By Keila Szpaller - May 12, 2018 - Originally published in the Missoulian.
Maggie Hamilton's subjects look like they could step right out from their portraits, and they look the viewer in the eye.
Rifle and bow hunters in the forest.
A snorkeler in the sea.
A mule packer.
Printed on 50-by-30 inch aluminum sheets, the photographs taken by the University of Montana master's of arts graduate are part of her project to show people's relationship to public lands in the United States from coast to coast, and possibly one day, overseas.
The Wisconsin native landed on the idea even before public lands drew national attention last year with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's controversial recommendation to reduce the size of national monuments Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah — and well before election season ramped up in Montana.
In fact, one of the subjects of the exhibit led Hamilton to the topic of public lands. In his photograph, Glenn Matson, 93, wears camouflage and holds a crossbow. He's Hamilton's grandfather, the man she spends every opening weekend of deer season with, who plants trees on his property and taught her to respect the land.
"He inspired a lot of this. I wouldn't be into the outdoors if I hadn't had him in my life," Hamilton said.
He's also among the subjects who have seen the exhibit in person. She said he commented on the large size of the prints and advised his granddaughter on how she could use his in the future.
"You can keep this. You can hang it up at my funeral." There's a sparkle in his eye in the portrait.
With support from the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the photographer's work is on display until Monday at onXmaps in Missoula, a mapping technology company that supports public lands and works to provide access to it.
The show also reflects one idea that's often present in work produced by students at UM. Professor Elizabeth Dove said one phrase emerging on campus is "partner in place," and while it isn't likely to be on the tips of their tongues, students who come to UM often are connected to a theme and narrative about the land.
Before coming to UM, Hamilton received a BFA in photography from Northern Michigan University, a program with a commercial focus. Dove said she brought substantial skills and artistic instincts to UM but was initially surprised by the focus on content and theme and idea.
"She struggled for a little while, and she really found her footing when she found her idea," Dove said.
Hamilton has shot in Wisconsin, Michigan and Montana, on a state beach in Florida, and in the redwoods of California. She wants to give people a visual experience that helps them understand the value of public lands and the different forms it takes.
"I think when people think public land, they either think hiking or hunting, and I feel there are so many more pieces of public land that people don't realize are public land," Hamilton said.
In Florida, for instance, she told some beach walkers about her project, and they told her they didn't use public lands — even as they walked along a state beach. There, Hamilton photographed a snorkeler, and in California, she shot a surfer.
She purposefully doesn't identify the locales of each portrait; the people could be runners, bikers and hunters anywhere, although the photographs are also personal in their large size, and invite a relationship with the viewer.
"You become active in the art because it's so large and overwhelming," Hamilton said.
As she delved into the subject, Hamilton said she learned that public land is a political issue, yet it's not a partisan one. Everyone is an owner, and she's using the hashtag #iownit and handle @publiclanduser to share photographs on Instagram; at the exhibit, she includes the hashtag next to each portrait in the handwriting of the subject.
"You could be any party and still care about public lands, and I think that's what people really need to focus on with this," Hamilton said.
Results released this week from the UM 2018 Public Lands Survey showed wide, bipartisan support for the state’s wild places. For instance, three-quarters of Montanans backed creating a new national monument protecting the Badger-Two Medicine area, with two out of three Republicans and three out of four Democrats in favor. Secretary Zinke originally proposed such a monument as well.
Hamilton works quickly with help from her fiance, capturing a portrait in roughly 20 minutes. She includes descriptions that make the public land users easy to relate to, like "avid snacker," "cat mom," "music lover," and "beer enthusiast."
The lighthearted approach contrasts with the serious subject matter Hamilton discusses in one of her posts: "Throughout the United States and particularly in the West, public lands make up a large portion of each state, and are a vital, reusable, renewable resource that anyone can use.
"These lands are currently at risk of being sold off or given to state control, which could mean shutting off use to the public. My goal for this work is to make an impact visually on the public's perspective of the people who use these lands."
Hamilton is looking for a job, but she'd like to expand her project as well. She'd like to head to Alaska to shoot in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and also to New Zealand, a country that protects public lands.
The work has depth and employs many disciplines, Dove said. Once Hamilton brought up the idea, the faculty helped her shape it and consider, for instance, how it could include elements of traditional painting, such as particular gestures or symbolic objects.
"She had very good instincts and intuition," Dove said. "I think what we did is we had her see her project not just as a commercial branding but as an extension of our history, even."
She said Hamilton also connected with the broader Missoula community through her project. As she makes her way into the world, Dove has encouraged Hamilton to hold onto her vision, the way photographer and UM art alum Holly Andres did; Andres' clients include The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, TIME, and Vanity Fair/Italy.
"When you're starting out, you're desperate for work, and you don't think you're going to make it," Dove said.
But she said many people can be technically adept and do lighting and props, and just one person can bring Maggie Hamilton's perspective to the work.
"They're going to want you because you're bringing them the vision of an artist … . Stick with it, and they'll come find you," Dove said.