5.8.17 — The Mirror and the Lightning

More than sixty years ago, M. H. Abrams compared two metaphors for literature and art. Where classicists spoke of holding a mirror up to nature, he wrote, the Romantics saw an active mind illuminating nature as under a lamp. With Mark Steinmetz, make that a bolt of lightning.

In 1994 he photographed just that, descending from the clouds to strike a four-lane highway. It seems to draw the converging parallels together, set one side askew, and throw the trees to either side to the wind. Mark Steinmetz's Lightning Strike, Mississippi (Yancey Richardson, 1994)Its reflection in wet Tarmac extends all the way to the foreground, at Yancey Richardson through May 13, cutting across the stripes between lanes and casting an eerie shadow a few feet away.

Steinmetz captured a decisive moment, perhaps the ultimate decisive moment—but that ideal has long meant the pursuit of perfection, and his turf is anything but perfect. It is the South over more than twenty years, although he has also worked in Los Angeles along with Garry Winogrand, and it means enough to him that he titles every photograph with a place name. It is a world of trailer parks and gas stations at night. It is where a young woman lies on her back on a mattress on the floor or on the hood of a car, fast food by her side. That lightning strike took place in Mississippi, and it just barely missed a truck, which barrels ahead oblivious to danger. The bright headlamps and distant silhouette are the sole objects on the road apart from the water and the light.

He will have anyone looking for the smallest sign of life, like that truck—and it is not easy, not even when the life is right before one’s eyes. Someone lies half hidden in a pile of leaves, like Cindy Sherman in one of her ghoulish self-portraits. The subject’s legs are set in one direction and his torso, when it finally emerges, in another as if it belonged to another body entirely. A boy in the passenger seat almost obliterates the man behind the wheel. None of them look all that confident or composed, not even a man holding a boy to his chest. Women, with raised hands and restless eyes, look more imposing but only slightly more at ease.

Steinmetz brings them all close and lets them have their say, but at a distance that the camera can never fully overcome. He travels from state to state like Robert Frank before him or Lee Friedlander by car, but he does not set his subjects within the bustle of life. These are portraits and American landscapes, but neither idealized nor staged. Often, the gallery explains, he asks a stranger to repeat a gesture from a moment before. It is his way of treating them as neither models as for Irving Penn, nor types as for August Sander, nor freaks as for Diane Arbus, but themselves. And still, the distance remains.

Much of the barrier lies in the light, which never just illuminates like a lamp. With the girls on their back, it lends their skin the pallor of a mask. It makes the ripples in a creek as hard as glass—and the struggles of a man wading even harder. It bathes each gas pump in a spherical glow. A black balloon at dusk rises above the neon advertising mobile homes. An airplane appears to fly right into a streetlight that has distended way beyond its proper size, but no doubt the bulb just happens to coincide with the moon.

Steinmetz relishes the contrast between his foreground clarity and the background, always in black and white, but one can never say for sure where one ends and the other begins. It takes a moment to realize that the ribbon on a dark panel belongs to the inside of a door—and the blur of a diner to the other side of the glass. Maybe he never has to look for beginnings and endings, because things just go on as they were. The photos belong for the most part to the mid-1990s, but nothing much seems to have changed since then. A girl still carries a cheap Kodak, as if to declare her independence of the photographer, and a weed appears trapped in a crack in the roadbed that may never get repaired. For all the felt isolation, these lightning strikes add up to a way of life.

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