Richard B. Woodward essay - South Central - Mark Steinmetz

marksteinmetz.net

Richard B. Woodward essay - South Central - Mark Steinmetz

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

wait.

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

closed.

--Richard B. Woodward

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