Mark Steinmetz’s current exhibition at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art has narrative ambition, but also asks difficult questions about the meaning of “straight photography” and its relationship to the documentary tradition. In what sense are documentary photographs social records, deadpan descriptions, or allegorical explications of the artist’s worldview? Are they a series of facile maneuvers, or as critic Garry Badger once claimed, “an existential form of jerking off”? Steinmetz’s photographs confront these questions by burying themselves in a fault line where the unthinking camera and artistic intent seem to meet and blur, and the dramatic poetry of the South struggles to spill over the subjects, spaces, and social tensions laying quietly but assertively within the space of the picture.
Steinmetz is a lover of tradition and the interconnected stylistic lineages that make up the 150-year history of photography. His use of black-and-white photography makes visible his investment in the early history of the medium, as does his masterful execution of the silver gelatin process, which, unlike digital color printing, opens the surface of the picture to flaws, textures, aberrations, and the artist’s hand. Emphasis on the purity of details and rich contrasts of lights and darks continues the aesthetic of early 20th-century East Coast Pictorialism, while his penchant for the neglected margins of cities and their inhabitants resonates with the countercultural aesthetic and ethics of the West Coast Photographic Movement of the 1930s. Oscillating between portraits and landscapes, the selection of photographs at the Ogden establishes a rhythm where face and landscape correspond and converse with one another, asking the viewer to notice formal and emotional similarities between nature and man—a curatorial decision that begs association with the aesthetic and intellectual practices of modernist master Alfred Stieglitz. Throughout the galleries, Stieglitz’s emphasis on the interiority of his subjects resonate in Steinmetz’s photographs, as does Stieglitz’s transcendental aesthetic philosophy of “embodied formalism,” where aesthetic harmony depends on the corporeal synchronization between the artist, subject, and nature.