A photographer and accomplished darkroom worker since his early teens, Mark Steigelman has an eye for the ironic juxtapositions of everyday life, and he devised a brilliant and elegantly simple method of capturing them while stuck in traffic. He describes his life and career as such:
“I was born in Newark, NJ in 1963 and I’m a native New Jerseyan. I come from a family of artists. Photography has always been a part of my life. After graduating from art school and pursuing the whole photography assistant route, I remembered that a teacher in art school told me that museums hire artists so I quickly got a job at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. There I made replicas of plants, mounted ancient artifacts, and vacuumed the Tyrannosaurus Rex. A bunch of years later I found myself designing exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art. For the past 13 years I have been doing the same at The Whitney Museum of American Art.”
Faced with the rigors of a daily three-hour commute on congested highways, he decided to record his wry observations of the folks in the cars behind him, transforming boredom into fine art.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: I would describe it as social landscape fine art photography, for lack of a better term.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?
A: I commute back and forth about three hours a day. In that time sitting in traffic one becomes very aware of his surroundings. As the cars behind me constantly changed, I became amused by the scenes appearing in the rearview mirror, like little acts in a play. I found myself making up scenarios about what was going on. Around the same time I also discovered a Polaroid taken by my father of my mother and me through the windshield of our VW Beetle.
Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?
A: I normally use whatever makes sense for the project. For the Rearview project, I started out with a Panasonic GH3 with Wi-Fi and an iPhone. I quickly became frustrated missing images because of the lag created between the app and the camera. I was able to obtain a Leica M9 and use a 60-inch cable release. The camera needed to be small enough to mount behind the rear seats of a Fiat 500. I hide it in a stuffed animal with a hole cut out for the lens. The front element of the small mount lens is barely noticeable from outside the car. The stiffness of the focus ring also stays where it’s set as opposed to the focus by wire of most autofocus lenses.
Q: Are you still able to get a good view of the cars behind you in your rearview mirror, and doesn’t the stuffed animal holding the camera and lens obscure that view to some extent? Which lens and typical ISO setting did you use for this fascinating project?
A: I’m definitely able to see out the back of the Fiat 500. I have the camera mounted on a ball head, which in turn is mounted to a black board. The lens is aimed just over the rear windshield wiper. I have it positioned so that the angle of view and my rear-view mirror coincide. That way when I glance into my rear-view mirror it’s like I’m looking through my viewfinder. I typically use auto ISO or sometimes ISO 320. I use a 90 mm lens.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: They are like street photography, except I’m in my car taking pictures of people inside theirs.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?
A: I became interested in photography when I was 13 years old. I worked for my uncle who is a professional photographer. I spent many hours in the darkroom developing black-and-white sheet film and learning to print. My uncle came into the darkroom once with a copy of Irving Penn’s “Worlds in a Small Room,” handed it to me and said, “Don’t come out until your prints look like this.”
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: I’m all about straight photography. As a purist, I’ve never been that interested in manipulated images. I even resisted digital photography until a few years ago. I am, however, interested in manipulated content.
To me, the first thing I love about photography is the idea that I can capture an image at, say, 1/250 of a second. That thing happened, never to take place again. It’s as I saw it. I can crop a little, bring up the shadows, burn in the highlights but I don’t add or remove content. The second thing I love is the ability to change what is actually happening, or perceived to be happening, in the picture by my act of doing the first thing: determining the moment of capture.
Q: How do you think your experience in the darkroom under the tutelage of your pro-photographer uncle and studying the work of the great Irving Penn inspired you or influenced the direction your photography has taken? And why do you think you resisted adopting the digital medium for so long?
A: I’m not sure it has inspired me as much as taught me what to look for. Resisting the digital medium was simple. I’ve had a darkroom for almost 40 years and could achieve everything I wanted.
Q: One of the most powerful images in this portfolio is titled “Abuse.” It shows a couple in a Mercedes, the driver with a pained expression on his face and his hand held over his mouth, and his female passenger looking away almost dismissively with a furrowed brow and a bandage over her nose. The tension between them is almost palpable and the image is funny, sad, and enigmatic. Why did you entitle it “Abuse” and what do you think it conveys to the viewer?
A: I usually title my images, mostly with one word, which usually is the first word that pops into my head. It helps me to remember the image and refer to it. This goes back to the statement about manipulated content. None of us knows what is actually going on in the car. The man may be driving his wife to the doctor for a follow up exam after her plastic surgery; he’s rubbing his face. At that instant of exposure I imagined a case of domestic violence.
Q: I like the image labeled “Birds” because of the visual contrast between the people in the taxi stuck in traffic and the freedom of the birds flying overhead reflected in the windshield? Do you think this has something to do with why you chose to capture this image and include it in this portfolio?
A: I shot this because of the strong composition of the dark shadows of the overpass and bright yellow of the cab. I noticed the reflected birds and fired off as many shots as I could while waiting at the traffic light.
Q: I love the antic quality of the image labeled “Vanity” because of the crazy angle of the overhead wires and bright sunshine in the background and the fact that the driver talking on his cell phone has both hands off the wheel. What are your thoughts on this image?
A: This picture is just funny. The guy was very expressive and I loved the sky and lighting that morning.
Q: Of all the images in this portfolio the one I can personally relate to is “Boxes,” because I have been there and done that — been forced to stack a vehicle so full of stuff that I barely had room to sit or turn the steering wheel. Anyway, it certainly made me smile and I think it’s an image many drivers can relate to. Do you agree, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Again, this was just a humorous situation that appeared behind me.
Q: You’ve got to look closely to appreciate the irony, but your title of “Crack” helps focus the viewer’s attention on the crack in the window of the mirror and glass company truck — a classic example of “the cobbler’s children have no shoes.” Were you aware of this irony when you took the shot or do you discover some of these things while evaluating the images afterward?
A: While I certainly discover interesting relationships later while downloading and viewing my images, I remember being in front of this glass truck and first thinking the cracked windshield must be a decal because the irony was too perfect.
Q: What do you think you have accomplished with this engaging commuter’s portfolio and do you plan to continue shooting pictures out the back window of your Fiat 500?
A: I have definitely accomplished a body of work showing a study of people in their vehicles. Other than that, I’m not sure. After a few years of shooting these, I thought I was finished. I have recently moved locations for work and my commute has changed so I have started up the project once more.
Q: Do you plan on exhibiting these images at any other venues besides the Leica Blog, perhaps at galleries in the New York City area or elsewhere, or as a print or online book?
A: Selections of the project have been in numerous shows in the last two years including the Aperture Summer Open this past summer, but I would like to show them all together in a gallery. I think they look best as a large group. I would ultimately love to see them in book form.
Thank you for your time, Mark!
-Leica Internet Team
To view more of Mark’s work, check out his website and blog, or connect with him on Instagram.