The Beatles feeling Buddy Holly-esque in “I’ll Be On My Way”
Picking up the bass guitar again has brought back a lot of not-so-distant memories of playing music with a band in high school. It was an escape of sorts to sit around with friends, play our parts to make it sound whole, and take on roles from the band whose songs we were playing. Getting to be loud was always fun, as well. I often go back and listen to those songs my friends and I recorded crudely over cassettes. I listen for nuances within the songs that mark our personalities, cohesiveness, and endless hours of practicing to get to the final product.
During my last two years of college, I was struggling with my own influences as a photographer. Instead of creating work that looked like my own, it was looking like some of my forebears’ like Bill Eggleston or Bill Christenberry. I was playing my part too well, with no style and very little individual voice or nuances that were a part of me. It’s a happy struggle that visual and performing artists contend with quite a bit. When there’s large and looming figures from the past, it’s nearly impossible to escape them. I don’t know if those influences ever go away. Do they need to?
Mark Steinmetz‘s books (“South Central”, “Greater Atlanta”, and “South East”) struck a chord with me within the library at the Corcoran College of Art + Design. The three books are big and beautifully printed and I could hardly crane my eyes away from their pages. I was struck with how contemporary his photographs felt. I heard a little bit of my own voice within them as some of the portraits of teenagers felt closer in age to me, whereas other Southern places and people felt so distant to me and a bit caked on with nostalgia. Bill Eggleston’s pictures come to mind as a not-so-stark contrast. If there was a so-called New South, it might exist in Mark Steinmetz’s portraits. Flipping through “South Central” I saw vivid characters from Flannery O’Connor like a Mr. Tom T. Shiflet from Tarwater, Tennessee (or was it Singleberry, Georgia?) or a Hazel Motes, or a crooked bible salesman not even from a place but near a place.
The people in Steinmetz’s pictures feel the same way to me. Not really from a place, but near a place I recognize. As in a bit suburban, rural, and urban all at once. A place and person that feels immediately identifiable and altogether estranged. Steinmetz remarks in an interview with Ahorn Magazine about all this:
I’m not so sure my work has any single specific emotional effect – so much depends on the eyes of the beholder and where he or she might be at in their life or in their cultivation. The work is open to interpretation. I think my psyche is just wired a certain way and that I’m pretty much helpless to photograph things the way I do. It’s my nature. I should note a correction – I don’t just photograph the suburban world but rather a range that moves from the rural to the inner city.
In my eyes, a lot of South is like this. It’s not as much rural as it is suburban and not as much urban as it is rural in places. Especially in the late 20th and 21st century, it feels a lot easier to float in and out of all three realms. This sort of grey area becomes apparent in the sort of lost faces of Steinmetz’s portraits, especially some of the teenagers and young people. This is not a particularly Southern trait, but a kind of sweeping feeling of ennui among a generation. That lasting feeling of unrest, that gaze, stuck with me for a while.
I’m often intimidated when taking portraits but I think anything that scares you as a photographer somehow draws you to make its picture and find out what that thing is. For me it’s talking to people. It’s a rush and quite exciting sometimes getting to know another person and share in the picture-making process. Sometimes it’s fruitful, other times not so much. Mark Steinmetz’s own approach, in an interview with Joerg Colberg, to portraiture milled about in my head whenever I had my camera in hand.
I want to show something of people’s inner lives. I think for portraiture you have to be completely certain that you are interested in photographing this or that person. You can’t be wishy-washy in your motivation. You just have to know that you want to photograph this person and it’s a kind of knowing that eradicates any asking of “why?” My approach is fairly low-key. I don’t want to make waves. I’ll just ask something like “Can I photograph you as you are?” Sometimes I’ll give a little direction like “look over that way” but it’s never elaborate. Having an ability to focus and concentrate is necessary for making good portraits.
Sometimes my heart got to beating too much as I approached a person to make their picture, with fear of rejection also milling around in my head. Concentration was almost secondary to my cause. I just received a lot of film back from the lab and I wanted to share some of the portraits I made. I found myself this time around feeling a little more brazen and talkative with people as I built my confidence up. I certainly had more people included on the rolls of film than any other set so far.
After examining the scans, I acknowledge a decidedly Steinmetz influence. What felt strongest to me out of the photographer’s pictures was the inclusion of teenagers, kids, and young adults. Those pictures interested me the most and I subconsciously took it to heart. I started photographing couples, teenagers at homecoming football games, street preachers, and kids giving away puppies outside department stores. I’ve been carrying around a camera more and more with me, as well as my manners and thick skin for a “no.” I didn’t really receive any of the latter, possibly due to the former.
Since graduating, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to grow even more as a photographer from month to month or season to season. For me, that was making pictures of people. And while thinking about growth, I thought about a quote attributed to photographer Jerry Spagnoli on a bulletin board at the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina. “If it scares you, I want you out there doing it.” It stuck with me for a long time, as well as a lot of faces in Mark Steinmetz’s portraits. While scanning the negatives, I noticed some of the striking similarities between some of my favorite pictures of his and my own images.
I came back to the overarching and overpowering influences again. I think it comes down to what you know and what you envision of as an artist. Figuring that out takes a little time, but maybe in three years or so I’ve learned a little more about what that means and how to contend with my influences like Mark Steinmetz. I used to avoid it because it seemed nearly impossible to make any sort of photographic voice my own. Is everything a copy of a copy? I begrudgingly refuse to take up that notion despite some of the obvious artistic influences and influencees out there. Something has to beget something else and that’s what makes for progress in a medium. In a small way I feel I’ve started to do that because what my work looks like now will be a bit different in another few years and that’s how you cultivate a voice and signature. Maybe influences aren’t so bad to emulate now and again, even subconsciously. If anything, change comes from it, it’s got to, and it helps to know where your ideas began in the first place. It makes you a better artist in the end, I think. Like going from making two minute songs to whole album and portfolios of profound work on its own level. That’s what we strive for, anyway.