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The Toughest Road: Photography of Grayson Mathews | Writing the Wind

The Toughest Road: The Photography of Grayson Layne Mathews

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Photographer Grayson Layne Mathews believed that photography was an extension of the mind. In both his social documentary and more abstract fine art photographs, his distinct style illuminated as much about him as it did his subjects.

Following his death in 2007 at age fifty-eight, after years battling physical ailments and depression, his family recovered shelves and boxes full of negatives and photographic prints from his apartment in Klamath Falls and donated them to Special Collections in the Knight Library at the University of Oregon. The images emerging from that collection—a sampling of which are shown on these pages—reveal his often haunting personal interpretations of landscapes and people that offer mysterious evidence of the way things are not normally seen.

In 1970, working on a master’s degree in fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute, Mathews was one of the first photographers to receive a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship. The Eugene native was among a group of talented young students, including Annie Leibovitz, who studied at the art institute in those days.

For two years, traveling in his Chevy pickup on the highways and back roads of the American West, he documented the lives of professional rodeo cowboys. With his Leicas and Nikon F cameras loaded with Kodak Tri-X and 1,000 ASA speed 2475 Recording Film (perhaps the fastest black-and-white film available at the time) he photographed in dusty, sun-baked arenas of small-town fairgrounds and smoky, dimly lit big-city auditoriums. Away from the fury of competition, he photographed in lonesome bars, cafés, and motels.

Later he became a freelance professional photographer and teacher at the university level in California, South Carolina, and Virginia. Throughout his career his work was widely shown in galleries across the United States. One of his landscape series is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

In 2001 he returned to his longtime hometown of Klamath Falls to be near his family and help watch over his elderly parents. In his final years he made a series of photographs that depicted natural and human transformation of the Klamath Basin landscape. Nothing made him happier than to travel the quiet roads that led through the countryside, and anyone who joined him would get a lesson in local history.

A few years before his death, he talked about his admiration of the cowboys he got to know—their athletic abilities, independence, and honesty. His recalled his inspiration to photograph rodeo in the song he first heard thirty-five years earlier: Judy Collins singing Ian Tyson’s song “Someday Soon,” the words of a young woman who yearns to be with her love, a cowboy somewhere on the road, far away.

There's a young man that I know, his age is twenty-one,
Comes from down in southern Colorado.
Just out of the service, and he's lookin' for his fun—
Someday soon, goin' with him someday soon.
My parents can not stand him 'cause he rides the rodeo.
My father says that he will leave me cryin'.
I would follow him right down the toughest road I know—
Someday soon, goin' with him someday soon.

—John Bauguess

Web Exclusive
Click here to open Oregon Quarterly's digital edition
MULTIMEDIA | A sampling of songs from Watermelon Slim and a complete transcript of his interview with Corey duBrowa
Slideshow | See a slideshow of additional work by photo-grapher Grayson Layne Mathews.
ARTICLE | Only months after becoming UO president, Myles Brand reflects on the new job, its challenges and opportunities.
ARTICLES | Horace Robinson leads students on “perilous” USO tour of Asia; Horace Robinson and the New Miller Theater.

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