A Kind of Communion: an essay on and interview with Mark Steinmetz

A Kind of Communion: an essay on and interview with Mark Steinmetz

There is at least superficially an unavoidable contradiction in thinking of a body of photographs as being both gentle and intense, and yet the characteristic tension that colours the unique, seductive attractions of Mark Steinmetz’s work has so much to with ostensibly opposing forces or contradictory qualities — forces which are reconciled within the images without dogma, remaining both lucid and essentially enigmatic.

In their grammatical or rhetorical form, there is an inherent contradiction in his images stemming from the sense they produce of being both elegant, and artless in the best sense of the term: that of lacking in artifice. We know intuitively, and on rare occasion from the nature of the photographic composition, that the images express a design that is neither accidental nor incidental to their expressive force, and yet their looseness and concision is sufficiently persuasive to leave no trace of the resolution that produced them.

Steinmetz is a photographer who distracts us from and does away with the centrality of intention by the sheer poetic force of the minor revelation before the lens. The photographs insist on saying that what matters is that this person or place existed and was seen, that this thing happened. All of this seems straightforward enough, and yet nevertheless fails categorically to account for the transfiguration of simplicity into a kind of lyrical enigma that empowers his photographs with the capacity to resonate with our deepest, and most literary sense of story-telling.

There is no form of argument in the images so much as an unceasing illumination of the virtues of being present, and those of perception itself. Perception delivered up unreservedly, and with unabashed specificity. It is in this habit that the images seem so utterly innocent, as though they were (and might well in fact be) the fruits of unalloyed discovery. Their eloquent and unaffected concision is such that all elements appear to arrive in perfect balance, as though happening for the first and last time – a dynamic equally informed by the visual language of candid street photography, and a deep affinity for the weight of gesture, the resonance of landscape and the vagaries of light. The photographs are full of the momentary coherent clarity of coincidence — each encounter seeming to be bounded only by the exigencies of an utterly absorbed sensitivity.

In his somewhat hectoring 18th century poem Proverbs from Hell, William Blake wrote that “Eternity is in love with the productions of time ” — a notion echoed in his more famous Auguries of Innocence, which begins with the line “To see the world in a grain of sand,” suggesting that minutiae are the surest prisms through which to identify our best sense of the totality of things. As Steinmetz goes on to observe in the interview that follows, the still image has a privileged ability to find a way through the metonym to a kind of literary form of address, but it seems clear that the likely success of such an effort depends upon a lucid appreciation for the evanescent relationship between an incidental moment and an amorphous but familiar world. By doggedly focusing his attentions not on grandeur but on everyday events and common gestures, Steinmetz’s work is able to broach some meaningful fraction of the breadth of human experience without reifying it, or trivialising it in improbable abstraction.

For this telescopic sort of focus to weave together a persuasive and insightful sense of a world beyond the mechanical actions of the camera, some deeper-lying commonality is required, and it is I think in the development of affect and identity that Steinmetz’s photographs fashion an engaging language from incidental fragments. While the images radiate an unstinting emotional clarity, and are thus always in some fundamental way affectionate, their singularity and precision belies a deeper coherence. Even as each portrait and landscape has the feel of a thoroughly articulated chapter in the life of its subject, they nevertheless expand upon and refine each other reciprocally in a pattern of overlapping gesture and tone, cumulatively building up a powerful air of consonance. While there is no sense in which the images can be understood to go together to stake some form of claim, or advocate for a specific diagnosis, they belong together – marvellously – without anything in particular being made of the fact. The sheer (and on the evidence of his images) perennial proximity of meaningful experience, sought out in the service of no end other than the living of it through observation, seems to be more than a sufficient pretext for the making of the work itself.

In his numerous startlingly frank portraits, it is impossible to decipher whether his subjects are an invention of the landscape in which we discover them, or whether the photographed setting in its entirety were the imagining of his subject: we find subject and setting in perfect and, we might only say retrospectively, inevitable unison. The photographs persuade us of the intrinsic and compelling appeal of their subjects by celebrating the possible seductions of looking, not merely as an activity of desire, or as some instrumental necessity, but as a more fundamental means of deep connection. For myself, I am so thoroughly persuaded of the intensity and the sincerity of this interest, and of its intrinsic spontaneity, that each photograph feels like a secret — a kind of communion.


Paris in My Time: a conversation with Mark Steinmetz

The Great Leap Sideways (TGLS): The title of this book clearly brings to the fore not only your personal relationship to Paris in terms of your familial relationship to the city, but I think also your connection to French photographers more broadly, whose work you’ve made a point of celebrating in South Central. You open the book with an image of a man sprawled on a wall facing the great symbolic figure of Paris, the Eiffel Tower, so I want to start by asking you how your relationship to the city, and to those French photographers might have coloured or otherwise inflected the challenge of making your own work there? I’m thinking here of that Goethe quotation, which apparently (apocryphally?) Edward Hopper carried around in his trouser pocket:

The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, moulded, and reconstructed in a personal form and an original manner.

Mark Steinmetz (MS): I wonder why Hopper would have felt it necessary to lug around that quote. How could it have served him? It seems sort of obvious to me. There’s one quote I’ve internalized which I thought was by Goethe (but now a Google Search corrects me – it’s by Hippocrates): “Art is long; life is short; opportunity transient; decision difficult.” If one day some photo historians descended upon my lifeless body, what would they find? A fortune cookie that had been funny or true in the moment but was now just silly?

Yes, my mother was Parisian and I’ve been a great admirer of the photographers who worked in Paris: Atget, Kertész, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson. Because of all the photographers who have photographed in Paris, the subject has become a kind of genre, in the way that the Western is a genre. In a Western movie you expect for there to be a saloon, a gunfight, a dance in the town’s square, etc. and for Paris, we have already come to know the Seine and the parks and cafes through photographs and cinema. So for my Paris work I am keeping in mind the work that has come before and trying to refer to it or update it or alter it. I love Paris and speak French well enough so I have more of a connection to Paris than to other European cities (Rome would take second place).

TGLS: One of the intriguing things about this work is that you’ve departed from the peripheries where a lot of your other photographs seem to be made, and are here working in the centre surrounded by a landscape that is heavily freighted with the symbolism of Paris. That said, these images frequently direct our attentions toward partly obscured, hidden or secretive activities that often occur in places hidden away from the major bustle of the metropolis. In that sense there is both continuity with previously published work, and substantive difference from it. Could you talk a little about the significance of place in your photographs, and its relation to the character of your portrait subjects in this work?

MS: When Richard Avedon photographed the subjects of his book, In the American West, he photographed them outside in the large world (and not in a studio) and placed a white backdrop behind them. There were all these great things happening in the background (roads, gas stations, etc.) but he chose to eliminate all that. That’s a choice I could never make – setting and atmosphere are too important to me. My portraits are just about always made in the midst of some kind of activity and context, and the environment they are in either helps establish a mood or reflects the subject in some way. I want to have a feeling of space in my pictures that the viewer can move through viscerally.

To continue with the notion of the Western movie: In his films, the director John Ford would photograph Monument Valley over and over from different angles. Monument Valley is actually not so large but to look at his films you get the impression that the entire West is dotted with these strange geological forms. As for Paris there are already all sorts of conventions and assumptions as to what Paris looks like. But I’m sure one could photograph Paris in such a way that would make the city seem unfamiliar. Still photography has its limits. A five minute walk through a house with a video camera might do a very good job of describing that house but it would be a challenge to understand how the house is put together spatially through a collection of still photos. Perhaps video (motion photography) is better than still photography at creating a coherent idea of place. Still photography provides us with fragments, with bits and pieces, and in the book format, these can be combined to conjure a literary world. I have my doubts about still photography’s ability to describe places in any comprehensive or truthful way. Even a tiny spot on the earth is multi-faceted and, in its way, vast.

I would say that the America I’ve been photographing has a sense of rootlessness to it (especially in the peripheral areas) while Paris is very much grounded in its history – parts of Paris stay the same through the ages, parts are quite modern.

TGLS: I agree, and tend to think that it’s a strength in the nature of a photograph’s intrinsic limitations that it can encourage us instinctually toward metaphor and metonym, by illuminating a fragment so as to point toward a larger whole without exhaustively describing it or guaranteeing its existence. Ernst Fischer wrote “In every true work of art, the division of human reality into the individual and the collective, the specific and the universal, is suspended; but it remains as a suspended factor in a recreated unity.

As you say, in the landscape of this work Paris is symbolized more so than it is described, but it strikes me that particularly in the images of women (alone, with friends or lovers) that there is a distance where in your American work there is greater intimacy – a distance that reminds me of Winogrand, in the sense of a romance in which only one party fully collaborates… Is it fair to say that your portraiture in this work was more candid and less consensual or collaborative, and were there particular reasons for this?

MS: In the 80s I lived in various cities – Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New Haven. I would often photograph in neighborhoods but I also photographed in downtown streets in a candid way and in other public spaces such as Central Park and the Venice boardwalk and Santa Monica pier. Perhaps this work from the 80s, which is unpublished, relates a little more to my work in Paris. I started to photograph in Paris in 1985 and photographing in the Luxembourg Garden didn’t seem so terribly different from photographing in Central Park. Maybe the tone of the Paris pictures was different. It seemed Paris was full of royal, classical architecture, and the people were wearing clothes that seemed more timeless. In the States, people favored casual clothes emblazoned with sports team logos and that was rare in Paris.

Garry Winogrand’s work was the most interesting and relevant to me, and I knew him briefly in Los Angeles so it isn’t surprising to me if my work in Paris reminds you of his work in places. There’s no strict rule, but I tend to try candid photography more often in more densely urban areas than in small towns and the peripheries of cities. But I will sometimes make a collaborative portrait (where I talk to them to take the picture) in a city center if I feel that’s what’s needed and I will sometimes take a picture of someone in a small town in a surreptitious manner if I feel that’s the best approach.

TGLS: I notice that with one or two exceptions, the book is a made up entirely of portraits (I include those photographs of animals), which reminded me of Peter Galassi’s line that your landscapes are ‘places with personalities’, and which brought to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s observation: “Every one will agree that a city is a material and social organisation which derives its reality from the ubiquity of its absence. It is present in each of its streets in so far as it’s always elsewhere.” That seems to me an almost intrinsically photographic reading of the city, suggesting you could photograph it by searching for the gaps in which it does not appear… Could you perhaps talk a little about why for you in this work, Paris would be so defined by the people moving through it?

MS: I would say most of the photos are portraits in that the people’s faces are clearly seen, but they are faces caught in the midst of some kind of activity, or in an environment that is somewhat voluptuous and telling. The emphasis is not solely on the person’s face or on who they might be in the world but also on what they are doing or on their momentary position relative to what surrounds them and to how the light reaches them. A few of the photos are simply about figures so, if pressed, I would call those ones pictures of people but as a term portraits doesn’t quite feel right.

Paris as a coherent, physical place of streets and buildings is hinted at in the pictures but mostly Paris is used as a familiar backdrop. There is an image without people of a wedding cake behind a store window. I pair this photo with one of an older man who is seen through crumpled plastic that contains flowers. Together they suggest the theme of some sort of romantic disappointment and the pairing takes place within a larger sequence of photos on romance. (At this point I would like to somehow connect Sartre to romance but I am drawing a blank.) There is also a cat image that might as well be a portrait and some bird images where the particular predicament of a bird is at issue – the birds in the book function as (cartoon?) characters in a situation. We already know what Paris looks like and so my emphasis has been on small momentary dramas taking place in the city.

TGLS: Thinking a little more about the way you describe photography as being capable of weaving fragments into a literary world, I’m curious about the way that in your photographs, so frequently, animals (and even trees) are imaged as vital, animate, charismatic, even equal if neglected or overlooked neighbours in the story of our daily life. What is the narrative appeal of animal life for you? Looked at in comparison say with Winogrand’s various animal pictures, in his work their behaviour or presence often condenses some comical or tragic but essentially human irony, whereas in your work they are imaged as members of a kind of community – proximate to our own, radically different, but as compelling as we ourselves as subjects for consideration…

MS: Yes, there are animal photos in all of my books, but the Paris book probably has the highest percentage (with the exception of The Ancient Tigers of my Neighborhood, which is a book entirely about stray cats.) In the Paris book there are cats and dogs, crows, pigeons, and sparrows, and a fish (and there’s some unseen creature in a box). I am in Paris at the moment and as I write this I see two pigeons that I think are mating on a rooftop. Whatever’s going on – it’s fierce. Now a third pigeon is arriving either to get into the action or to intervene – I can’t tell which – they’re all flapping their wings with incredible animation and force. I’m glad I don’t have any real involvement with these pigeons. To continue – animals co-exist with us and they have their lives and their predicaments. Also, I love the shapes of birds and that they can fly is fabulous. Cats teach us that they are their purpose (they don’t have to have a purpose as we feel we need to have a purpose) and their fur in sunlight describes itself beautifully in a silver print. André Kertész was a fantastic photographer of animals and in some ways his work is the most influential for Paris in My Time. Animals have to be “caught” by the photographer unless they are well-trained or are already taxidermy specimens, so I always think there’s a virtuosity required to catch animals at the right moment and, as a photographer, exercising that virtuosity is part of the challenge. Spotting an animal typically lifts my spirits (I exclude insects).

TGLS: Finally, thinking more about Galassi’s introduction to South Central, he notes that “[t]he socio-economic parameters of the world Steinmetz has chosen to explore are obvious enough, and he neither stresses nor avoids them.” That resonates strongly with me as a way of reading the manner in which your photographs acknowledge without rhetorically stressing the socio-cultural significance of the conditions of your subjects in overtly political ways. It seems to me so very many of your photographs (particularly in the early stages of this new work) are about looking at looking – about affectionately, even ‘gravely’ considering our modes or moods or moments of contemplation of the world. In this way they mirror your activity, but deepen our sensitivity to our own as individuals.

What are some of the more lasting gifts of the ways of seeing embodied by some of those photographers you mentioned earlier, and what for you are the particular rewards of the activity of setting out to see the world with a camera?

MS: I ran into Peter Galassi here in Paris a few days ago, which was a complete surprise. Peter wrote the introduction to South East, not to South Central, but the socio-economic statement you mention probably better suits South Central.

I’m most interested in a straight photograph (i.e., it looks like the world) that “works” but just how it works is elusive. I heard Winogrand praising Kertész for making photographs from nothing, which I took to mean he made his images using very meager content – never anything sensational. Winogrand also said something about interesting photographs being the ones where the form was on the verge of overwhelming the content or where the content was on the verge of overwhelming the form – maybe that’s the same as saying don’t be too obvious. What interests me is the quality of intelligence/feeling that a photographer can get across in his or her work – an intelligence that perhaps springs from a deep and private interior place and then joins in collaboration with the outer world as if by magic. Cartier-Bresson advised young photographers to read Zen in the Art of Archery – perhaps the issue of quality in photography is simply a matter of good zen vs. bad zen.

Artist(s): Medium: mark[at]marksteinmetz.net Site: http://marksteinmetz.net/

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