Mark Steinmetz: “Ordinary” Photographer

Paso Robles is a modest central California city of about 30,000 set along the Salinas River. Its historic hot springs are a perfect place to relax with a glass of local Petite Sirah or Zinfandel. Its gently rolling hills, picturesque almond and olive groves, and eponymous California oak trees, “Los Robles,” are an added lure.

Paso Robles is also the home of Chris Pichler, who settled there after a multi-city odyssey that began in Munich in 1987, and his Nazraeli Press, which has published more than 500 photographic monographs and multi-volume sets. For any serious collector of photography books, Pichler and his German colleague Gerhard Steidl are without peer in their uncompromising printing standards. Pichler, however, extends his critical oversight to include the beautifully bound volumes themselves.

Nazraeli Press has published many of today’s most innovative photographers, including Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Michael Kenna, Richard Misrach, Stephen Shore and Alex Soth, as well as the late, seminal, photo-based artist Robert Heinecken.

Over the years, I’ve met Pichler at several photography fairs, where he is one of the few exhibitors with a book booth among the galleryists — clearly a man who also feels at home surrounded by dozens of vintage prints. A longtime reader of this blog, Pichler asked me if I would write an introduction to a new book of Los Angeles photographs by Mark Steinmetz, a follow-up to his landmark book, Angel City West. How could I resist writing about an artist who caught a part of Angel City’s zeitgeist during the 1980s, when L.A. was on the cusp of becoming one of the most ethnically diverse and mutable cities on the planet?

Angel City West 2

Angel City West 2 was published last month. Here is my introduction:

Mark Steinmetz makes photographs of ordinary people in the ordinary landscapes they inhabit, and although he photographs on film and makes silver prints in the time-honored photochemical tradition, his work is devoid of obvious darkroom intoxication. His frames document those fluid moments of real, lived life, moments not just grabbled or stolen, but ones where he says, "It’s important to take an internal pause." An element of the seeming offhand magic in his photographs is how his sense of this "internal pause," of a near cinematic freeze frame, only enhances his images’ apparent spontaneity. The best art often hides its techniques.

Once you meet Mark Steinmetz, as I did recently in Atlanta while working there as the cinematographer on a new movie, you understand why this modest man, living in the college town of Athens, Georgia, is so able to discover poetry in prose spaces.  Having a drink in a hotel bar in midtown’s Atlantic Station with Chris Pichler and Steinmetz, I watched the photographer’s eyes, while focused closely on us, seeming also to scan the world at the edge of his ken. And in the late afternoon light slanting into the bar, Steinmetz several times saw something behind me that merited taking a photograph. What he is, in fact, is a "street" photographer: a 21st century embodiment of the 19th century flâneur, a man in the world, sensitive to ephemeral moments as photographic capsules of our larger lives. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Steinmetz’s artistic history as a mentee of Garry Winogrand.

I speak from conviction about Steinmetz’s photography as life documentary, because in the near half century of my own work as a feature film cinematographer, I know what does not smell of lived life. My entire career, in contrast to Steinmetz’s, has been dedicated to fictional narrative and imagery, rooted in the stylistic conceits of Hollywood movies. I work in the shifting topsoil of image making; he tills its fertile furrows. 

Ever-increasing hordes of photographic artists are adrift in this shifting topsoil. Steinmetz is not, like them, an "artist" who makes large-format color tableaus that look like choreographed and over-wrought movie stills, using actors and models to create surreal "frame grabs." Nor is he like other contemporary photographers, seduced by their own self-absorption as image creators, striving to "interrogate" the world inside their minds or at the surface of their bodies, as if the world’s great realities were some extension of their own psyche, a preoccupation evolved as consequent of today’s iPhone "selfie" aesthetic. Nor does Steinmetz believe his camera is a device meant to project abstract ideas or theories of any structuralist photography movement. He is, then, in its most classic iteration, simply a "photographer."

If you take a drone’s perspective of photography today, you don’t need to zoom in too far to see how many collectors — and, thus, the photographers themselves as suppliers to collectors — are bewitched by mural-sized simulacra of cinema, movies being themselves the ultimate simulacrum of life.  To some dealers and collectors, the traditional 8x10 black-and-white "documentary" print, even the 16x20 print, are small potatoes when hung on gallery walls next to the glitzy 4x6-foot color excrescences of this month’s hot "photo-based" artist.

I am a Los Angeles native. I see in Mark Steinmetz’s photographs of Angel City West 2, from 1983-84, a plangent record of places that today, while looking pretty anonymous to non-Angelenos, are quite iconic to us longtime residents. One example is his photograph of a reclining man looking up at the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square, a much-beloved sculpture whose existence seems threatened every time city fathers plan to "revitalize" that downtown park resting uncomfortably above a parking garage …

… or the woman leaning against the south-facing wall atop the Griffith Park Observatory …

… or the popular, wide strand of Venice and Santa Monica beaches …

… or a silhouetted man reading a racing form at the recently closed Hollywood Park race track, now a casino and future stadium site for the born-again Los Angeles Rams …

… or the hitchhiking man, head down in his arms, at the on-ramp of the Hollywood Freeway …

There is, as well, the lens-flared close profile of an African-American man with the sun setting behind downtown’s iconic City Hall.

Finally, there is the photographer himself: a single, near hidden self-portrait, Kertesz-like, of Steinmetz’s elongated shadow on a garden-fence walkway.

You don’t have to be a creature of the urban streetscapes that Steinmetz so closely observes in this book in order to "get" his work. From his photographs of Greater Atlanta to the small world of a children’s baseball diamond in The Players, Mark Steinmetz’s camera focuses closely on ordinary, even banal moments of people’s daily lives, even when, in some images, the people themselves are absent at the instant of the camera exposure.

My own favorite photograph shows a nearly absent striding man, hands in coat pockets, head down as he almost steps off the sidewalk and out of frame. Behind him, the carefully composed and geometric streetscape leads the eye south down Grand Avenue toward the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles Music Center.

This seemingly caught-on-the-fly composition embodies many of the elements that make Steinmetz’s images so magical and the Giacometti-like figure of the older man so emotionally compelling. Like the more formal compositions of Cartier-Bresson, Steinmetz’s photographs capture their own "decisive moment" — less stylized for sure, but often more animated, simply the images of an "American" photographer.

Mark Steinmetz


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