Photographs Capturing the Warmth and Chaos of the American South

Pin It
3 © Mark Steinmetz
© Mark Steinmetz

Taken on the road, Mark Steinmetz’s poetic photographs document unexpected moments of tenderness

“I love the South for its warmth and chaos,” says American photographer Mark Steinmetz. “The vegetation grows rampant; the light is softened by humid air... The unexpected happens here a lot.” Steinmetz has a knack for capturing just that: the unexpected. Since the early 1980s, he has trained his lens on the everyday, exploring the comings and goings of ordinary people, turning the inconsequential into photographs that make you feel something and look again. Memphis, New Orleans and Knoxville and Athens in Georgia, where he now lives, have all been subjects.

A new book, Past K-Ville, published by Stanley/Barker, follows up the photographer’s previous tome Fifteen Miles to K-Ville, continuing “a poetic journey around the outskirts of K-Ville: a fictional town somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee and Athens, Georgia”. Here, in a collection of photographs taken in the mid-1990s, he captures the landscapes and people he encounters between these two cities with his trademark melancholy and dark humour. Here, he explains how the project came about, and what keeps him taking photographs.

On the first time he picked up a camera…
“My parents gave me my first camera when I was perhaps six years old. I remember coming home from a trip with my family, getting out of the car and deciding to photograph my house. I can still remember how my belly felt pressing against the car’s trunk and how I needed to stretch and twist a little in order to get the framing right.”

On what Past K-Ville is about…
“Like most of my books, there are many photos of the road, and in this one, portraits of the young dominate. People are shown on their own, as individuals, or in pairs, usually as romantic couples. There are recurring photos of graffiti with references to desire and loss. I’m hoping the theme of romantic love is not too explicit or too straightforward, but more subtly a part of the overall backdrop and atmosphere.”

On how he finds his subjects…
“There is a mix of ages, but the principal characters tend to be in their teens or twenties. Some I encountered on the street where the interaction was brief. A few I photographed in a coffee shop in Athens. Other photographs were done by appointment – I would ask someone who seemed interesting to photograph to spend a couple hours with me taking photos.”

On trying to retain the eye of an amateur…
“In some ways I try to remain an amateur. Although I have a lot of experience, I like the freshness that comes with being a photographer [who is starting out]. So I am something of a generalist photographing a wide range of everyday subjects that pretty much anyone could come across. For the most part, I haven’t sought out privileged access or gone into much esoteric experimentation.”

On what he loves most about taking pictures…
“Some people can work inside but I have a need to be outside, to watch the weather and observe the light at different times of day. I love to describe this place and this time, my contemporaries and my civilisation. Hunting for photographs is never boring for me and a wonderful new photograph is a kind of miracle. Photography is a discipline that’s given shape to my life and helped me to grow.”

Past K-Ville, published by Stanley/Barker, is out now.