© Mark Steinmetz, Man peering in window, Knoxville

 
 

1. South Central is the first part of your complex project that introduces the viewer to this smoky suburban world. In the series, we can see a sort of evolution of the story; the story takes shape and we are forced to follow what will happen then. The man in the image "Man peering in window, Knoxville" looks at us through the car window; he is inviting us, he is pursuing us to understand something that is unspeakable. We have just to look at the photographs and we will discover the entire story. In which ways is it possible to create this kind of feeling? Is there something particular that has inspired you and guided you to obtain this specific emotional effect?

Mark Steinmetz: This is a question I don't quite know how to answer. What I can say is that I've always been most interested in photography that is open-ended, work that poses questions and doesn't rush into solutions. I think Winogrand put it as "photographs that state problems." I greatly admire the work Cartier-Bresson did in his early twenties or that Atget did in the last years of his life - their images are rich, resonant, and not so readily interpreted. I'm not so sure my work has any single specific emotional effect - so much depends on the eyes of the beholder and where he or she might be at in their life or in their cultivation. The work is open to interpretation. I think my psyche is just wired a certain way and that I'm pretty much helpless to photograph things the way I do. It's my nature.

I should note a correction - I don't just photograph the suburban world but rather a range that moves from the rural to the inner city.

 
 

© Mark Steinmetz, Boy on corner, Knoxville

 
 

2. South Central Ė South East Ė Greater Atlanta were all published by Nazraeli Press. They are graphically identical. Could you tell us something more about your collaboration with Nazraeli? How much does the Publishing House contribute and influence the final look of the books?

MS: Well, I'm certainly grateful to Nazraeli for publishing my books! For each book, I brought in way more pictures than could possibly included to give as many options as possible for the pairings and sequencing. I had looked at the photos for many years and had all kinds of plans and ideas but it was great to have another pair of eyes to help sort things out. When a sequence finally gets straightened out, there's always a wonderful feeling of inexplicable rightness to it - better even than winning at bingo or reaching check-mate. As for the size, shape, and design of the books, we were in agreement. Everything was pretty mutual. I think the off-white paper covers though turned out to be more fragile than anticipated.

 
 

© Mark Steinmetz, Man in white, Atlanta

 
 

3. In some articles about your work weíve read that the atmosphere you create with the images, has been compared to independent-movie scenes, with their specific code and language. Do you think that your photographs suggest that kind of imagery? And would you like to explain what this imagery is all about? For example, we guess that some of your images, like " Girl at restaurant, Marietta, Georgia"; "Boy on corner, Knoxville"; "Boy blowing balloon, Off Highway 441, North Georgia" and many others, could be perfect movie stills.

MS: Where are these articles about my work? I don't think I know them. I love going to the movies though. When I was a 17 year-old freshman in college I took a course on the films of Michaelangelo Antonioni and we went over his movies cut by cut, which, by the way, turned out to be great preparation for thinking about how to put photography books together. I've studied silent films and film noir so who knows what I've absorbed from all that and how it may have seeped into my work. But I have to say that photography that tends to be called "cinematic" doesn't appeal to me so much. Staged work often seems fairly lifeless. There's little surprise to it - it lacks that freshness, that rawness that comes from discovering something that's out there in life. Winogrand advised photographers "to make pictures that are smarter than you are." He's saying that the world is more interesting than our ideas about it, and that if you have faith in the richness of the everyday world and the willingness to collaborate with chance happenings, you can make a picture that exceeds anything your mind could come up with. Photography that pretends to behave like cinema tends to trade in manufactured (false) emotions and in unconvincing, dilute experiences.

In a movie, if you have two bank robbers who dash into a darkened warehouse to hide from the cops, you're suddenly viewing a dark screen, but it's still believable as a warehouse. In still photography, there's no way a black picture is going to conjure up bank robbers in a warehouse. Still photography just isn't a narrative medium in the same way as film. Photographs never explain anything; the limits to what photographs actually demonstrate and offer needs to be rigorously understood by photographers. Otherwise you end up with elaborate supporting captions or vague, wishful fantasies about what the pictures might be about.

 
 

© Mark Steinmetz, Boy blowing balloon, Off Highway 441, North Georgia

 
 

© Mark Steinmetz, Cat in window, Chattanooga

 
 

4. In the photograph "Girl on car, Athens, Georgia" a girl is laying on a car with a pack of cigarettes, a bottle and a paper glass. In her face there are traces of melancholia. We are pursued to wondering of what she is thinking about. But at the same time, we are worried about her. The light in the photograph is so dramatic, intense. The image reminds us of one of Robert Adamsís photographs from Our Lives and our Children. In opposite of Adamís work for you itís not about stealing pictures from the ordinary life. You approach your subjects directly, with the intention to communicate with them. In black and white photography, shadows and lights are very important to create the right mood. Maybe the use of light is the most important thing. But which is the real power of light in your pictures? Does the light help to create the story?

MS: Black and white photography seems to me to be more purely concerned with light (as well as with darkness, the yin to light's yang) than color photography. B/W is also more about graphic structure. Photography without light is unthinkable so I don't know what I can really say about the subject. Light brings revelation and hope. There's the expression, "the light at the end of the tunnel" - a metaphor for hope and for the journey of the human consciousness. In photographs, the use of light can't really be considered separately from composition or from the depiction (and feeling) of space. It's safe to say that the use of light is inseparable from the meaning (or feeling) of the pictures.

 
 
© Mark Steinmetz, Girl on car, Athens, Georgia
 
 

5. After the color revolution of the Seventies, working in black and white seems hazardous for fine arts photographers. You have to express your own, contemporary vision. When we look at your photographs it seems quite natural to see them in black and white. That’s a great conquest. Do you think that right now it is more difficult to work in black and white?

MS: Well, black and white requires a lot of hard work in the darkroom. You have to spend lots of time developing film, whereas a color photographer can just go to a lab and drop off the film because with color there's no real advantage to developing the film yourself. I often find myself developing film while my color photographer friends are off clubbing or skydiving or having their hair done. Also, it's rather grueling to make large-scale fiber-based silver-gelatin prints that are archival. In the old days, great b/w photographers like Helen Levitt (who set up a simple darkroom in her bathroom) or Brassai (who had a darkroom in his hotel room) would only make relatively small prints. They were principally making photographs for books. Nowadays, if you're trying to make large b/w prints for the wall, it really is a trickier proposition than making color prints for the wall. I'm talking about silver-gelatin prints. Digital ink prints do mute this discussion.

Another difficulty for young photographers who might try to work in b/w is the widespread lack of advanced training in darkroom technique. Where do they go to learn? But I think your question is mainly about the difficulties of using b/w as a viable modern medium now that color has been unleashed everywhere. It's true when I was growing up the television screens were b/w and the newspaper photos were in b/w. Now our television screens and computer monitors are all in color, ones often poorly calibrated for color. What are all these screwy screens doing to our eyes, to our ability to see and feel color? Strangely tinted sunglasses are ubiquitous and we hardly consider the effects of our artificial lighting. I wonder if we aren't becoming a bit numb to the colors around us. Are we experiencing the colors in the world as vividly and pleasurably as our ancestors?

To get to your question - b/w photography is wonderful and can still be done. If b/w feels right for a young photographer, if it's for some reason more thrilling to work in b/w than in color then why not? That photographer should give him or herself permission to go ahead in b/w and not be limited by some limiting belief. The glory of the first 150 years of photography is overwhelmingly in b/w and a b/w photographer today can perhaps more successfully refer to that work of the past. I find the continuity among images, the flow, to usually (but not always) be more satisfying and thought-out in a book of b/w photos than in a book comprised of color images. If you study b/w films cut by cut you can see all sorts of care in linking up one image after another. The color films of the past few decades tend to depend on a rather passive, beaten-down audience, one that seems hardly aware of when a cut is taking place.

 
 
© Mark Steinnmetz, Car with kudzu, Athens, Georgia
 
 
© Mark Steinmetz, Girl at restaurant, Marietta, Georgia
 
 

6. The American landscape contains signs that maybe we in Europe arenít able to identify easily. We are very fascinated by the incredible differences between the North and the South, the East and West. Every place has a particularity; every landscape is full of meanings and stories. What does it mean for you to photograph in the South of the United States?

MS: Yes, thankfully there are still wonderful and exciting differences between places. I just took a road trip to Los Angeles and the West is a blast! I love being out in the desert. Of course the differences that still remain between places are diminishing. Our conformist corporate culture is constantly persuading us that our needs are all the same and this conformity is taking us to a place of apathy and complacency. (Check out a great travelogue on America written sixty years ago by Henry Miller - "The Air-Conditioned Nightmare.") I like to stress the poetry and ambience of a place, while still trying to be truthful. The South has many great writers - William Faulkner, Flannery O' Connor, Carson McCullers - and they've influenced me, and there are great musicians too. Most contemporary photographers of the South I think go a bit overboard in making the South seem like an overly gothic, romantic place, though there might be a few photographers who go overboard in the opposite direction by depicting the American South through a "new topographic" prism that makes it seem indistinguishable from, say, the Belgian/German border. I love the South for the weeds growing through the cracks of its sidewalks, for its humidity and for its chaos.

 

Interview by Daniel Augschoell and Anya Jasbar