Mark Steinmetz is a longtime resident of Athens, Georgia. He received his MFA in photography from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Recipient of a 1994 Guggenheim Fellowship, Steinmetz has taught photography at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Yale University, New Haven; Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York; and Emory University, Atlanta. Steinmetz has published nine books with Nazraeli Press, including Greater Atlanta (2009) and The Ancient Tigers of My Neighborhood (2010), images from which are featured in Southbound. His work is in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois; and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, to name only a few.
Steinmetz’s Greater Atlanta series is featured prominently among his photographs in Southbound, with singular images from other series such as South East and The Ancient Tigers of My Neighborhood. One scene captured by Steinmetz is familiar to anyone who has traveled to Georgia’s capital city, crossed by interstates 20, 75, and 85. If Atlanta is known for many things—its diverse musical heritage, its beloved Braves baseball team, the world’s largest aquarium, and as the hometown of that most holy of American drinks, Coca-Cola—it is also infamous for its staggering car traffic, which has routinely been awarded the dubious honor of being among the world’s worst. In Atlanta (2007), Steinmetz photographs the city’s receding skyline in a car’s side mirror. Although the viewer is headed toward freedom from congestion, the softly lit opposite lanes are cluttered with bumper-to-bumper traffic. This feature is fitting perhaps, as Atlanta has always revolved around transportation technology, from its origins as a railway hub in 1837 to its standing as of 2017 as host city to the world’s busiest airport.
The city of Atlanta is a place of pride for the South, which does not count as many booming metropolises as its Northern and West Coast cousins. The occasion of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta kicked off two decades of intense growth and urban development. Surges of young professionals have aided in changing the landscape of Atlanta with sweeping gentrification and revitalization. It is estimated that Atlanta will boast the United States’ sixth largest metro area by the 2040s, up from its current status as the ninth largest. A sense of isolation amid this fervent growth is captured in Steinmetz’s image of a boy poised at the edge of an empty six-lane highway in Atlanta (2004). The boy stands with his back to the camera, gazing across the road toward a half-empty Pep Boys parking lot. The viewer waits in suspense to see when he will step out to cross the highway, but of course we will never witness that moment.
This same sense of waiting is conjured by Steinmetz’s photograph of a young woman titled simply Kate, Athens, Georgia (2011). The woman’s ethereal face, dramatically lit by an unseen source, is framed by softly focused curls. What is she doing? How long can this moment last? We wait with bated breath for her next move, but we know that will never come. We know only that we are utterly captivated by her.
The melodramatic use of light and shadow in Steinmetz’s black-and-white photographs provokes more questions than it answers and draws careful attention to that most crucial feature of photography—the arresting of time. His inclusion of urban scenes is critical to Southbound, as the South is often pictured as either the swampy expanse of the Mississippi Delta or the rolling hills of Appalachia. Although the South does have more than its share of corn fields and meandering rivers, Steinmetz show us that skyscrapers and toll roads also share the landscape.