New Orleans

Mark Steinmetz: South at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Mark Steinmetz’s current exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has narrative ambition, but also asks difficult questions about the meaning of “straight photography” and its relationship to the documentary tradition. In what sense are documentary photographs social records, deadpan descriptions, or allegorical explications of the artist’s worldview? Are they a series of facile maneuvers, or as critic Garry Badger once claimed, “an existential form of jerking off”?[1] Steinmetz’s photographs confront these questions by burying themselves in a fault line where the unthinking camera and artistic intent seem to meet and blur, and the dramatic poetry of the South struggles to spill over the subjects, spaces, and social tensions laying quietly but assertively within the space of the picture.

Mark Steinmetz. Off I-40, Knoxville, TN. 1993. Silver gelatin print. Image: Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans.

Mark Steinmetz. Off I-40, Knoxville, TN, 1993; silver gelatin print. Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans.

Steinmetz is a lover of tradition and the interconnected stylistic lineages that make up the 150-year history of photography. His use of black-and-white photography makes visible his investment in the early history of the medium, as does his masterful execution of the silver gelatin process, which, unlike digital color printing, opens the surface of the picture to flaws, textures, aberrations, and the artist’s hand. Emphasis on the purity of details and rich contrasts of lights and darks continues the aesthetic of early 20th-century East Coast Pictorialism, while his penchant for the neglected margins of cities and their inhabitants resonates with the countercultural aesthetic and ethics of the West Coast Photographic Movement of the 1930s. Oscillating between portraits and landscapes, the selection of photographs at the Ogden establishes a rhythm where face and landscape correspond and converse with one another, asking the viewer to notice formal and emotional similarities between nature and man—a curatorial decision that begs association with the aesthetic and intellectual practices of modernist master Alfred Stieglitz. Throughout the galleries, Stieglitz’s emphasis on the interiority of his subjects resonate in Steinmetz’s photographs, as does Stieglitz’s transcendental aesthetic philosophy of “embodied formalism,” where aesthetic harmony depends on the corporeal synchronization between the artist, subject, and nature.[2]

Mark Steinmetz. Barrow County, GA. 1992. Silver Gelatin Print. Image: Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Mark Steinmetz. Barrow County, GA, 1992; silver gelatin print. Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Film also figures in his practice. Steinmetz is a voracious lover of film noir and the work of Italian directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini, and his photographs function at times like film stills. One finds oneself eager—almost desperate—to enter into and therefore complete the story Steinmetz so seductively withholds from the viewer.[3] While exaggerated staging and artifice do not interfere with the photograph like they do in the work of Cindy Sherman, a quality of cinema is nevertheless present. However, it is Steinmetz’s place within the loose constellation of “straight photography” of the 1960s and ’70s that most strongly informs his style and photographic ethics. Garry Winogrand’s documentary impulse, commitment to transparency, and “antipathy to the ‘arty’” can be felt in the quietness of each encounter. (Steinmetz met and photographed with Winogrand in Los Angeles during the last year of his life, and consistently mentions him as an important figure within his own artistic development.) The artist’s inexhaustible curiosity reminds one of William Eggelston and Robert Adams’ commitment to the long-term project, and yet Steinmetz does not shirk away from humor or trickery, offering the viewer a virtuosic surprise or unexpected spontaneity that reveal an indebtedness to the work of Lee Friedlander.[4]

Despite the work’s visual allure, technical rigor, and art-historical awareness, it is not without problems. In Steinmetz’s account of “The South,” the violence, alienation, racism, and poverty that underpin these photographic worlds are never given their full weight—the fragmented fiction gives us only part of the story—and the viewer is left merely with a beautiful encounter where subject and site are represented in perfect unison, manipulated into an exaggerated order where the artist’s individual vision is privileged over an investigation of the societal problems that placed these figures within these landscapes in the first place. Made as if by an itinerant traveler who is detached from his subjects yet committed to a particularly cinematic emotional pitch, Steinmetz’s portraits level the differences among individuals—as if each of these subjects were part of the same story, neutralized by their struggles and anesthetized by their shared geography.

Mark Steinmetz. Knoxville, TN. 1992. Silver Gelatin Print. Image: Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

Mark Steinmetz. Knoxville, TN, 1992; silver gelatin print. Courtesy of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

The critical efficacy and political potential of photography is not a new debate (see Susan Sontag and Martha Rosler), and Steinmetz is not the only photographer to be accused of sidestepping these issues—every photographer from Paul Strand to Walker Evans to Jeff Wall has been accused of the aestheticization of their dispossessed subjects to the point of banality.[5] The democratic potential of photography and its role as a social document committed to uncovering the great ailments of modern life has been the great contestation of the medium, and Steinmetz’s photographs enter into this discussion by giving us ambiguous answers. Despite the great beauty of Steinmetz’s images, it is difficult to turn away from the conditions of working-class life presented in this series, the slowness of working-poor politicization and organization, and the impoverishment of communities in this part of the United States. The question being, do these images ratify or denounce a painful identity of life in the South? Do the photographs reconstruct an aesthetic consciousness based on nostalgia, or open the viewer’s eyes to the historical conditions of lives lived, thereby contaminating the purity and autonomy of modernism and its traditions? Are we looking to contemplate, or looking to act? If anything, Steimetz’s collection of images reinvigorates the ambiguous and contradictory core of photography—that repressive and progressive readings of, and responses to, any given image are always possible.

Mark Steinmetz: South is on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art through May 10, 2015.

 

[1] Garry Badger, “Lee Friedlander,” The British Journal of Photography (March 6, 1976): 200.

[2] For more on Stieglitz’s “embodied formalism,” see Marcia Brennan’s tremendous book, Painting Gender, Constructing Theory: The Alfred Stieglitz Circle and American Formalist Aesthetics, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.

[3] Special thanks must go to Richard McCabe, the Ogden Museum’s Curator of Photography, for speaking with me about his curatorial process and his perspective on Steinmetz’s work.

[4] Jonathan Green, American Photography: A Critical History 1945 to the Present (New York: Abrams Press, 1983), 105-113.

[5] For recent academic work on these issues, see: Olivier Debroise, Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001; Frank Moller, Visual Peace: Images, Spectatorship, and the Politics of Violence, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013; and Patrick Greaney, Untimely Beggar: Poverty and Power from Baudelaire to Benjamin, Ann Arbor: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

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