Mark Steinmetz


In Mark Steinmetz’s photographs, young women stretch out on automobile hoods and brocade sofas, lost in thought. Old black men wear resigned expressions and baseball caps that say: “Been there.” Hitchhikers peer into the rolled-down windows of stopped cars, looking more vulnerable than menacing.
For nearly 20 years, the Athens photographer has quietly prowled the South, from Knoxville to Atlanta, capturing moments that seem ordinary at first, but slowly open to reveal a complex inner landscape of feeling and emotion
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Influenced by Americans Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand (whom he met as a student in the ’80s) and French masters Atget and Cartier-Bresson, Steinmetz is a rare practitioner of the lost art of black-and-white camera work. An artist of rigor, discipline, craft and consistency, he roams the streets for his material, develops the film in his dark room and pulls his striking silver-gelatin prints by hand. His work is in the collections of America’s most important museums (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago). It has been published in a highly regarded trilogy of books from Nazraeli Press (“South Central,” “South East” and “Greater Atlanta”). But until just recently, the shy, 40-something, Yale-educated artist who came South to teach at the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia hasn’t generated much of a buzz locally.
“He was right under my nose. He was 40 minutes away in Athens,” says Julian Cox, the High Museum curator of photography, “and I didn’t know what he was doing.” 


But Cox, who soon departs for San Francisco’s de Young Museum, has made it his business to acquire a dozen Steinmetz images for the High, some of which will be featured in “Beyond the Frame,” an exhibit of some 130 works from the permanent collection planned as the companion show to next year’s Cartier-Bresson retrospective. Meanwhile, viewers can see 14 Steinmetz photographs at Project Space, Jackson Fine Art’s satellite gallery on the West Side.
At a book signing and talk Saturday, Jackson Fine Art owner Anna Walker Skillman said Steinmetz was the second artist she added to her personal collection. (The first was the controversial Virginia-born artist Sally Mann.)
“I cannot say this for every artist we represent,” Skillman said. “I constantly come back to the same picture over and over again, and it just grabs me. He is a spectacular photographer.”
Though Steinmetz is best known for his Southern pictures, he eschews the regional label, with its lush landscapes and fraught politics, for a more timeless approach.
"I don’t feel like I am part of a gang of Southern photographers,” he says. “I feel more international.” (Indeed, his mother is French. His father is Dutch. And he grew up admiring the great urban photographers of France and New York.).

Steinmetz’s palette varies from the electric, white-hot incandescence of "South Central" and "South East" to the smoggy urban grays of “Greater Atlanta.” Though you can sometimes identify familiar freeways and skyscrapers in the Atlanta series, for the most part, Steinmetz purposefully controls his pictures so that they could have been taken anywhere. His next Nazraeli monograph, "The Ancient Tigers of My Neighborhood," is a collection of cat pictures taken around his Athens home.
Cox says that Steinmetz’s daily work habits remind him of the late Harry Callahan. “He’s just sort of quietly tilling his soil very, very methodically and consistently.”
“His pictures don’t call attention to themselves, just like he doesn’t call attention to himself as a person. … They require people to be quiet for a moment, and attentive.”




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