The photomontages of Scott Mutter

Scott Mutter's evocative images are more than what people think of as ``trick photography.'' They grow out of darkroom trial and error or flashes of inspiration. In a phone conversation from his home in Chicago, Mr. Mutter explained what gives his montages their particular mystery.

ALWAYS on the edge of Mutter's works is an eerie, apocalyptical feeling. Human figures are few in his photographs, and when they appear, they are dwarfed by structures and reduced by machinery. This aura comes from Mutter's interest in the two forces that act upon human beings: the natural world and the world that humans have built around themselves.

At the same time, Mutter emphasizes that his quieter images, including the swan swimming in the stone floor and the magical parquet forest, show how man-made objects (the balustrade and the parquet floor) can echo the classical structure and beauty of nature (the swan and the trees). But with a slight twist on reality. Mutter achieves the element of surprise by melting the antithetical images together in a realistic way, so that the eye accepts what the head doubts.

One of Mutter's best-recognized montages is that of the man, the waves, and the escalator. He says that this picture, which he was at first reluctant to show because of its dark feeling, has a certain peculiar appeal to many people, especially male corporate executives.

``There's a person, an Everyman, he's walking ... and it looks like it's at the end of the world, the way a 15th-century sailor thought of the end of the world - falling over the edge. ... When you're getting up in the career ladder, you realize you're dispensable. You see the younger people coming up. You can't escape feeling that you are vulnerable, and to an extent you are alone.'' He goes on, ``And in the sense of the escalator, it works regardless of an individual's needs or hopes or demands. The system keeps running.''

Mutter seems intent upon reversing the dehumanizing effect of 9-to-5 jobs and utilitarian architecture. He is acutely aware of the structure and psychology of cities, particularly of his native Chicago.

He says of the buildings in the lower photograph at left, ``Think of all of those people, in all of those offices at different stages of their lives. You can't see in the windows, but life is lived out there.''

In this montage he has deftly combined office towers on South Michigan Avenue - including the back of the Art Institute of Chicago - with a South Side sculpture by Laredo Taft called ``Fountain of Time.''

HE describes the picture as an attempt to change the ordinary starkness of office buildings into something more fantastic. As a child growing up on the South Side, he walked past the sculptural figures many times, and as he grew up, they grew in his imagination.

``[It's like] going back to being a kid; we want to find the caves and tunnels ... and yet for economic and structural reasons, we consistently violate our fascination with space by building it in a more functional way.''

Mutter has made a career out of his fascination with space. His photography work began in 1974, when he was 30 years old, after he took filmmaking and still photography courses at the University of Illinois, Urbana. As his experimentation in the darkroom increased, the montages became metaphors for statements he wanted to make about life, culture, and religion.

Mutter's process of making photomontages is far from simple. He says that there is no set of rules or system for his creating. Sometimes, in the modest home studio he works out of, he gets an interesting idea for a space, then he goes out and shoots pictures. Sometimes he'll find one of them fits with another photo and sometimes it doesn't. Or he'll be tinkering in the darkroom with one image and an idea will strike him. But mostly, he says, it's trial and error.

Mutter's works have won numerous awards, been featured in various trade magazines, and are included in museum and corporate collections. His photomontages can be seen at J.J. Brookings in San Jose, Calif., and at the Printworks Gallery in Chicago.

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