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
of a Walker Evans portfolio from the ‘30s. Steinmetz appears to be acknowledging one of
America’s dirty secrets: despite the promise of upward mobility for all, the lives of many
families do not appreciably improve over the generations.
Like characters in folk or rock ballads, the people in his pictures float on a sea of
troubles that for the moment hasn’t drowned them. Some have started families and are
settled down; others seem to getting the hell out of town to try their luck elsewhere. The
majority are white, still on the upslope of fifty, and not well off. They’re perhaps one dire
medical checkup away from eviction and perhaps homelessness, a real economic danger
for millions of Americans then and now. A man lying on the rocks beside a stream may
already have fallen off the grid (plate 34). Any number of young children or teenagers in
these portraits could be next.
Steinmetz knows better than to think that photography can suggest a solution to
a crisis of this scope. Tub-thumping, policy papers, and summary ironies are not his style.
Nor does he presume to understand these people’s “stories.” Some appear pleased he
was there with his camera; others barely tolerate his presence. His pictures offer only
a fair and tender regard for them as individuals. They circulate without being fenced in
by anything in the photograph. The black man with the American flag curled around his
forearm like a toga or a bandage (plate 70) is not asked to represent faith in his country
or the lack of it. He has simply agreed to pose while in the middle of his job, raising or
lowering the nation’s colors, here rendered in black-and-white-and-gray.
Woven into the sequence of portraits is also a shrewd appreciation for Knoxville’s
animals and their importance in people’s lives, no matter what their station. The kitten
curled up on wood chips that opens the book is probably going to have it as rough as any
drunkard or stoner who chooses to call it a “pet.” A mother hen and her chicks crossing
a road by a freeway underpass maintains a sense of order and decorum (plate 9), and a
squirrel upholds its lush, furry tail even after becoming road kill (tif).
Ever since he exhibited in “New Photography 9” at the Museum of Modern Art
in 1994, Steinmetz has been someone to watch. His quiet patience and cool empathy
recalls Robert Frank, William Gedney and Robert Adams, as well as his contemporaries
Thomas Roma and Judith Joy Ross. But in his unhurried and self-administered pace
Steinmetz has walked alone. A book of photographs has been overdue and worth the
James Agee in “A Death in the Family” and Cormac McCarthy in “Suttree” have
plumbed the lower depths of Knoxville. Steinmetz has given us his own fictional version
of the place and its characters, one that is no less bleak for being like so many other cities
in America. The joys and hope expressed by the people in these pictures may be of a low
order by most standards, but the strength of their presence lingers long after the cover is
--Richard B. Woodward