Landscape Stories: How did you first come to arts? What was it that drew you towards photography in particular?
Mark Steinmetz: My parents gave me a camera when I was around six. Once we came back home after a day trip to the beach and I can remember getting out of the car with my camera and leaning across the car’s trunk in order to frame my house just right for a picture. I remember the sensation of pressing my belly into the trunk and making slight adjustments. Selecting where the frame lines will go in order to cut out a piece of the world has always been a pleasure for me. I had been interested in literature in high school and in cinema later on in college but for most of my youth I had thought I would go into one of the physical sciences like astronomy or paleontology or archaeology. Early on in college I took a course on the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and one on modern art and I left science and math behind. I figured other people could do the work in the sciences and report back to me what they were discovering. I would go out into the world and use a camera to describe and interpret our present civilization and leave behind a record.
LS: Who are your favorite artists and why?
MS: There are so many, too many. In cinema, I have to cite Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin – I love the way the use their bodies for comic effect. There are certain emotional notes that only the medium of silent film can strike. I also love Jean Renoir’s films but the list of filmmakers whom I consider very great is very long. The way Orson Welles photographs his old, bloated body in his late movies has to rank among the best self-portraiture of the 20th century. In photography, I’ll boil things down to Walker Evans and Atget, but then let me slip in Winogrand too. I love the Venetian painters such as Bellini and Giorgione for their gifts as portraitists and for their ability to create a narrative scene (see Giorgione’s The Tempest). I love Fra Angelico – at the deepest levels, I can’t say why. I love so much music – it is like food for me – I can’t possibly begin to list favorite musicians.
LS: You have worked for several years in close contact with Garry Winogrand. How much his personal and artistic influence has been important for your artistic career?
MS: It wasn’t several years. It was nine months in Los Angeles when I was 22 and, as it turned out, he was in the last year of his life. I soaked up pretty much everything he had to say and offer. His work, and particularly his very late work, so mysterious and elegiac, touches me deeply and remains a guide for me. His intelligence was strict and his mind was agile; he was a seeker of truth.
LS: Garry Winogrand was taking his kids to the zoo while he was going through a difficult divorce. He took pictures, realized he was on to something, and eventually produced ‘The Animals’. What do you think about feeling uncomfortable taking photographs?
MS: I think in this case, Winogrand must have been fairly comfortable photographing at the zoo. Lots of people go to the zoo with cameras after all, photographing themselves and the animals. He might have been at a difficult period in his life but I think it must have been fairly pleasant for him out there on the weekends, sometimes having his children in town. Possibly he was more uncomfortable when photographing people in less crowded circumstances where it was obvious he was making their photo without their permission but I would say in general that Garry had a pretty thick skin – he didn’t seem to mind how people might react to him when taking their picture. I think a lot of people tend to avoid what really interests them because they are too uncomfortable to try to take the picture.
LS: Peter Galassi's line that your landscapes are 'places with personalities'.
MS: Hmm, that was in his essay to “South East”. A lot of my pictures of places contain some incident such as an animal passing through or a balloon aloft or a lightning strike. An abandoned car might suggest a particular predicament. Mostly I tend to identify emotionally in some way with the scene, and they evoke, at least for me, a mood. My landscapes tend not to be Olympian, majestic, epic; they work more on an intimate scale. Peter might have been referring to my book “Tuscan Trees” where the olive trees have the wild traits of wise old individuals.
LS: We’re sure that you’re interested in Lucas Foglia and Paul D’Amato. Why do you think their work is inspiring for the contemporary era? And also how their use of color is interesting to you?
MS: Mostly my orientation is toward the generation of photographers who are older than me, and to photographers now dead and consigned to history. I know Paul’s work very well. We were friends and photographing at the same time in the late 1980s in Chicago when he really started to make lots of exciting and challenging work. It’s great if his work is now being seen more widely and is inspiring to a new generation. I would be delighted to learn that my lineage was being continued and explored and superseded with audacity by younger photographers.
LS: Do you see any tendencies in photography now? Who are the photographers that most excite you today? Which emerging artists are you looking at?
MS: I think a lot of photographers today are not that interested in the world or how they feel about the world. I think many are stumbling about a bit awkwardly in a conceptual vein and frankly I feel many are lost. Even those who are ostensibly interested in the world present their work in books that follow highly abstract formulas. One obvious tendency now, at least in the galleries, is with a kind of process-oriented abstraction sometimes derived by darkroom procedures. I think there’s an interesting looseness and playfulness in many who are working in constructed still lives. I think I’d rather refrain from naming names – it seems there are many spirited, capable young photographers but are any running at as high a level of risk, passion, and curiosity as someone like Winogrand? I’d like to see a little more madness in today’s straight photography.
LS: “We know that under the revealed image there is another one which is more faithful to reality, and under this one is yet another, and again another under this last one, down to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that nobody will ever see. Or perhaps, not until the decomposition of every image, of every reality”. This is a quote by Michelangelo Antonioni. Are these suggestions important for your photographic interpretation and in which measure? How much is relevant the relationship with the absence, with what is not there or lives elsewhere?
MS: When I was 17, I was in a class devoted to Antonioni’s films and I learned a good deal about cinematic structure by going over those films slowly, frame by frame. I learned a lot about images and how they come together in a structure. He wrote something I found interesting on extracting an image from an event, and how the image might not truthfully represent the event but be a distinct creation with its separate logic. I am fairly sure there is no such thing as absolute reality; perception is always subjective. There’s always a more expanded consciousness from which to perceive an elevated version of reality. In art and in story telling, I think a lot is to be potentially gained by withholding information and not getting into too much detail.
LS: Photography can be documentation, description, allegory… In your opinion how important it is for a photography to hide evidence, to be allusive or to have a strong element of ambiguity?
MS: "There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described, wrote Garry Winogrand. To me most attempts at ambiguity come off as heavy handed and end up disappointing. To be ambiguous for the sake of ambiguity is merely a stylistic affectation. I much prefer the clear-eyed work of Evans or Atget to someone making blurry or in other ways, “expressive” pictures, that too easily escape into some spiritual or metaphoric realm. The lyricism of Evans’ or Atget’s work is so much richer for their realistic depiction. It’s important to exercise restraint and learn how to contain and funnel your passion. Over-determining for the viewer (reader) how they will experience art leads to an experience that doesn’t really resonate or quite manage to get under one’s skin. Modernist poetry, as I understand it, like photography, relies on collecting and assembling mute fragments to convey meanings and feelings (but not to explain). There needs to be some blanks in place so the viewer/reader can put his/her poetic imagination and free will to use.
LS: How photography is helpful to understand reality, to overcome the suspended uncertainties, to dissolve doubts?
MS: Robert Frost says that good poetry provides a momentary stay against confusion; good photography creates worlds which are convincing and which offer clarity. Some photographers try to show how beautiful life can be. Doubts and seeming dead ends dissolve when a new higher perspective clicks into place. Photography as a practice can help us to train our minds and to shift our consciousness.
LS: You have some ideas you’d like to realize. How do you develop your projects? What is your methodological approach and intent?
MS: My work springs more from feelings and intuition than ideas. I try to stay open and rely on my instincts. I put my antennae up and just see what is reeled in. There’s the saying most everyone is familiar with – “go with the flow.” I try not to get ahead of the flow but to follow it closely and see where it leads me. Usually I have some loose ideas but those I tend to revise in face of the photos that I’m actually making. I try not to over-determine the outcome at the onset. I try to be honest with myself about what is truly exciting and working for me.
LS: About Contact Sheets. We've remarked that contact sheets are really important for most of the photographers. Last year we went to two exhibitions in Paris, Andres Petersen and Guido Guidi, there were exhibited also some contact sheets. Are contact sheets really crucial in the work of a photographer?
MS: Well, they certainly are important if you work in film. Even though I'm good at guessing what someone’s expression looks like from the negative you really need the positive image to know how things look for sure. Often if your contact sheet is less than well made you can prejudice yourself against an image that would otherwise sing if printed darker or lighter, and so you fail to select that image and it slips away. Physical contact sheets that are numbered and in boxes are the only way I know to thoroughly review negatives from the past. Looking at a computer screen for too long cannot be healthy (our pupils have little bitty chakras in them) and it’s not as easy to shuffle through contacts on the computer as when you have actual sheets of paper that can be spread out on a table and viewed with a good magnifying loupe. Maybe my contact sheets would be interesting to others to see how I approach a subject and roam around.
LS: Starting from your experience, what is the limit up to which you can teach photography? What are the strengths and weaknesses?
MS: My meditation teacher says that one cannot teach meditation, meditation rather is something that manifests. I certainly think that talking to other people about their work can be helpful for them but so many teachers today talk so much, and so many students talk too much too. Everybody has an idea they’re shopping around nowadays. Photographers need to quiet their minds more and practice more. Today’s lecturers in photography tend to go heavily into theory and say all sorts of things that really don’t have anything to do with the pictures they are showing. I would prefer more a lecturer like Lee Friedlander who doesn’t say much of anything unless a question is asked and then his answer is brief and to the point. He doesn’t need to talk; his pictures speak for him. Lee is a great photographer and, who knows, maybe there is some kind of transmission from him by osmosis, which doesn’t take place with a lesser photographer. I would rather have my photographs be my main teaching than anything I have to say to others.
LS: Athens, Georgia and Paris, France. You’re born in the States but you’ve France and Dutch origins, you’ve photographed also in Italy. What about your favorite places to take photographs? How do you think, in some way, this different cultures influenced your work?
MS: Mostly I like photographing in places that have some warmth. Barren, cold places are of limited interest for me and I have a low interest in war zones or impoverished areas. I like a fairly safe terrain and the everyday. It seems like there are more and more people everywhere and that the world is becoming more homogenous – we are moving in the direction of having one world culture. I’m as comfortable (or as uncomfortable) in America as I am in Europe. Southeast Asia interests me though I’ve only been to Thailand. Central America has possibilities and the larger cities of South America. I would love to photograph some more in Rome (and Italy in general). Doing some work that might be construed as “exotic” to the Western mind might be worth exploring one day. I am always surprised by the strength of connection I have to different places for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.
LS: Do you think you can associate your approach at photography to “Zen in the Art of Archery“ by Eugen Herrigel? What about collaborating with chance events?
MS: Yes, I mention that book to students as a book that Cartier-Bresson told other photographers to read. Part of the pleasure and purpose of photography as I practice it is to make myself an instrument that can respond quickly to the life that flows around me. Photography needs to remain fun and for me cultivating my ability to anticipate events and situations as they develop is part of the play. Part of me (my mind mostly) needs to move aside so it doesn’t interfere with my intuitive responses to the world. Being able to catch the moment can be exhilarating but it is also an achievement that comes through training and practice. I am not seeing many photographers today having much of an interest in this kind of cultivation or in exploring the world of frozen gestures that comes with employing a fast shutter speed.
LS: Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format?
MS: I still like film, possibly because I have a good darkroom and know how to print well and effectively. My favorite camera tends to be a 6×9 cm camera but once in awhile I shoot with 35mm or 4×5 (inches). I use a 6×7 cm folding camera too because it is light, compact and the shutter is very quiet, but I am not such a fan of that boxy frame shape.
LS: Can you suggest us 3 photography books that you liked?
MS: I’ve already mentioned Frank’s “The Americans“ and Evans’ “American Photographs“. I would add any of the “Szarkowski/Hambourg“ books on Atget, but particularly “L’Ancien Regime“, which focuses on his late works in the parks just outside of Paris.
L S: Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring?
M S: Hmm, I just saw a retrospective of Stephen Shore in Berlin. The large color prints from Uncommon Places looked good.
LS: What about your collaborations (Raymond Meeks, Irina Rozovsky, Little Brown Mushroom, ecc.) Maybe you could tell us something about your experience.
MS: To me, photography is always about collaboration. Photographers collaborate with chance and with the universe. I have had teachers and peers. I would not say that “I did it all by myself” although I was the one out there releasing the shutter. My longest collaboration has been with Chris Pichler, with whom I’ve made several books for his Nazraeli Press. I’ve learned a lot from him about pairing and sequencing. The Little Brown Mushroom collaboration did not take place finally. Ray sought me out for his Orchard series and was pretty much the driving force for idyll, the book we did together which mixed photographs I had taken in the woods with pictures he had made of his daughter. With Irina, we have been collaborating on a website “A New Nothing” where she posts a picture then I post one and so on in a dialogue built from our photos, many of which have been made with the iphone. We might be doing some books together when we photograph in the same terrain, hers in color, mine mostly in black and white.
LS: Tell us your strangest "Landscape Story"?
MS: A long time ago, I was photographing in the olive groves outside of Cortona, Italy – these photos would later comprise my first book, Tuscan Trees. The Etruscans had been in those hills, and later on, Saint Francis. I’m not sure what to call the moment I experienced. The hills around me suddenly came alive with an extraordinary vividness and under the tall grasses I could feel the earth’s beating heart.
Interview curated by Marina Caneve and Gianpaolo Arena