Mark Steinmetz – France 1987

I’m still determining who needs to hear this, but Mark Steinmetz remains one of the most profound voices in the rising tide of what I suggest is a revisiting of humanism in photography. Given the clamor and tumult of the past years, it is not a surprise that work like Mark’s, which, at its base, promotes an urgency to remain human in times of peril, should be continually examined. Other artists share this type of image-making. I think of Vanessa Winship, Rahim Fortune, Judith Joy Ross, Donovan Smallwood, Anne Immelé, Thomas Boivin, Serge Purtell, and Deanna Templeton, to name a few, who have been mining this territory with success. The territory that I am describing as it relates to Mark is the territory of humanism based on the French model of authors from the 1950s and 1960s in post-war Europe. Concerned with the everyday, French humanist photography often worked away from spectacle. Its insistence was people, their habits, routines, and their place in the world. French humanism also had much to do with the photoessay, a genre of reportage that one could almost shoehorn Mark’s work toward, if it were not different times. And, if reportage and photoessays were to return, I can imagine the incredible contribution Mark could make in this format.

Izis, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneaux, and others found themselves making photographs as Europe reconstructed itself in the wake of an apocalyptic world war with Germany. One can imagine that the sentiment of this era frowned upon pessimism and cynical leanings in the wake of such horror. To what point would there be to react to the world in such a manner when everything you held dear was at stake or destroyed in the fragile 1940s? That was best left to the writers perhaps, to parse out what it meant, versus what it means. Perhaps the return to this methodology of producing photographs has much to do with our own times, which feel imbalanced at best. A need or urgency to return to the world with sincerity and without apoplectic invective is necessary. There is, as in the 1940s, simply too much at stake to continually lay claim to the cancerous bedsores of cynicism. War in Ukraine. War in Yemen. War in Sudan. Genocide in Palestine. Terrorism in Israel. Climate Peril. Inflation. These are not topics to cripple with self-serving cynicism no matter how much it gives a moment of instant gratification.

I see Mark’s work as a bulwark against the morose condition of the world and the predicaments we find ourselves in, despite my own proclivities to find pessimism in much of my own outlook. As I have previously mentioned with his book Past K-Ville, I feel as though this is the type of work that I would more naturally turn against, opting to see it for something approaching sentimental. To see Mark’s work for that would be a severe injustice. It would blind oneself to the possibility that photography and art can offer a coping mechanism to the terrors associated with the obnoxious atrocities just outside the doorframe. I find a reverence in Mark’s work that I gravitate toward, and it is work that I can believe in, giving me some loose sense of continuing through the morass of the hellish landscape of violence, war, and tyranny that seems to never go out of style. The work reminds me to check my pessimism and to remember that it is not the course of humanity itself to rebel against, but rather the sociopathy its “leaders” insist upon its masses.

With France 1987, published by the venerable Nazraeli Press, it is worth noting that the book is an interesting addition to Mark’s other books, of which there is no small amount. What makes France 1987 different from previous books is the time in which it was created, which puts his style of shooting still close to one of his mentors Garry Winogrand, but starts to show (in great amounts) Mark’s strong individual vision. There are still elements of distance in the work. Some of the portraits are shot from the hip, and without the exceptional compositional framing of people, often in two’s, that Mark would become known for. Here, there is an aesthetic ode to street photography at points. The camera tilts, the images are fast, but at times uneven. This is not too suggest that the images are less, but rather that they show an interesting proximity to Winogrand and thus exhibit the burgeoning voice that Mark is known for. In some ways, it feels a little bit like a genesis book. The work is a mix between a young artist carving out his own niche with overtones of emulations and beginnings implicit.

If you follow Mark’s work, the book is very important for that particular reason, to show continuity of practice and to align his earlier work within the context of his ouevre. It is, as with all Nazraeli books, beautifully produced, and elegant. It is in-line with Mark’s other publications. I feel quite honored to have worked with Mark in person, so much of my assessment of his work comes from the respect I have for him as an artist, but also, that even before meeting him, his voice disabled my constant state of agitated pessimism when addressing work of a humanist quality. He independently gave me an in-road away from viewing photography in this tradition with skepticism, which in turn opened new doors and avenues for me to explore the medium further. Not many artists have that affect on my learning. This book, as with all of Mark’s books thus far, carries my highest recommendation.

Thank you to Keith from Setanta for getting this book to me. Please pick up books from Keith if you can. Dude has a grip on photobook distribution right now. books are a hard game, respect those who continue to pursue their continuance at a high level.



Mark Steinmetz

France 1987

Nazraeli Press

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