simple the more I could work…It’s not about the pyrotechnics, it’s about something else—being inventive with limitations.”
The following interview is courtesy of Mike Plante, editor and publisher of Cinemad and founder of Cinemad Presents, a film distributor for independent, foreign, avant-garde, cult and underground films.
CINEMAD: Was there a flashpoint where you became interested in art film?
PETER HUTTON: For the first 10 years of my creative life I wasn’t making films, I was a painter as a teenager, then a sculptor. I was in L.A. for a summer in the mid-60s. I went to see one of Kenneth Anger’s experimental films on La Cienega. I then moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Art Institute. I started seeing Harry Smith and Bruce Conner at the Straight Ashbury Film Society that Freuda Bartlett ran. I thought this was going to be huge! Everybody did! In some way a rival to commercial film culture, because the parameters were so blown open from traditional cinema. It’s interesting watching it over the last 40 years collapse into a pretty delicate little culture. It’s kind of kept alive by young people who are just discovering this work, who get really excited about it, and fortunately start writing about it. But it’s also kept alive by those who teach, the art schools who are, for the most part, employing a lot of people who are propagating it through showing their own and other people’s work. It’s a relatively modest yet a wonderful alternative to commercial film culture.
If you want to see it, you’re going to have to become involved with it.
I think that’s good though. One of the things that is important to me is the contrast between the accessibility of TV and commercial media that are being pushed at you…You have to be curious, go out of your way. Like going to flea markets and finding great old books, photographs, paintings. You have to have that curiosity. There’s an element of satisfaction that comes with discovering something that wasn’t publicized or in front of commercial culture. I like the fact that there’s an obscurity to the culture. Maybe that’s good…
Did you study still photography?
No. Painting was my big deal. My uncle was an artist, Edward Plunkett, he knew a lot of New York artists, including Marcel Duchamp and collected pop art. He was a great influence on me. My mother was also an amateur painter.
When I was a kid, my father had kept a photo album as a merchant seaman. I loved looking at these photo albums filled with images of places he had gone when working on ships; India, China, Indonesia. They were just snapshots. Landscapes, seascapes, very amateur casual photographs. This was before TV, so it was a very cool place to zone out and imagine these places. When I started working on ships, I was so happy to be going to these places. It built up my appreciation for this sort of traveling.
I took photographs when I went to India, then after that I eventually learned film…there was a 10-year period from ’64 – ’74 where I intensely worked on ships. I paid my way through art school by working on ships. I went to sea for a semester, then to school for a semester, back and forth from sea to school…
What were your duties?
In the days when I worked on ships, they were smaller. I almost always worked on the Deck gang. This is pre-containerization. I spent a summer on the Great lakes working on Ore boats then I saved money and moved to Honolulu from Detroit to catch real ocean going ships.
The first salt water ship I worked on was a freighter that was contracted to haul grain to India. We were giving the Indian government grain. This is about 1964…The ship was leased from a company in Singapore, Liberty Navigation, by USAID to carry wheat to India during a famine. But the wheat had been held in the ship so long…[that] by the time we got to India, a lot of the wheat had rotted inside the ship. They popped open the hatches to unload it and there was this huge stench. It was Conradian in a way. A deed of good will gone very bad.
We actually stayed in Calcutta for almost a month…After we left, we ran over a huge buoy in Hooglie river (the AB on watch was drunk). It actually bent the propellers, so they had to tow us back to Kidderpore, the waterfront area of Calcutta. They filled the two forward holds of the ship with sea water to jack it up in the stern, to cut up the damaged part of the propeller off…
A lot of companies…would contract Indians to paint the ship because the labor was so cheap at the time. While we were at port, there was about 300 men hanging off the edge of the ship with little hammers wacking on the hull. The racket was unbearable, you couldn’t even think! So we all moved off the ship into cheap hotels. It was great, I saw Calcutta and it changed my life. Being in that place at that time, exposed to a world unknown to me…
I never saw the world quite the same after that. It kind of busted me out of the typical, young, naïve, midwestern frame of mind. I quickly developed this passionate desire to travel more and to learn about what I was experiencing. I had a very limited understanding of the world. The sea makes you aware of a different velocity of time…
Visually, it’s fascinating because it’s without any parameters. It’s not the world that we know. It’s almost like traveling into outer space. I always thought that perspective was great, particularly as someone who used to be a painter. It exposes you to this different atmosphere. You experience things that feel really unique. Even though there’s the tradition of Maritime painting. If you think of someone like Turner, his whole life was spent doing seascapes, paintings about ships and naval battles and nature, referencing this incredible atmosphere.
When you work on ships,…there’s a lot of downtime. You’re able to space out and look at the atmosphere of the sea. That in itself is amazing. The sense of time is really different because you’re traveling so slowly. Sometimes on ships you’re dead in the water. They shut them down and work on the engine or something like that and you’re just out there floating. In the middle of nowhere.
One time in the middle of the Pacific, we stopped because they were working on the boiler on this grain ship. A whale came up and was scraping barnacles off the side…Wow! Stuff like that was mind-boggling.
Sailing into storms—I’ve got a lot of stories of how visually intense it was. In the 70’s, when I was working on tankers, there was one night when we were sailing from Thailand to the Persian Gulf. We had just turned the corner around Sri Lanka in the Indian ocean and I was on watch, which meant that I was right at the fore-peak of the ship, standing there. What a deckhand would do was look off in the horizon and look out for lights of other ships approaching. If you saw light, you’d ring a bell and report it to the bridge…
One night I was out there, the moon was out, it was a summer night. It was warm, I was in a t-shirt. All of the sudden I felt it getting really cold. I started scrunching up a little bit. Then I realized it was getting darker. The moon went behind some clouds. Colder, darker, colder, darker. It was amazing! I felt like we were sailing into an inkwell.
I didn’t realize there were so many degrees of darkness. Pretty soon, you couldn’t see anything…The clouds covered the moon and everything closed in on the ship. It started raining, the seas became very active. Then the officer on the bridge shined a light down on me, which meant that I should go up to the bridge. I turned around, and a wave came over the bow. The seas were starting to boil…
We were sailing into this storm. It was so beautiful as a visual moment. Something you could never film, because it was so dark. It was this experience of sailing into this murky, dark world. Eventually we punched through and it started getting lighter, warmer, the seas started calming down, it started getting warmer. I was like, ‘What an experience!’ As an artistic moment, it was really interesting, almost spiritual…
There’s a kind of culture of survival when you’re out at sea, where you have to develop a kind of visual acuity to know where you’re going, what’s happening. That’s always been a part of the Maritime culture; to be looking very carefully. One of the benefits aside from all the traveling is that you’re forced to look at things much more carefully. Particularly more at night.
You’re out there in the darkness, you’re thinking ‘There’s nothing happening up here’, but night after night after night, you begin to see things that blow your mind. Pools of phosphorescent plankton under the sea that are exploding and illuminating. It was like hallucinating. Going through the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, it was like there were depth charges going off and there was light exploding under the surface of the ocean. Porpoises would streak through these pockets of plankton like underwater rockets. “Am I really seeing this?”
How does that change or affect your depth of field, especially when you start looking at things through a camera? Did you feel differently because water’s clear?…
I don’t know if you can even record that on film, the darkness. It was more about this idea that we can see a lot more than we can understand. Our eyes give us the capacity to see and process a lot of information. In today’s world, we don’t need to survive that way, so we don’t use our eyes that way. We tend not to spend hours looking at clouds, watching light move. People who were out in that world had to get engaged in a more intense visual level to figure things out.
For a filmmaker it was good, not so much for technical phenomena, more about ‘Ok, this is something I can do’ and just looking at the world in general. Looking more carefully at things, developing a greater appreciating the idea of looking.
There’s a visual passivity with a newer generation of filmmakers where things are fed to us through TV, media, entertainment, what have you. We don’t have to sit and look at stuff as much. Its all fed to you…
Looking at other painters and being fascinated by the way they looked at things and how they realized visual ideas—those influences were invaluable. But it might come from some primal thing such as being on the ocean for a long period of time.
A lot of my early art teachers (at the university of Hawaii) were Chinese and Japanese. Their ideas of looking at things were much more meditative, contemplative. Where you sort of give yourself to that thing you’re looking at. Whether it’s a rock garden, a brush painting, you’re kind of wandering into it visually.
I think a lot of Western art is more like shouting at you saying ‘Hey! I’m over here, look at me! I’m funny! I’m weird…’ Pop art, contemporary art, it’s trying to get your attention because there’s so much wacky shit going on.
Eastern art is much more quiet, subtle. It’s about you carving out some space to interact with that thing. That had a much bigger influence on me and how I make films. The pleasure I get just from looking at nature. The shadows, light, events, people, weather. There’s a kind of wonderful appreciation for light and dark. Very reductive. It’s not about the narrative or events occurring. It’s about the small details and time passing. You give your time to vision and it gives you a reward, it’s a discipline…
Film to me is still about space, time. It’s still about painting with the language of cinema. It’s a very reductive appreciation for some of the potential of cinema that was never realized aesthetically because it was so eclipsed by entertainment, narrative and telling stories…
That stereoscopic effect goes way back to the earliest times of photography…
When I started making films in the 60’s, I wanted to keep everything very simple and keep working. Cinema tends to be this additive thing, it gets more complicated technologically. Just the logistics of cinema are not an easy enterprise for someone coming from an arts background. It’s very expensive and complicated logistically. I wanted to do it alone, keep it personal and private. Almost like making sketchbooks. The more I kept it simple the more I could work.
That’s hard. People fall so in love with cinema, it’s such a seductive culture…All the narrative strategies they pursue tend to get compared to Hollywood stuff. Even the indie stuff that tends to cost $5 million, $14 million or $1 million, there’s something perverse about getting seduced into that big money game.
Every generation should subvert that tradition and say, ‘Wait, I can do this stuff with $150, a shitty camera’ and turns someone’s head around by doing something that’s so obvious nobody ever thought about. It’s not about the pyrotechnics, it’s about something else—being inventive with limitations.
There’s no real structure about how to make short films in most film schools, because you are referencing legendary directors who make studio-backed feature films. You need to learn the craft from the bottom up.
Now with the accessibility to digital cameras, editing, resources and everything, the whole apparatus of cinema has been thrust into a more democratic kind of mix. Everyone says ‘I can do this!’ They get their friends together and try, that’s great, but that’s so much easier said than done. The time that it takes to develop an eye, such as an cinematographer for example, is huge. You need to shoot a lot of film in order to understand that language.
Kids are just picking up cameras, there’s this whole lack of appreciation for practice. Just practicing your craft as a director, as a cameraman, as an editor. Learning to negotiate that tradition with some confidence, that only comes from experience.
I always say to my kids, ‘Listen, you can’t just pick up a violin and expect to function with it unless you know it inside out with your arm, your neck, your brain, your hands.’ It’s like that with everything and to think that film is different because it’s technologically easy is bullshit!
Do you show your students paintings at all?…
When I do the cinematography class, we spend a lot of time looking at Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hopper and just talking about fundamentals. Where’s the light? Where’s the light coming from? What’s that doing to the space? But that’s film school 101, it should be. Then we look at photography, Cartier-Bresson, Aget, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, as well as a lot of contemporary work. Talking about the decisive moment and where things are in the frame, how your eye tracks things, try and give them a more complete and complex appreciation for making images.
They have to compound all that filmmaking with film history. So hopefully they can get it on that end as well through looking at Renoir, Tarkovsky, Ozu or whoever. We spend a lot of time opening up windows for these kids for the things they’re not finding in popular culture. When you look at Knocked Up (2007), or any of these popular movies, it’s not about the visuals, it’s a comedy. It’s like a TV sitcom in a way. They’re not about the craft of filmmaking…
Do you feel like you’re more an image-maker than a filmmaker?
Yeah. I don’t even tell people I’m a filmmaker. It suggests someone who tells stories with cinema, or putting together elaborate ideas through filmmaking. Mine are more like sketchbooks, keeping diaries and records of things that interest me.
I hope that at some point in time they might be interesting things for people to look back on. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Picasso’s sketchbooks, they were so fascinating because they were not the big pieces, but they were the process of what contributed to the big pieces. They’re really interesting as sketchbooks. Even someone such as Leonardo’s sketchbooks, they’re so complex and mysterious. It’s the rough, funky, elegant, interesting insights on the process.
Ultimately, what’s great about film is the process of shooting all the time. I come from an arts background where you’d go to the studio all day to work. You’d learn a lot from that repetition of trying to solve all these problems.
Film in this day and age, kids who go to art school remain very conceptual. They’re always sitting around waiting for the big idea. Where as they should be practicing more. Especially with digital, where you can go out and shoot for 12 hours. You can erase it, tape over it, if nothing comes out of it…no big deal. The idea of actually practicing the craft, of collecting images, developing your eye. I’m amazed that people don’t appreciate how important that is to develop a more active relationship to practice.
It gets back to the violin metaphor. Practice, practice, practice and the camera becomes your eye and not so much this complicated technological thing to mediate to get an image. The whole process becomes forward, you can be spontaneous the way any good photographer can knock off a shot without having to take a reading or setting everything up.
That kind of fluidity is important to me. You can capture things that are just occurring under short notice. There can be a revelation. It would be like living in a city, turning a corner and BAM! There’s this thing on fire, you can be there with a camera and grab it. Truth is so much stranger than fiction. There should be these narrative crews lurching around these environments, you know ‘ACTION!’ Cars going through an intersection and a pedestrian is trapped in the middle of the street. That’s better than most of the shit they cook up in Hollywood anyway…
In At Sea you have a lot of land shots, or at least of the modern docks loading the ships. Did it feel less personal, less human, than earlier days of shipping?
As a former merchant seaman, all these shots of hundreds of men on the ship taking off the cargo, it brings me back to this time in my life when all these fascinating images engulfed me. Confronting a sense of the world and sensing how different the world was.
There’s something about going back into time. It’s so important to show people that this is what happens when you end up with these modern things. We’re in this twilight zone where you make this hugely sophisticated structure, send it out into the world and it ends up being taken apart by someone’s hands. To make that connection is really interesting even though ironically that’s the first part of the film. The film starts in the future and ends on this timeless seascape that looks pre-industrial.
Are you shooting on a Bolex?
I have an old Arri-S.
So you can still do a long shot, but the roll is going to run out.
I like that, I think that’s ok. I think one of the best thing about filmmaking is running out of film. It gets you to change your point of view and mix it up a bit more. With the HD thing, you can do a shot for 2 or 8 hours…
How much footage do you usually shoot and not use?
I tend to shoot 2:1 ratio. Sometimes 3:1. 4:1 is the most extravagant because I can’t afford it. The films aren’t about perfection, they’re about trying to get a hold of something and giving it some credibility and quality. Almost everything I shoot looks reasonably good, it’s just that sometimes you’re always trying for something different. ‘Well, maybe I’ll shoot it here, maybe there, in this light or in that shadow…’ You’re constantly pushing the envelope a little bit just to see.
In film, I’m never 100% sure of how it’s going to come out. Even after 30 years I can’t nail it, but you don’t care about that. I’m always trying to give the images a little edge so that they look different from the average thing.
For the most part, there’s not an audience for what I do. You sort of work with what you’re happy with and throw the rest out. You hope that people can learn from it or have some sort of appreciation for it. It’s a challenge to keep it a personal thing.
You won’t die if it doesn’t work, but you want it to be accepted, as you want to contribute something to the audience. You’re invested in it. It’s not any different form writing or painting, you just want to define yourself in a stylistic way and hope that it reflects well as a different variation on a the visual tradition of cinema.
It’s like being a poet. You’re never going to get the attention a novelist would get, but there might be something there for someone who’s interested.
This short video produced by the Peabody Essex Museum, contains and interview with Peter Hutton and clips from his earlier installation at the museum, Two Rivers. (If you’re reading this in an email, click here to watch the video)
For more information about Peter Hutton’s films, or to rent or purchase films from his catalog, please visit the Canyon Cinema website. Peter Hutton interview courtesy Mike Plante at Cinemad. At Sea is showing continuously in the Nancy and George Putnam Gallery of Maritime Art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. A slide show about Hutton’s work can be viewed on the PEM website. Information about the film and visiting the Peabody Essex can be found here.