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5 years ago

Richard B. Woodward essay - South Central - Mark Steinmetz

Richard B. Woodward essay - South Central - Mark Steinmetz

Richard B. Woodward essay - South Central - Mark

Photographs are puzzles. Many can be solved to our satisfaction in the the time it has taken to make them; when the things photographed and the motives of the person (or computer program) responsible seem transparent, guileless, “straight,” we write our responses in pen. Other photographs require penciled answers and some detective work to be understood. However effortless tripping the shutter may be, arresting time is not a simple act, and the questions triggered by any image multiply the further it recedes into the past as information about who, what, why, where, how is garbled or lost and the trail of clues goes cold. Mark Steinmetz’s photographs of Knoxville, Tennessee in the early ‘90s are far more enigmatic than by rights they should be, given their proximity to our time. Taken over a two-year span, in a historic period that he calls “after Reagan and Bush and before Clinton,” they depict the city’s inhabitants at their daily and nightly routines. The people in Steinmetz’s pictures drift in and out of the frame and bear no clear relationship to him or to each other, a style that has served generations of photographers who prefer to stand apart from a subject and wrap themselves in a cloak of invisibility. Circumstance in part dictated this approach. Steinmetz found himself teaching at the University of Tennessee where he knew almost no one. He could claim familiarity neither with Knoxville’s geography nor its inhabitants. At the same time, though, his strategy was also deliberate. He wanted to work in reaction to the younger group of photographers featured in the 1991 exhibition called “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” at the Museum of Modern Art, a group identified by the show’s curator, Peter Galassi, as favoring an intimate, confessional style toward portraiture and the world. More intrigued by the British photographers Chris Killip and Graham Smith, whose pictures delve into harsh social conditions as well as personal idiosyncrasies, Steinmetz patrolled Knoxville at the economic margins. He compiled a haphazard index of faces he saw while he walked or drove the streets—“people passing through the city, hitchhikers to whom I gave a ride.” In most cases he asked before taking a picture. Some people he photographed a few times. “But I didn’t know them,” he stresses. “I didn’t want to pretend that I had some insider access. I wanted to be outside.” His judicious sense of distance from these random characters, most of them pictured without the usual status marker of a particular job or neighborhood, and drawn in Steinmetz’s lovely sfumato palette, lends to the selection an out-of-time dreaminess. Historians can usually fix a date on an image by piecing together evidence from many sources. The giveaway may be the jacket on a man’s back or the stylish part in a woman’s hair; or buildings, commercial signs, highways, flowerbeds, a tree that sprang up or vanished at a known time. Knoxville is a small city (population 585,970 in 1990) and unknown territory to me. But I’m guessing that even those for whom it’s home would have difficulty assigning Steinmetz’s pictures a year or address. Certain details indicate that he was photographing when people with little money still telecommunicated, when out of doors, at pay phones (plates 2, 70, 81). Satellite dishes had become a sideyard blight (plate 79) and American cars were still the norm for Tennesseans. And yet Steinmetz has gone out of his way not to define time and place with too much precision. Most of these people don’t seem grounded in the ‘90s. The slender black woman holding a hand to her face in bright sunlight (plate 58) might have stepped out

An Exegetical Essay on Romans 13:1-7 - The South Central District