September 13, 2013 4:00 AM EDT

As Breaking Bad fans become increasingly transfixed by imagery of the American West, Bryan Schutmaat’s haunting photographs of Western mountain men reveal an even darker landscape, without a meth-camper in sight.

Schutmaat’s poetic series, “Grays the Mountain Sends,” recently won first prize in the Aperture portfolio contest, and the gallery show will open at Aperture on September 17th. The photographs are also collected in a book to be published by the Silas Finch Foundation next month.

Texas-raised Schutmaat is living a NYC photographer’s dream, though he’s not interested in shooting what he sees out his Brooklyn window. “I’m really compelled by that type of art that can take you somewhere else, that is a break from what you encounter in your daily life,” he said. “I don’t want to make a project about the city, I want to make a project about places that are far away and unfamiliar and not what I see every day.”

The West fit the bill. Schutmaat started shooting the series when he was living in Bozeman, Montana and became increasingly interested in the visual landscape of nearby Butte. “The American West was founded with such great expectations, and mining towns in particular have a memory of the past that the present lives with, and there’s often a very big gap between what once was and what is,” he said. “So I do think that there’s a loss, maybe a little bit of loss of hope.”

Inspired by the poetry of Richard Hugo and the work of other Westward-looking photographers like Dorothea Lange, Schutmaat expanded his project to other mining and mill towns. He searched specifically for images of a landscape unscarred by 20th century sprawl. “I’ll consciously avoid the MacDonalds on the east side of town and go to the west side of town, where there is this interesting decay, a rural decay,” he explained. “Just something different than what you’d see driving down a six lane highway in New Jersey.”

But the images of the people who inhabit these landscapes are what really give Schutmaat’s series its emotional power. “There’s something really beautiful to me about how people get by, what people do day to day,” he said. “And I think that for anyone living anywhere there’s going to be a sense of loss, I don’t think life is a particularly happy journey that we go on, I think it’s just something that we all have to do.”

Despite the iconic source material and the temptation to draw parallels with the economic crisis, Schutmaat insists that he intends his photographs to be poetic, not political. “America is such a vast and complex place, and what I present in photographs is a very fragmented and projected view of this, so I wouldn’t want to claim that I’m defining any kind of American character,” he says. “I’m really into Italian neo-realist movies, and those were loaded with social and political comments in the postwar era. But it’s always just the plight of the main character that appeals to me. I’m concerned with that guy, what he’s going through, and I’m crying for him. I guess I was just more interested in that.”

Bryan Schutmaat is a Brooklyn-based photographer. His work will be on view at Aperture in New York Sept. 17th through Oct. 31st.

Charlotte Alter is a reporter for covering breaking news, culture and society. Follow her on Twitter @CharlotteAlter.

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