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.
This short video produced by the Peabody Essex Museum shows scenes from the film and discusses the process of creating this unique model.
(If you’re reading this in an email, click here to watch the video)
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.