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From the vaults

Photographer Marcy James explores Butte's inner beauty



Here’s how photographer Marcy James approaches a new subject: She doesn’t bring her camera the first few times she pays a visit, because she doesn’t want to get caught up in angles. She waits to find out how the subject will photograph itself. She’ll wait for special qualities to reveal themselves in the environment, like the breeze that whistles a certain way through a certain window in a particular room. She’ll get to know the place intimately. Then she’ll bring the camera.

Sometimes she’ll crouch in a basement or a sub-basement barely warmer than the 5-degree outside temperature, bracketing exposures for eight hours and then working with a single exposure for another three. She paints with light, moving the source around in the frame and counting off intervals on her fingers. No timepieces of any kind—just James and her own internal clock-springs clicking away in one of Butte’s many “big, empty tombs.”

The tombs are the subjects. Where Time Lives, James’ show currently up at the Gallery Saintonge, includes roughly two dozen cibachrome prints of photographs she’s made—illuminated might be the better word—in some 50 enormous, abandoned buildings in Butte’s historic Uptown, a place preserved by poverty to the extent that there’s no place else in the state you can go to get a better idea of what city life in Montana must have been like 75 years ago. For years, Butte was the city in Montana, many times bigger than either university cow-town, far more bustling and cosmopolitan than the provincial capital. For decades, Butte interests essentially steered the course of Montana politics; at one time its mines provided 41 percent of the world’s copper, giving an elite class of “Copper Kings” political clout unrivaled before or since. Butte was so full of itself, its citizens dropped the surrounding state altogether and started calling their home “Butte, America.”

Even if you know it boasted a population of 100,000 in 1916, or that Butte was at one time the second-biggest city west of the Mississippi, it’s still hard to reconcile the sheer physical scale of the Uptown buildings with the emptiness that fills and surrounds them now. When the sun sets on Butte, there’s only a sparse twinkling of lights in its once-stately hotels. Butte was once a major world player, but now its cavernous banks and office buildings seem somehow marooned there, abandoned by the transitory nature of power. If nothing else, Butte is a massive stone reminder of Adam Smith economics: Wealth never tarries too long in any one place, but all that enormity stays put.

Emptiness is exactly what attracted Marcy James to Butte eight years ago: a city of cracking plaster and peeling paint on the inside, and, she says, blessed outside—as though to really rub it in—with some of the most painterly light this side of Provence. Not that you’ll see much of that in her Saintonge exhibit, which features mostly interiors and a few nocturnal exteriors. James usually starts with darkness and adds her own light.

“I felt it the first time I went there,” she recalls, “just sitting there thinking, ‘Man, this place is caught in a time warp!’ Everything moves slower, there aren’t the same kinds of deadlines. That’s why I was so drawn to the buildings. I was enthralled by the kind of energy that exists in such vast, inanimate spaces, left to their own evolution. To be inside those spaces—they’re like big, empty tombs.”

Thanks to a few influential connections she made early on, James was able to establish what she calls a “trust factor” with many building owners who handed over their keys, sometimes for months at a time. For an outsider, especially, James says, it was quite a privilege, with obligations she didn’t take lightly.

“The people of Butte trusted me with their keys. In turn, I’ve never taken anyone into the buildings with me. People always ask if they can go with me, and I don’t let them because I can only vouch for myself. I can’t vouch for someone who might take a key or something they find lying around because they assume nobody needs it anymore.”

Besides, she says, photography is a solitary activity for her, particularly given the kind of images she makes, coaxing contour and detail out of dark walls and fixtures in basements over a period of several hours. Those lightless internal rhythms of extreme concentration, James insists, are to be savored in private.

“It puts you in a rhythm with the subject you’re working with. There’s nothing else filtering in besides you and where you are. You have this whole other world—this whole other relationship going on that’s just as fascinating as the one outside. People sometimes say to me, ‘Hey, let’s go shoot pictures together,’ and I say, no, no, no, no. I do that by myself. That’s like a nice, sacred little time for me.”

To date, James has gained access to 52 buildings. “Paul Clark Children’s Home” shows two long rows of porcelain sinks straight out of a Dickens novel. In “LaSalle Building, Basement Speakeasy,” one of the three-hour-plus exposures James made shivering in subzero indoor weather, the marbled walls seem to swim in watery light from an unseen fountain or reflecting pool, every ripple painted on by hand. “Metal Bank, After Christmas” actually makes use of natural light—the cold blue light of those limbo days between Christmas and the New Year.

As mentioned, a few exteriors have sneaked into Where Time Lives. Water, James says, is a major preoccupation in Butte—as might be expected in a city with an enormous tub of toxic sludge set to spill over in the next few decades. But if the viewer doesn’t know this, there’s a certain red-herring quality to the “Digging for Water” series that puts it at odds with the sentinel nature of the other pictures. The series is actually part of another show scheduled for the end of July in Willow Creek, some 40 miles outside Butte.

Still, the long exposures provide a nice nighttime glimpse of Butte’s handsome Queen Anne residential architecture. James says she waited years for just the right occasion to photograph some of the houses in the series before it finally presented itself in the form of road construction and enormous mounds of plowed-up dirt. Women, James says, have been more permissive in letting her take pictures of their homes from the outside; men tend to be a little more guarded.

James insists that she simply can’t say enough good things about the people of Butte, athough they definitely have two sides: one hospitable and helpful almost to a fault, and the other insular, somewhat vain, and borderline xenophobic. Crystal meth is a big civic problem, she explains, and it aggravates existing issues like vandalism.

People burn garbage cans and abandoned buildings for sport in Butte all the time, James says, but she feels “comfortable” in claiming that she was specifically targeted in two arson attacks on her Walkerville property last fall. Nobody was prosecuted, nor does it seem the investigation was pursued too vigorously. On the other hand, when her water main broke on another occasion, the previous owner—who sold James the buildings over a handshake deal in the now-defunct M&M Bar—rounded up friends and equipment to do an estimated $10,000-$15,000 job for free.

Butte, James agrees, is the way the Wild West must have been—bound by different laws but not strictly lawless, and certainly not some sepia-tinted, stressed-furniture Sundance catalogue fantasy retrofitted with a thick filter of nostalgia that excludes everything hurtful and complicated. Now, as then, Butte plays by its own rules

“They take care of their own,” says James. “I’ll say that for them. They know how to run their town.”

Marcy James will give a gallery talk at the Gallery Saintonge on June 18 at 7 PM. Where Time Lives will stay on display through the 26th.

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