FILM TALKS #06: MARK STEINMETZ (USA)

FotoFilmic: As a photographer shooting on film, especially black-and-white film, since way before digital technology became so ubiquitous, have your working habits and processes changed since you started, and if yes how?

Mark Steinmetz: I have been working pretty much the same way with the same film, chemicals, and cameras since I started in the mid-80s. In those days a 16 x 20 print was considered big. With the arrival of color processors it became easy for color photographers to make considerably larger prints. This put pressure on black and white photographers to print larger as well – although it is a much trickier, more consuming task to make large b/w archival silver gelatin prints using trays than it is to feed a print through a processor which comes out flat and dry. So I would say my workload has increased – I no longer make 11 x 14 prints and simply leave it at that.

Also, because of today’s digital environment, I have to supply scans of my photographs so this is an added secretarial-type burden that photographers of old didn’t have to do.

F/F: In your opinion, what are the main pros and cons of photographing on film in 2013?

MS: I prefer the way film describes the light. With digital prints, I always feel like the light is mediated, that I am separated from it, looking at some strained version of it. I also feel with digital that every object in the frame seems slightly distinct and separate from every other element in the frame whereas silver prints have more internal harmony – they feel less nervous. It’s a subtle difference that I feel and notice but that others don’t necessarily seem to notice or mind. It’s similar to the discussions people were having when cds first came out. Neil Young compared the sound on cds to looking at the world through a window screen but finally most people are absolutely fine with digitized music. I have a strong emotional response to light and I insist that my prints convey this – so I still rely on film and silver paper.  There’s a Robert Adams retrospective currently in circulation and one need only to look at his skies to see what I mean. With film and darkroom printing, there is more of an involvement on the part of the artist, and the results seem more intimate and sensitively crafted. The slowness, the extra effort, seems to help the artist’s ability to concentrate and execute.

The cons are…well…we’re all so busy these days. Digital is faster and easier. The expectation now is that results can be viewed instantly whereas with film you have to wait. Also, because of digital a more polished look is expected – those prints are perfectly spotted with no chemical aberrations and they lay perfectly flat. Kind of boring but it’s changed the expectations of collectors.

F/F: How do you see the future of film photography? In what ways can it remain a relevant artistic medium?

MS: It’s up to practitioners to be modern and relevant. It’s always the blend of mind and spirit that the artist is offering to others – technique is second to that. As I’ve said, for me there’s a special quality to film. B/W photography in my opinion can reference and comment on the first 150 years of photography’s history more successfully than can color or digital so in a way you remain part of a lineage, a tradition, which perhaps makes it more relevant, not less. Most photographers getting noticed today seem to have little interest in the great photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Stepping up to the plate and adding to Atget’s or Evans’ legacy does not seem to be on many photographers’ agenda.

F/F: Do you photograph digitally as well? If yes, what’s your rationale for it?

MS: I just got my first iphone and have made a few pictures with it that haven’t yet traveled from my phone. If I had a facebook account they would be good for that.

F/F: F/F’13 is dedicated to promoting the new generations of photographers attached to film today: what essential advice or recommendation would you have for them?

MS: The usual wisdom: Patience is a virtue; the world is full of seductions; be true to yourself. Read the Greeks and great literature and look at great paintings. Stock up on supplies if there’s room in your fridge. Relax more. Eat healthy.

F/F: You live in Athens, Georgia, not too far from Atlanta: how is the film photography industry doing there? Are photographic labs and analog photography stores still present in Athens or Atlanta?

MS: In Atlanta a big color film developing lab closed down recently without much warning. I don’t think much is left there – maybe a used camera store or two. There’s been nothing in Athens for a long while.

F/F: Your last photography book “Summertime” came out not too long ago in 2012, and your solo exhibition at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco just concluded this past late April: any other recent achievements, projects, or news you would like to share?

MS: I have just received an advance copy of “Paris in my time” (Nazraeli Press) so that will be available very soon. I have another book I’m working on which is about my home and the street I live on that will be published by Alec Soth’s Little Brown Mushroom.

F/F: If anything was possible, what would be your next ultimate project photography-wise (or else)?

MS: Life is good. I have a residency in Paris coming up this fall. I think it’s important to find satisfaction with your life and to use the materials right at hand rather than to engage in endless wishing but perhaps it would be fun to do some sort of Gauguin-type project in some tropical paradise (and maybe use color). I have inquired about photographing at the Atlanta Airport but security and bureaucracy these days make that difficult. Sometimes I suspect I am getting tired with America and that it might be nice to travel more. I would like to spend more time photographing in France and Italy but am open to the rest of the world too.

© All photographs by Mark Steinmetz
http://www.marksteinmetz.net/

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FotoFilmic’s FILM TALKS series is all about sharing experienced views, artistic endeavors, industry outlooks and how to reshape the contemporary practices at the center of the film photography medium today. FILM TALKS invite advanced artists, independent publishers, photo editors and art dealers, as well as the broad creative crowd of visual arts to engage in insightful dialogues with FotoFilmic about film photography in all aspects.