In black-and-white: Photographer Mark Steinmetz sought inspiration from the 1930s to deliver a contemporary depiction of Paris
Steinmetz has reverted to the traditions of the French masters of the early 20th century – albeit with a subversive edge – in order to capture the expressive vitality of a city pulsing with life
Mists swirling around Art Nouveau lampposts, reflections mirrored in the Seine, romantic clinches on charming cobbled street corners… gay Paree has never been captured better than in those wistful black-and-white photographs of the 1920s and 1930s.
Which is why one contemporary American photographer chose to use the aesthetics of those dreamy shots to provide an image of the modern capital that nods to its photographic past. Yet, while Mark Steinmetz's images are classical in composition, they often offer a little twist.
The son of a French mother, Steinmetz says he has always "felt very close to Paris", and he has been shooting its streets and parks, rivers and ponds for a quarter of a century. "In 1985, I was in my mid-twenties, in love with those photographers of Paris, and thought that was the place to go to," he says. Steinmetz considers the 1930s the golden age for Parisian street photography, name-checking André Kertész, Brassai and Eugène Atget as favourites.
He studied at Yale University School of Art, worked with another black-and-white photography master, Garry Winogrand, in Los Angeles when he was 22, and suggests that the American tradition has "a harder use of photography, a little bit tougher". Rather than fully reverting to the romantic swoon of those 1930s artists, he wanted to bring this edge to his Paris series. "I wanted to photograph the beautiful light and photograph it lovingly, but not in an easy, romantic way. In [my new book] Paris in My Time, there are some sequences about loneliness or the difficulty of romance. Photography in Paris is sort of [its own] genre, and I loved and understood that, but wanted to play against it a bit."
Splashes of modern technology and dress disrupt the nostalgic glow – a girl on a smartphone, a baseball cap blown off in the wind. And while some poses seem to be taken straight out of classic black-and-white Hollywood movies, others feel crashingly contemporary (check out that chilled yet streetsmart young man lounging on a sculpture).
Rather than arrange his shots chronologically in Paris in My Time, Steinmetz put them together intuitively, highlighting recurring motifs (birds, dogs and boats all appear and k re-appear). Pairings and series of pictures speak to each other, the meaning contained not only within each photograph, but through their juxtaposition. "Pictures paired together become about something… your mind has to make this big reach and stretch. That's the fascinating part," suggests Steinmetz. "For me, it's not just a group of pictures, it's literature. The prints are beautiful and yes, they can go on the wall, but when they're all contained in sequence [in a book], it's literature, it's cinema." Not surprisingly, his style is also influenced by French filmmakers such as Jean Renoir and Jean-Luc Godard.
Shooting in black-and-white is obviously a necessity to evoke the photography of the past, but Steinmetz is a long-time fan of the format, and his various books and series on America are also monochromatic. He explains that the materials are better – there's just something special about "the light of silver on paper", something magical about the time and care needed to expose the negatives properly, to print them just so.
Steinmetz may, it seems fair to say, be something of a perfectionist. "I want the pictures to seem casual and spontaneous, but still they have to linger and last, they have to sustain your interest [and have you pulling out the book again] a month or years on."
Underscoring his naked affection for black-and-white, he admits to actively disliking much about colour photography: too bold, he says, too distracting, somehow impure. "Colour has a lot of information: it's too much," he explains, slightly preciously. "Black-and-white has more stillness to it, you can be absorbed into it in a different way. You have to employ your poetic imagination. With colour, I just have an argument! Is the green really this green, or is that the green of Kodak? I'm more interested in the narrative, the human, the interior depth of what I'm photographing – I really don't want to be distracted by bright-red outerwear."
But how does he catch that interiority? Are his subjects posed, or caught unknowingly? A bit of both: "In some cases, I'm talking to people, some are candid." Many of the images are transient, involving movement, and Steinmetz shoots in passing. "It's not just portraits of people: they're in the midst of activity," he says, adding that it's a shame that – thanks to tighter privacy laws – it's getting harder and harder to shoot on the hoof. Not that that would put him off: "Paris really has a lot of movement. It's a wonderful contribution to photograph people as they are, with the real pulse of life."
'Paris in My Time' (£50, Nazraeli Press) is published on Thursday
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