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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Peter Hutton, filmmaker of landscapes and seas

Peter Hutton's Merchant Mariner's Document (Image: Peabody Essex Museum)
Peter Hutton's Merchant Mariner's Document (Image: Peabody Essex Museum)

Peter Hutton—the celebrated avant-garde filmmaker whose work lyrically evoked landscapes, cityscapes, and waterways—has died. Blouin Artinfo reports that Hutton was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He was 72.

Born in Detroit, the son of a former seaman and part-time actor who ran a local film society, Hutton followed his father’s example, paying his way through art school by working as a merchant marine. Originally interested in painting and sculpture, Hutton began to gravitate toward experimental film after being exposed to the underground film scene in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Traveling the world in between semesters of study, he developed a unique style rooted in landscape painting, early photography, and early cinema. Hutton’s films, silent and mostly shot in black-and-white, began as diaristic records of places he lived and worked, becoming more poetic in their focus on the natural and the industrial.

Despite his peripatetic early career, Hutton returned to the same subjects over and over in his work, including New York (in his Expressionist-influenced New York Portrait trilogy), the cities of Eastern Europe (in Lodz Symphony and Budapest Portrait), and his past as a merchant marine. The latter inspired Hutton’s 16mm magnum opus, At Sea, an hour-long film that depicts the life cycle of a container ship, from a dockyard in South Korea to the storms of the Atlantic Ocean to the post-apocalyptic ship-breaking yards of Bangladesh.


Like many experimental filmmakers, Hutton also worked extensively as an educator, and had taught at Hampshire College and Harvard before joining the faculty of Bard College in 1984, eventually becoming the director of its film program. Hutton worked many times with his former student Ken Burns, serving as a cinematographer on documentaries like The Statue Of Liberty, Baseball, Thomas Jefferson, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Hutton worked on only a handful of fiction films, winning an award for his cinematography at the little-known No Picnic at the 1987 Sundance Film Festival. Over the course of his career, He received a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Endowment For The Arts, and was the subject of a solo retrospective at the Museum Of Modern Art in 2008.

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