Review: Small, large dramas unfold in Mark Steinmetz’s airport photos


Airports are strange places, filled with frantic people hustling through security and rushing to catch planes. But they are also places of contemplative stillness and endless waiting; for planes, for transportation, for loved ones. They are mini cities teeming with people and activity where individual moments get lost in the fray.

Training his camera on the goings-on at the world’s busiest airport, Athens-based photographer Mark Steinmetz captures this unique world in a bubble, zeroing in on those stolen moments, finding the peculiar and particular within the grand scheme.

As part of its ongoing “Picturing the South” project of commissioning works on the South for the High Museum of Art’s collection, the museum’s latest iteration, “Mark Steinmetz: Terminus,” is centered on the quotidian operations — on the ground and in the air — of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

RELATED: Follow coverage of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport by the AJC’s Kelly Yamanouchi

Steinmetz’s silver gelatin prints are dreamy, timeless, and seem to capture some unchanging, eternal characteristic of human life on Earth, of waiting and transitioning, and gazing into the middle-distance, lost in thought. At the airport, people engage in private reveries in plain sight, sleeping, daydreaming, lost in heartfelt exits and reunions. In Steinmetz’s hands, those assembled moments become something more than a simple documentary of a place. They feel like an exegesis on the human condition. People at rest or waiting, these photographs observe, let their guard down to some extent, and reveal a degree of vulnerability that connects us to them.

If some of the images feel elevated and enlightening, others grovel in the funkiness of 21st-century life, as Steinmetz also captures the un-self-conscious, free-for-all zone that air travel has become, a world of sweatpants and meals eaten on laps and outfits accessorized with neck pillows and headphones.

From the soft, fleshy human dramas inside the airport to the abstract, airborne missions in the air above, Steinmetz’s “Terminus” goes both micro and macro. When these people board planes and soar above the airport, they enter another realm, one lofty and distanced from the quotidian one on ground, where cloud formations and sun and the limitless horizon reframe existence in another dimension.

One of the visual ironies of Steinmetz’s images is the proximity of this miniature airport city he records — a place founded on technology, money, expensive aircraft and global commerce — and the fields of kudzu, vacant lots and desolate roads to nowhere that encircle this teeming hub. In those moments, Steinmetz is like an explorer on the ground, peering up at the skies from within a forest of bramble to see a jet passing overhead, like an elephant lumbering by on an African safari.

At times, Steinmetz’s vantage is surreal, as when he captures a plane passing overhead, so close to the treetops it looks like a disaster movie in progress or the juxtaposition of a plane going nose to nose with a bird, equivalent objects in the air. He records the crazy optical tricks of air travel, in which one minute planes are monstrous, lumbering beasts and the next gnat small, which becomes a kind of metaphor for human experience in which vantage and perspective are everything.

Such images of flight give a sense of the enchanted, perilous, miraculous dimension to air travel. “Terminus” shows the marvel of flight high above, coexisting with the simple human dramas playing out down below, in the process delivering a kind of theater of human life played out in grand and granular form.

ALSO AT THE HIGH MUSEUM: Dutch designer Joris Laarman’s brave new now



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