Ordinarily, seeing photographs described as “timeless” makes me uncomfortable. Often, I am made to feel someone is trying to get away with not getting (or wanting to get) closer to the pictures in question. For example, photographers will justify their choice of black and white claiming they want something “timeless.” Critics often approach the medium in the same way. It is true, the removal of colours will make it harder for a viewer to discern when the pictures might have been taken. But the word “timeless” ought to for sure stand for a little more than merely muddying the waters, doesn’t it?
If anything, what we really should be talking about when we use the word “timeless” is a photographer’s sensibility, a sensibility that in some form is translated into the pictures: what do the photographs make us feel (instead of: what do we see)? Are those feelings tied to specific eras, or do they connect to something that falls outside of the continuum of time? And what would that falling out of time mean?
A photographer for whom I think the descriptor “timeless” could be used is Mark Steinmetz — maybe not for all of his work but for most of it. There is a new book entitled Past K-Ville, which provides a good opportunity to put my idea to the test. To begin with, check!, the pictures are black and white, but I already noted that’s not good enough. You can, without all that much effort, roughly discern the time when the pictures were taken; and the book states right in the beginning anyway (1992-1997).
There’s something interesting about the fact that a photographer (and publisher) would produce a book with pictures that are twenty years old, yet the work feels fresh. It doesn’t have the kind of patina that, granted, for a lot of photography makes for its appeal. So maybe this gets us closer to an understanding of “timelessness” in photography: a lack of an obvious patina — a patina that more often than not ties pictures to a feeling of nostalgia.
It might seem as if I were at least partly tripping myself up, because the photographs in Past K-Ville are nostalgic. But they’re not nostalgic in the sense of relating to a specific time in the past. Even the nostalgia for the noxious (and blatantly racist) “Make America Great Again” time — that has never actually existed — is obviously yearning for something in the past. No, Steinmetz’ nostalgia is a yearning for a time that could be every time: the time of being in love.
If you’re in love now, or if you were in love in the past, or when you’re going to be in love again — that’s the time this photographer is referencing here. So clearly, Steinmetz is not only unrepentantly nostalgic here (and elsewhere), he’s also a romantic (much like Christopher Anderson in his latest book — only after having written and published that piece did I realize that I hadn’t mentioned this possibly most obvious aspect of the work).
We’re essentially in the basic territory here that’s being mined by every romance novel or by all the millions of working or aspiring song writers that churn out their wares (there’s no point in beating around the bush). But Steinmetz is too adept a photographer to have his work communicate the kind of syrupy schmaltz that surrounds us in such vast quantities thanks to these aforementioned artists. He will take the viewer straight to the bridge that would take her or him across the abyss to the schmaltz — only to deftly turn around and offer something else.
The young woman on the book’s dust jacket is photographed in reverie, and what else could she be dreaming of other than finding love or being in love? Peel away the dust jacket, and you’ll find a little heart — and only that — on the front cover of the book. Inside the book, the same picture is sandwiched by carnal animalistic coupling — literally that: the picture before shows the embrace of two frogs, the picture right after centers on two butterflies. OK, it is at times a bit much maybe, especially the pictures where spray-painted text provides the subject matter (“DAMN, I wish I was [sic!] your Lover!”).
Still, a possibly guilty pleasure being toyed with is not what the book’s makers had in mind. And if not every picture therein is about love, for sure it is about the love of making pictures. If anything, Steinmetz has a voracious appetite for finding and making pictures, as I’ve had the occasion to witness a few times. How this intense hunger manifests itself in pictures that are so gentle I can’t quite understand — it is probably this fact that makes me consider him one of the best American photographers working today, best here in the classic sense of making single pictures that can then add up to what they share (and not to what is being put on them after the fact).
Maybe the most important property of the photographs in Past K-Ville is their tenderness. There’s a lightness to the photographic touch that in itself doesn’t quite guarantee tender pictures. However, what that final extra ingredient needed for tender pictures is I don’t know. What I do know is that when Mark Steinmetz goes out into the world he brings back an abundance of them. The viewer then is made to enjoy this world that one is tempted to think is just a bit too good to be true, too idealistic, too much in love, a little bit too heartbroken, too… I don’t know. Dial any of this back, and you’re out of that world, but you’re also not dealing with Mark Steinmetz’ pictures any longer.
Past K-Ville; photographs by Mark Steinmetz; 128 pages; Stanley Barker; 2018
Rating: Photography 5.0, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.5, Production 5.0 – Overall 4.3