My copy of Mark Steinmetz's book from 2006, South Central, is getting a bit worn. His collection of skillfully made photographs of Knoxville residents and roadside discoveries doesn't sit on my shelf long enough to gather much dust. He is a photographer whose work asks to be revisited - and for the observant - it offers up a little more with each viewing.
Mark has a new book from Nazraeli called South East and this book could be seen as adding another chapter to his exploration of people and place.
The first thing one notices about South East if you've seen South Central, is that they follow the same exact size, design, and construction. They are twins. The similarities do not end with these physical attributes but extend to the photographs too. Not to be mistaken for a suggestion of repetition - I could look at stacks of Steinmetz's photographs for days and not tire - but this is a continuation of the tenor of South Central.
Again Steinmetz brings us up close to the strangers he meets and photographs during his walks through Athens, Georgia and other southeastern towns; a girl with her hand to her cheek looks coyly into his camera looking through a thick mane of hair; a black man stands awkwardly near a parking lot while the world is bulldozed behind him; a young man falls asleep in some overgrown shrubbery and re-emerges on the facing page twenty hard-lived years later as a weather beaten Rip Van Winkle.
I had described some of Steinmetz's photographs before as describing people in transition (5B4 May, 15, 2007). His subjects decide to sit at a roadside or in spaces that wouldn't normally invite relaxation, yet they don't seem as concerned with discomfort as we may be. In one a young man lays writhing on a thin stretch of sidewalk between two spans of asphalt for reasons unknown. In another, a boy decides to sit in the weeds along a roadside and puff into a white balloon.
Through someone else's camera, these descriptions may seem forced or even contrived to the point of self-consciousness but Steinmetz's descriptions do not rely on obvious ploys to gain acceptance. As Peter Galassi writes in his introduction, "Indeed the hallmark of Steimetz's work - the quality that makes us trust his testimony - may be the unblinking constancy with which his photographs solicit grave interest in particular people without claiming unearned intimacy or insight."
As in South Central, animals play an interesting role in South East. They both belong and don't belong. Most are strays that, like the people around them, find their stomping grounds where others do not frequent. Also, they stand apart much like the photographer himself who belongs (Athens is Steinmetz's hometown) yet he is always an outsider as his camera and painful attention to detail are working beyond the notice of his subjects. A very young girl in a flower dress steps into a large pair of adult sized white shoes unconcerned with what the viewer will inevitably see as a set of phallic bicycle grips standing upright next to her feet. Again, Steinmetz doesn't hammer you with small details like the bike grips. They are present but left out of the spotlight for us to discover over time. As is the figure of a man that appears in the background of that same image. As is the tapestry of of wood and fiberglass screening that makes up the porch the young girl stands in front of. There seems to be little left in the frame that doesn't imply meaning.
South East, like South Central, is a full experience and both books together offer the fruits of unique talent who exists beyond the glitz and glamour of much of today's contrivances. They show just how extraordinary and meaningful the ordinary world can be if you have trust and allow it to reveal itself to you.
Buy online at Nazraeli
Book Available Here (South Central)