Jörg Steinmetz Photographs

Heaven knows what we really see! Looking at a face, we are confronted with – what exactly? Ensoulment: implosive - physiognomy: explosive? Epidermis, hair, fat? Can a face be pornographic? Can it resemble a linocut or a watercolor? And which part of them do we take with us, lingering in our memory, our desire, with revulsion or enthusiasm?

There is no such thing as solid faces and figures. There are states of aggregation and ways to be, and, on the beholder’s part, intense observation or fleeting looks. I have seen pictures looking like they’d been taken in meditation, like a Renaissance portrait, a few careful square centimeters a day, the artist’s whole consciousness poured into them. Another time, I saw a picture of a man, resembling the paintings of Egon Schiele: only one focal point, the rest melting away into the periphery, carried off by a motion or the volatility of the ever selective glance. I believe both of these photographs were taken by Jörg Steinmetz. Both of them stayed with me. Some of his pictures have a snapshot quality, Steffi von Wolff, others that of an icon, Janet Jackson. In this book, these two are placed next to each other, strangely connected not as hostages but as accomplices, captured by the same eye.

And then yesterday, I had this vision of my old school teacher, stopped in mid-motion as he was turning to face the blackboard, raising his arm, chalk in hand. It was a moment of relief because he was turning away from the class, thus releasing us from his attention. He was frozen like that, the memory of the actual occurrence probably triggered by Jörg’s pictures. An image can direct our attention to these mental trails we may follow for a while. So there he was again, my old schoolteacher, on a page my memory had long turned, suddenly brought close once more.

This isn’t merely about an isolated instant torn from time - that frozen state of existence so often mentioned in photo­graphy. It is about a moment of clarity, the instant a person becomes visible from an angle of incidence where all things converge: time, experience, rays or spots of light, the suppressed, forgotten, a coming age, fear, compulsion, relief.

It is the moment an individual opens up, sometimes involuntarily, without being able to stop him- or herself. Mostly, it is the moment when the subject forgets his attitude towards the camera, and thus the collective memory the camera is preparing for, that is to say, when the conscious posing stops – although there is truthfulness even in the posture. For a second, the person we see is – or appears to be – absolutely private. Strangely enough, these moments when a subject doesn’t really want to pose, are among the most precious in photography, and they’re especially rare among public persons, well versed in decorating their own inner lives. The pictures of Jörg Steinmetz are full of moments like these. They don’t go for glamour, but rather for the reason why some people have become famous, and they get to the bottom by looking very closely. In order to get a shot like that, the photographer must pave the way for his subjects to their inner selves, to the lives they lead with themselves. That’s why most of Jörg’s pictures are really quiet. These people are no longer posing as themselves, but interpreting their individual vitality and their strength. In their rapport to themselves rather than to the camera, people as seen by Jörg Steinmetz are of an essential defenselessness – not abandoned, but transparent.

The first thing one realizes about a celebrity is his or her profanity. The observer’s altruistic job, however, is not to reduce him or her to the person that needs to eat or sleep or go to the bathroom – but to give them back their magnitude, while being well aware that it is rooted in an earthly existence. If there is a category like magnitude, then it becomes evident in these people’s selfreferral, in the riddle of their personality, their productivity, their aura and their charisma. This is why these photographs are so averted, focused on something outside of the picture, centering on this absent focus, on the subjects being themselves. This is what unites the well known and the unknown.

The photographer unveils his subjects, as he would unveil a statue. He lifts the curtain from the unique copy of the moment when the relevant appears, and the subject lets it happen – thus creating the paradox of a fleeting monument. There it is, objectified and more, the moment disclosing the specific, not the momentary. This is not about randomly ’catching’ people far away from themselves, this is about actually perceiving people and about the work that enhances their visibility by really looking.

Jörg Steinmetz has this ability to look that leaves his counterparts their protection even in the situation of exposure. Being well aware that it is next to impossible to create the present, pure present, present tense, he allows his subjects to become an individual in front of his lens, to be themselves, stripped from the pose, abstracted from the effect. They stretch like Juliette Lewis, they rub their heads like Michael Lentz, they isolate themselves in a group of three in the street like Princess Pants, they stride, lost in their own walking, like Nadja Einzmann, they deliver themselves to us like Margarete Mitscherlich – this is momentum, this is their entering the Now. They’re not telling themselves, but they say it by being the way they are: Be Here Now!

Roger Willemsen Translation by Johanna Hofer von Lobenstein