Mark Steinmetz, ATL

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Nazraeli Press (here). Cloth hardback with tipped in cover photograph, 10.5 x 12 inches, 80 pages, with 63 duotone photographs. Includes an essay by Gregory J. Harris. In an edition of 1,000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Since bursting onto the photobook scene in 2007 with his wonderful South Trilogy (reviewed in exhibition form here), Mark Steinmetz has been on a publishing tear. By my back-of-the-envelope calculation, he’s authored or co-authored twenty-one photography monographs in the fifteen years following South Trilogy. He has flirted with a range of publishers including Silas Finch, TBW, and Kominek. But in recent years most books been channeled through two trusted stalwarts, Nazraeli and Stanley/Barker, both of whom push monochrome reproductions as close to silver gelatin tonality as current publishing technology allows. 

Regardless of the chosen imprint, Steinmetz’s photobooks tend to follow a similar model. The production is stately and refined, with one or two photos per spread. Most titles are organized around a specific place, period, or subject, e.g. Berlin, summer camp, or amateur baseball. Within those parameters, individual photos are culled from his film archive which stretches back forty-plus years. In a given sequence, a photo from 1990 might appear next to one from 2010, or from 1991. There are countless potential permutations because Steinmetz has been shooting photographs more or less nonstop since the early 1980s, when he dropped out of Yale’s MFA program to tag along with Garry Winogrand in Los Angeles. 

His basic workflow has not changed much since those days. He injects himself and cameras into various situations. The world complies by feeding him visual material—“photography that collaborates with chance events,” as he once described it to me—which he captures on black-and-white film. After processing he enlarges negatives into silver gelatin prints in his home darkroom. The final output to photobooks completes a process which is resolutely analog and tactile. If his methodology is antiquated, it’s also charming, distinctive, and surprisingly durable. 

Steinmetz’s latest book ATL holds true to form. The photographs were made in and around various airplanes, and at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). In terms of pure volume—104 million passengers in 2023—this is the busiest airport in the world. It also happens to be the closest terminal to Steinmetz, who lives in nearby Athens, Georgia (with photographer/wife Irina Rozovzsky). As part of its long term series “Picturing The South”, the High Museum in Atlanta commissioned Steinmetz to photograph Hartsfield-Jackson. Between 2012 and 2019 he did just that, shooting from inside and outside the terminal, from inside and outside of planes, and on forays into the surrounding Atlanta environs. 

You might think that such a narrow brief—just three letters, after all—would produce constrained results. Steinmetz seems determined to bust this fallacy through sheer observational muscle. Regular jet setters might sleepwalk from one city to another. Not Steinmetz. Whether prowling a concourse or the banks of the Seine, he is a consistently engaged witness.

ATL opens with photographs of fellow passengers idling inside terminals. Until departure they are sitting ducks for a stray photographer, and Steinmetz takes full advantage. He observes as they repack luggage, check monitors, gaze at the tarmac, grab a meal, and pass the time. The stage moves into the main cabin for the next clutch of pictures. Steinmetz peers out the window to spy passing airplanes. These might be transposed selfies, an exterior view of his seatbelted watch post. His attention soon drifts to adjacent rows, catching passengers asleep or daydreaming. These internalized interiors feel similar in spirit to Kate Joyce’s Metaphysics (reviewed here), but ATL has a shorter runway. After just a few frames Steinmetz’s gaze has launched into other flight paths: wing parts, clouds, a fuselage shadow, a passing flight attendant. Complemented by the book’s sky blue accents, the scenery feels elevated and ethereal.

Soon enough, just as smoothly as the book achieved lift off, it lands again, this time in some imagined destination. We see more passengers in and around the terminal, and then glimpses of neighborhoods where they might be headed. Flight paths bisect tree-lined roads. As Gregory J. Harris writes, “Steinmetz is a masterful at capturing ordinary yet captivating human dramas that play out in the public spaces across the airport.” He has always been entranced by solitary figures, and his photographs can verge on psychoanalysis. Aiming at a pilot on break or a long-haired husband on vacation, he attempts to pry into private thoughts. Who is this person? What brought them here? What are they thinking? 

The pilot and husband are among a handful of travelers gazing into the heavens, along with a woman relaxing in an outdoor patio under the control tower. Perhaps these passengers are engaged in a moment of pre-flight prayer or silent reverie? Or their tasks may be more mundane, just watching planes or gate announcements. Who knows. As Steinmetz’s mentor Winogrand preached, a photograph merely describes light on film at a given moment. Any further assumptions are made at the observer’s peril.  

A more concrete certainty is that candid airport photography has grown more difficult in recent decades. When Winogrand shot them in the sixties and seventies—eventually collected in the posthumous book Arrivals and Departures— he treated terminals with the territorial claim of a New York sidewalk. It’s doubtful he was ever stopped or questioned, and if so it didn’t seem to slow him down. The same free-spirited bravado comes through in John Brian King’s LAX, shot in the early 1980s, and Martha Rosler’s In The Place Of The Public which documented airport life in the ’80s-90s. Each of these books sweeps up pedestrians, escalators, and luggage with easy relish.

These pre-9/11 photo possibilities seem like a cake walk compared to current conditions. Airport security and suspicions have heightened considerably in the new millennium, spawning the creation of the TSA, routine vigilance, and a general leeriness of anything out of the ordinary (Unoccupied baggage? Creepy photographer? Report suspicious activity immediately). The normal free-speech protections of sidewalk street photography apply uneasily in airports, which operate as quasi-public entities alongside shopping malls and sports stadiums. The same rules proscribed Winogrand’s era too, at least technically, but privacy and surveillance concerns were far less energized. By the time Steinmetz conducted his project 2012-2019, the ground had shifted. Candid airport and airplane photography required a degree of stealth and misdirection. 

These transitions lend ATL a contemporary edge. The photos poke a deliberate thumb in the eye of authority. They are blunt evidence that, yes indeed, creativity can flourish in tightly regulated zones. The increased centrality of air travel provides another layer of context. Whereas speeding inside a jet-fueled fuselage was once reserved for special occasions—I still remember the stomach-sinking G-force of occasional flights to distant family —it is now a routine component of modern life. Some people spend dozens of hours each week on airborne junkets, the real life equivalent of George Clooney’s Up In The Air. In ATL Steinmetz may have struck the zeitgeist. 

Higher theories aside, he seems most content behind a camera. ATL finishes up with a mini tour-de-force of excellent frames, dancing between subjects for the final few dozen pages. Steinmetz photographs a flight attendant clowning with his oxygen mask, abstractions fingered into window condensation, a rainstreaked terminal at dusk, the moonset over a plane wing, reflections in a parking garage, and more. The variety is so head-spinning that it feels like he’s photo flexing. He’s been shooting for decades and he’s at the top of his game. Send me to any arrivals, his photos seem to say, and I’ll make a strong picture. I can do it blindfolded. Heck, I’ll even do it buckled down, cramped, and face forward inside an airplane. 

Collector’s POV: Mark Steinmetz is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York (here) and Jackson Fine Art in Atlanta (here). Steinmetz’ prints aren’t consistently available in the secondary markets, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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