JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 black-and-white photographs, generally framed in black and matted, and hung on four walls in the main South gallery as well as in the smaller East gallery. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, dated between 1991 to 2016. Eleven are 20×24 (in editions of 15), eight are 30×40 (in editions of 7), and one is 40×50 (in an edition of 3.) (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Mark Steinmetz has not received a New York solo show in 12 years—Yancey Richardson exhibited his work three times between 1999-2005—so his reappearance is welcome news.
MoMA launched his career in 1993, when at the age of 32 he was one of four artists selected for New Photography 9 (the others were Christopher Giglio, Boris Mikhailov, and Beat Streuli). Since then, he has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, published 12 monographs, and taught at some of the top MFA programs in the country, including Yale, Columbia, Duke, and RISD. Although he has photographed in Tuscany and Paris, the bedrock of his oeuvre are his portraits and landscapes of the American South, his home base for the last two decades.
Steinmetz does not pretend to be avant-garde or an inventor. His pictures declare their allegiance to a black-and-white documentary-humanist tradition that he inherited and cares deeply to nourish for the present generation. His bloodlines run from Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange through latter-day descendants Robert Frank, William Gedney, Roy DeCarava, Nicholas Nixon, George Tice, Diane Arbus, Robert Adams, Lois Conner, Judith Joy Ross, Thomas Roma, and early Sally Mann.
It may be his long absence from the New York scene and an apparent need to introduce him to a younger crowd that the selection here is more of a “greatest hits” from the 1990s than an unveiling of new work from the last decade. This cautiousness may be warranted as a strategy for preparing the market for his work, but it nonetheless frustrates any larger sense of what he’s been up to lately.
Girl on hood of car (1996) and Jessica (1997) and Margaretha (1999), all taken in Athens, GA, are among his most reproduced photographs and exemplify the languorous sensuosity that permeates all of his work. This sympathetic response can be found not only when he is walking around the South, where inhabitants famously move to the rhythms of a slower clock. Steinmetz has photographed in this patient and deliberate manner wherever he has gone, L.A. or Berlin.
Tension flickers across the faces of several subjects during the brief confrontations that procede his extemporaneous taking of a portrait. In only a few cases does he know the name of his subjects, so his motives for approaching them are suspect. But neither they nor he ever seem to be in a hurry to separate and no residue of ill will seems to remain. (In some cases, he has asked them to repeat a gesture that he had glimpsed and liked the looks of.)
Even if these are momentary encounters, his views feel considered, neither snap judgments nor decisive moments. Their success as portraits depends on their fulfilment as richly detailed photographs, on the supple series of gray tonalities that will bring out the individuality of each place and person. It’s the unplanned combination of social and pictorial parts in Knoxville, TN (man sitting on table), 1991 that makes the pose of the African-American man so memorable: the faint patch of light on the ground from the bushes behind; the contrast between the dark shiny skin on his arms and face and his pale soles and ankles; the relaxed, confident athleticism of his long legs dangling over a circular Modernist kitchen table (with aluminum tube legs) that happens to be in someone’s leaf-strewn yard.
The two landscapes here from 2007-2009 are more formally complicated than in his earlier work, their foregrounds and backgrounds less easily separated. His most recent picture, College Park GA (plane and streetlight), 2016 goes in the other direction, the night scene stripped down to the basics: an outline of a distant jet against the big round glowing disc of a street lamp.
Steinmetz has been a superb black-and-white printer for a long time, and he seems to have improved his game. The print here of Jessica is the best I’ve seen of this image. He has shot a lot in color but continues to regard it as “kind of loud and rowdy. The elements with a B&W prints are more at rest.”
If his tenderness for all things can at times pivot on the brink of sentimentality, the same can be said for certain pictures by Frank, Gedney, Adams, and Ross. When Steinmetz photographs people whose economic circumstances are beyond desperate, as in Man in Creek (1992) and Man in Kudzu (1995), he enfolds them in the circumstances of the natural world, as if he believed that no lost soul is beyond redemption.
He is one of those artists who can sharpen one’s dull and rote perceptions of daily life. After spending an hour with his portraits, it can seem that every passerby on the street or in line at the ATM may be worthy of being photographed, if only they had the blessed fortune to cross his path.
Collector’s POV: The prices of the works in this show range from $4700 for the 20x24s to $7000 for the 30x40s and $11250 for the single 40×50. Steinmetz’ prints aren’t consistently available in the secondary markets—only a handful of prints have been sold at auction in the past five years. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. And a small point of full disclosure: long ago, I bought 3 Steinmetz prints, two of which are featured in this show.