Within the history of photography there have been countless examples of photographers finding a specific locale, marking their territory, and settling in for the long haul of an extended project. The resulting work occasionally gives a strong sense of that specific place to the viewer.
In approach, some of those photographers work in journalistic fashion creating dynamic images full of visual gymnastics that attempt to show you what the place looks like and what the people are like (usually by showing you the most unusual of action). Others describe those places in a way that the first thing you notice about the work is the subject described. Then and only after, do we discover the photographer’s prowess in skillfully creating the image.
There seems to be a strong trend in contemporary documentary photography that relies on those visual gymnastics to wow the viewer into paying attention as if one doesn’t trust the power of the subject to do the job alone. Sure, it makes for interesting and dynamic imagery, but one question: Is the potential understanding of the subject amplified by those attention getting mannerisms of the photographer or is it just a self conscious formalism?
Two photographers that are very skillful about picture making and letting things be without false constructs are Mark Steinmetz and Paul D’Amato. Both have recently published new books of work from their individual extended projects.
Nazraeli Press in association with the Joy of Giving Something Foundation and Light Work has just published Mark Steinmetz’s South Central.
In 1991 to 92 while teaching in Knoxville, Tennessee, Steinmetz photographed in the streets, neighborhoods and outskirts of the city. Drawn to subjects where one constant is transition, he describes: drifters, stray animals, kids and small by-the-roadside scenes that add to a sense of transience.
Steinmetz describes his subjects in black and white with a 6X9 medium format camera that lushly accentuates detail. Some of the subjects wear lines in their faces that seem to reflect lives that are burdened by money issues, relationships, and general lethargy. Though, Steinmetz isn’t forcing an agenda here. Through the genres of portraiture and landscape he gives us a sense of life lived at the margins but it is not hopeless. These people simply seem resigned to the fact that this is their place in life.
Steinmetz has a flair for getting people to feel at ease in front of his camera. They allow themselves to be stared at with only minimal self consciousness. He also interjects a sad sense of humor to some of the images. In one, the tail of a road kill squirrel stands erect in lively defiance to the rest of its flattened body. A sprig of vegetation finds sunlight in the crack of a sea of pavement. In a store window, the arm of a mannequin has slipped out of its socket and dangles grotesquely extended in its tuxedo jacket sleeve.
Steinmetz describes his subjects as people who have lost their way in these anonymous urban spaces that are located in every American city. Here he has accomplished a set of pictures that give a sense of people and locale that also speaks to a larger aspect of life in America without photographically twisting our arms.
The book itself has a nice presentation. Nazraeli Press has been very good of late in using, what I sense are, cheaper materials in their book construction but still achieving an elegance. These books always have a nice feel in the hand.
Paul D’Amato photographed in Chicago’s neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village for fourteen years. His photographs of these Mexican communities are now the subject of a book published by the University of Chicago Press called Barrio: Photographs from Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village.
Similiarly to Mark Steinmetz, D’Amato was initially drawn to the life in the streets of these barrios but then, after being accepted to the community, moved indoors to more intimate settings. Unlike Steinmetz’s isolated cast, the people in these communities have roots and evidence of their external support from the community is felt. D’Amato describes his subjects at play and at work with the backdrop of apartment houses where asphalt and side lots are the community meeting places.
Utilizing color negative film and 6X7 medium format cameras D’Amato seems to attempt to flesh out more of the events and happenings in the community than Steinmetz. In a sense this body of work seems to be more of an all encompassing documentary project. For me, the work is occasionally a little “kid heavy” in the imagery. I am more interested in what is taking place in the adult world. In that world there is more at risk and the power of some of these photographs come from his skillful description of those moments.
I have known of Paul D’Amato’s work from the early years of Doubletake magazine where he was a frequent contributor. Several of the images in this book made their first appearances in that magazine. I find his work very appealing in many ways. This book however is doing it’s best to diminish the quality and power of this photographer’s work.
Its production is cheap, feels pedestrian and is a design nightmare. Jill Shimabukuro seems to suffer from the same insecurity as many book designers, she does not have enough confidence in the work to design around it. She designs over the work. She seems more concerned with leaving her “designers mark” than allowing the integrity of the work to remain intact.
For instance, in most of the book, the photographs have margins allowing for clear viewing (good), but on other pages, she bleeds the photo to the page ends, and because it is a square format book, a fifth of the picture winds up pushed across the gutter. A fifth of the photograph in this format winds up being two inches of the image on the facing page. What is the point of that? Yes, the image is larger and the design creates a diversion to keep the interest of the viewer but those pictures have been sacrificed to accomplish that design gimmick. In this book, some of the best images are put on that chopping block.
Other annoyances are the cheapness of the materials and poor printing. The darker tonalities are completely blocked up, the saturation of the color (especially in the reds) gives a colorized and completely artificial feel to many of the images. It is a shame because when I mention the quality of the photography to people they do not get any sense of what I’m taking about due to the poor craftsmanship that taints this title.
So please, try to look past all the barriers, much of the work is worth the extra attention. Believe me, Paul D’Amato is a much better artist than this book would lead you to believe.
Book Available Here