Mark Steinmetz, Carnival

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Stanley/Barker (here). Chopped cardboard hardcover, 310×287 mm, 148 pages, with 91 duotone reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. Design by The Entente. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Part of what makes a traditional American carnival so much fun is the chaotic bustle of the crowd. Of course, there are rides, games, bright lights, music, and all kinds of foods, but much of the energy that fills a carnival comes from the hundreds of people both walking around and working there; if you’ve ever visited a carnival on a nearly rainy night, the very absence of those throngs of people drains away the collective joy. When a summertime carnival comes to town, it is a place for families, couples, teenagers, kids, and people from all walks of life to congregate together – it is a shared experience, where walking, jostling, talking, waiting in line, and watching are all part of the day’s (and night’s) entertainment.

For photographers, the combination of a carnival and all its visitors makes for a dense playground of visual stimuli. This handsome monograph brings together two decades of Mark Steinmetz’s carnival photographs. Taken at state and county fairs, traveling carnivals, and small circuses around the United States, the images take shape from the artist’s ability to pass through the crowds relatively unnoticed, making pictures of strangers without arousing their attention – it’s essentially black and white street photography, only made at the fairgrounds.

Steinmetz has made a photographic career out of seeing small gestures, and Carnival is filled with pictures that capture a fleeting expression, touch, or connection. While we might expect that a carnival would elicit a good number of laughs and smiles, Steinmetz actually uncovers a whole range of emotions in the faces of visitors. He show us the slightly anxious face of a boy about to start his ride, the hair pulling despair of another who sadly lost his game, and a furrow-browed third covering his ears from the noise of a nearby ride. Even the adults feel the unexpected intensity of the moment, from the open mouthed wonder of a man looking at the lights and a similar expression from a woman on a merry-go-round, to the weary tangle of limbs of a man sitting in the grass near the awesome blossom blooming onion stand.

Couples and teenagers provide Steinmetz with some of his most memorable subjects. His 80s era images are brimming with long frizzy or feathered hair and shirtless skinny guys in jeans, but it’s the public displays of affection that feel timeless – the letter jacketed arm around a shoulder, the daring kiss behind the wall, the couples hanging all over each other, and the girl with a boyfriend sashaying by the cross-armed one without. The solo guys, of course, either show off at the punching machine, or linger on the sidelines, waiting and watching with an intentness that verges on desperation, and the lanky awkward girls hang around with similar intensity. It seems the dance of attraction never changes.

While all this drama is taking place, the carnival workers taking tickets, running the games, and dealing with the circus animals could hardly be more bored – somehow even watching a tiger in a cage turns out to be dull. Hammering in tent poles, tending the elephants, and counting cash seem like actual tasks, but waiting around is the primary activity. One worker even has time to trim his fingernails when no one shows up for a ride. Amid all this standing, Steinmetz does uncover one elegant dance move – the crossover step of an attendant buckling in Ferris Wheel riders.

Steinmetz often builds a picture around a single resonant detail, one that seems central once we notice it. While the goldfish in the plastic bag, the long mustache chops, and the black mask on the young boy are hard to miss, other overlooked elements turn out to make in image memorable. There’s the hairbrush in the back pocket of the shirtless guy with the Budweiser belt, the rose tattoo on the arm of the ticket seller, the billowing canvas that surrounds a waiting girl, and the pattern of geometric lights reflected on the trunk of parked car, each a detail that becomes something more when noticed. In a few pictures, Steinmetz then goes one step further, taking a small discovery and building into a larger moment of visual humor. Three pictorial winners in this vein are the Ring of Fire ride leading to the cemetery, the girl’s white cotton candy that bookends a man’s fuzzy head, and the woman in hair curlers climbing aboard the Super-Loops ride.

The design of Carnival is tight and straightforward. The images are shown one to a page with plenty of white breathing space, sometimes with both sides of a spread each containing an image. The graphic design is clear and bold, turning the words Steinmetz and Carnival into graphic elements on the front and back, with simple red endpapers to match the text color. And the thick cardboard covers give the book a modern feel.

Steinmetz has clearly built up a deep bookshelf of noteworthy publications over the last two decades, and Carnival feels like yet another solid subject matter driven core sample from his archive, to go along with his many one-location geographic studies. It’s a slightly more casual photobook than some of his others, likely due to its quirky subject matter, but this doesn’t diminish the consistent quality of Steinmetz’s picture making. The action at a carnival is typically more lively than lyrical, but Steinmetz still finds plenty of moments of surprising grace and visual cleverness in the frisky scramble.

Collector’s POV: Mark Steinmetz is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York (here) and Charles A. Hartman Fine Art in Portland (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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