Mark Steinmetz – Athens, GA [Carey] (1996)
I’ve seen this photograph a dozen times but haven’t fully engaged with it. At first glance, it’s lovely enough.
The camera is low to the ground–giving it an almost Russian feel–except for the fact that near the top of the frame you can see just the hint of the top of some sort of structure. (I first thought it was the upper rear door of a van parked at the curb on a suburban street but on closer view, I’m pretty sure it’s the top of a house you’d expect to see a conversion van parked at the curb in front of in the Suburban south of the United States.)
It all feels a bit slapdash for Steinmetz. But then Carey’s position is so purposefully arranged–and given the way he necklace has slipped against her armpit, it’s not unreasonable to assume that at one point she was laying on her side before rolling onto her back.
This sort pose recurs at intervals in Steinmetz work. Consider: this from Summertime, Athens, GA [Jessica] (1997) & Athens, GA 1996. The pose–which you might term recumbent–is usually reserved for kids and young adults.
(E.D. Note: Here the author thought of the word ‘supine’ as a result of listening to Swans pretty much constantly for the last three weeks but had to use google to verify it meant laying face up as opposed to face down.)
I remember in a presentation Steinmetz referred to why he is interested in photographing teens that are no longer children but not yet adults is a result of what he terms a “ramshackle elegance”. (I know, it’s a dreamy turn of phrase; heart eyes emoji.) For illustration he showed pretty much my favorite photo he’s ever made.
There’s another thing he does assiduously in his work–subvert anything that might push things towards any sort of objectification. Take the previous photo of the young woman standing at the screen door. She’s clearly post-pubescent, but the aluminum cross section on the door is framed to block her chest. The viewer is left with both a profound sense of the subjects physical presence but the only means of connecting with that in any sort of way is through a confrontation where she’s ‘safe’ behind the door looking out; in other words, the visual grammar indicates a confrontation as opposed to any sort of clandestine, subtle or even outright voyeurism.
It’s always as if Steinmetz is diverting any sort of sexual objectification but leaving room for sexual potentiality. (I may be projecting a bit here and if so I apologize both to Mr. Steinmetz and you, dear reader.)
I think the best way to put it is to compare two other artists I find very similar: Ren Hang and Yung Cheng Lin. Hang is raw, gritty and in your face. His perversity is loud and clear, front and center.
Alternately, Lin inverts Hang’s lo-fi aesthetic and shoots the obverse of what Hang shoots. As I’ve noted previously, if you want to really grasp the degree to which Lin is the equal to Hang in terms of pervsity just consider everything the camera strategically doesn’t reveal in his frames and then you’ll start to understand how truly audacious his work is.
I wouldn’t necessarily say Steinmetz conceptualizes his work in a fashion where he distinguishes between sexual objectification and sexual potentiality. I think it’s just that his interest is ostensibly people and their stories in relationship to the stories that construe reality in the world around them.
But, to come back full circle, I don’t think my initial notion of comparing this to Rashomon is off-base. I mean Steinmetz, although an expert on the history of photography, like myself, is almost more likely to reference filmmakers than photographers.
I think it’s interesting that the story in Rashomon centers on four incompatible/irreconcilable testimonies detailing the events of an encounter in the woods. In turn that reminds me of the best advice I’ve ever received on writing: do not write about anything for at least three years because what seems important to remember in the immediate aftermath and what you remember down the road are two completely different things. The latter will have the most universal resonance to those who read what you write.