Ecstasy/Oblivion series by Steven Marks, 2020

D.C.-based photographer StevenMarks has exhibited some of his recent works in three separate exhibitions at the Studio Gallery over the past year and a half. Most of the images from Marks’ recent “Shadows and Acts” series feature anonymous figures standing within lush but disorienting geometrical spaces. Marks’ aesthetic is more than just an artistic choice—it’s an approach shaped by years of worsening vision loss.

In addition to his photographic work, Marks is a medical science writer and communications consultant, a career he pursued due to his early eyesight troubles, which derailed his initial interest in photography. Marks also serves as resident artist at Lyric at Liz, a new, short-term rental property for business travelers located in what used to be the Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center on 14th Street NW. Marks spoke to City Paper via email about how he got into photography, how he produces his work, and the state of his sight. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

WCP: Where did you grow up and how did you get into photography?

Steven Marks: I spent my childhood in Plainview, New York, a quintessential suburban town on Long Island. It was safe, unprepossessing, and very dull. I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t know a lens from a shutter until I graduated from college and landed my first job as a record industry journalist and jazz critic. Working closely with the music photographers piqued my interest in the medium, and after I moved to Chicago when I was 23, I decided to pursue it seriously.

I hired a private instructor who worked out of a space called The Darkroom, which offered exactly what the name promised: a large and fully functional black-and-white darkroom, along with a studio and all the requisite lighting and backdrops anyone could need. One could purchase a monthly membership, allowing unlimited access.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, most of the city’s top commercial photographers used the space, as did a number of important artists. I learned a ton just hanging around and listening to the discussions, looking at the many art photography books and catalogs in the library, and asking questions. Paying attention, in other words.

I picked up the technicalities quickly, and I guess my pictures were interesting enough that Nathan Lerner, a doyen of the Chicago photography community and a Darkroom member, took me under his charge. He suggested I take additional classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which I did. The photographer and teacher Barbara Crane, with whom I studied, was particularly encouraging of me. Ultimately, I received a teaching fellowship at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where I received my MFA degree.

I had a series of shows in Chicago before and immediately after graduate school. They were typical of the street photography that predominated during that period, although I exhibited some interesting black-and-white infrared pictures of rural landscapes, which I had made in Wisconsin.

My thesis show contained quite a number of blurry images, unlike anything I had done before—the storm before the storm, perhaps. It was also the time my visual difficulties first began to affect my work. 

WCP: Tell me about your vision problems—when they started, how they progressed, how serious they are now, and what the prognosis is.

SM: My vision has always been a bit dodgy. I was the first kid on the block to wear glasses, and I became extremely nearsighted in late childhood. By the time I got to graduate school, even glasses could not correct the condition.

But myopia is the least of it. I developed serious corneal and additional retinal problems in my 20s, the latter of which required surgery. Taking all this into account, my doctors told me they didn’t think photography was a suitable career opportunity for me. If there was anything else I could do, they said, consider it, which is why I became a medical-science writer.

I had cataract surgery in both eyes in my late 40s, and although my vision dramatically improved immediately thereafter, complications arose, and I ended up even worse off than before. I then developed an even more serious problem in my right eye, which has left it without any central vision. I could not see sharply and shouldn’t have been driving. Colors were especially dull and lifeless, which is one reason my current pictures are so bold and bright.

New surgical techniques repaired my left eye in 2011, which allowed me to begin working again. Still, the right side of my visual field is a blur. The brain corrects for that in the normal course of things, but when I pay attention to what I’m looking at, the distortion is readily apparent and disorienting.

WCP: How have these vision difficulties shaped your approach to photography?

SM: To tell the truth, the only time the world appears in sharp focus is when I hold a camera to my left eye. In this respect, photography has become my way of addressing, and compensating for, my visual impairment and putting the world in clear order. Maybe it’s a kind of blessing, too, as I’ve produced work that seems to speak to people in ways that conventional photography doesn’t or can’t.

Although most of the pictures I made during the past eight years were documentarian in approach and look, I felt a little dissatisfied with them, as they weren’t visually honest. The fortuitous accident that produced the first picture in “Shadows and Acts” captures the world as I see it and understand it, aesthetically and intellectually. The tension between certain sharp details and outlines and the overall sense of blurriness is absolutely critical in this regard.

Some might say the pictures are expressionistic, but I disagree. To me, the pictures are an accurate and truthful representation of the world and our current cultural condition.

WCP: Is the blurred, indistinct look the signature style of all of your works?

SM: In truth, my newest pictures, which are intentionally unsettling, are so unlike the vast body of past work that it’s hard to explain their aesthetic provenance. Steven Marks 1.0—my Chicago-period, visually “normal” self—would have loathed them.

 The first picture was an accident, in fact. When I saw it, I said, that’s it, that’s my world. I’m continuing to push this approach in new directions, making pictures that resemble, for instance, [J. M. W.] Turner’s later watercolors, such as “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament,” and another series, which I’m calling “Ecstasy/Oblivion,” that also features figures in motion, but offers more detail and a background space that appears to be in a state of flux. Change is essential.

WCP: What are some of the other series or portfolios you’ve done?

SM: Since I started working again in 2012, I’ve had a number of shows at Studio Gallery, where I am a member, and Photoworks. The portfolios include “Hidden District” and “Unspoken Subjects,” which draw on the kinds of imagery I made in Chicago, but are a little darker, and a series of street portraits I made in Baltimore, called “North+Charles: The Politics of the Gaze.” I had never done anything like this before: asking people to make their picture. Looking back, I think “North+Charles” is some of the strongest work I’ve ever done.

WCP: What do you mean when you say “make their picture”? 

SM: In the main, I am a passive observer or intruder, depending on whether one takes Tod Papageorge’s or Susan Sontag’s perspective, but someone who works in real-world settings, trying as little as I can to interfere with the course of human events, you could say, to “document” them in my own way, as I see them. In Baltimore, and for the first time, I spent much time with the people I photographed, learning their stories and listening to their tales (and complaints) about life, the changing neighborhood, and the rest. When I started out, the photography itself was hard to do, as I expected. People were naturally suspicious. But eventually as I hung around a bit, the folks became more comfortable. “Camera man,” some began to call me. I soon hit upon what turned out to be a very fortuitous idea: I made small 5×7 postcard prints of some of the portraits. When I stopped people and asked them if they would be willing to pose, I pulled out the cards, which I carried in my camera bag and showed them examples of what I was doing. Many would say, “Oh, yeah, I know her,” or “I’ve seen that guy around,” and then agree to participate in the project. So over time, the process became easier. 

WCP: Where have you made most of your images?

SM: Most of my pictures are made in the District and Baltimore, which I find a much more visually interesting place than D.C. It’s gritty, yet beautiful in its own way. Working as I do, I also photograph whenever I travel, which means I also shoot in Austin and Los Angeles, where two of my children live, and in those cities in which I find myself when I accompany my wife on trips to her professional psychology meetings.

WCP: Is your art a way of processing the world?

SM: Yes, it is a way of processing the world, better understanding it. Although the answers I get, as my pictures show, are provisional at best, and not entirely optimistic. The important thing is to look closely, as closely as I can. I see the pictures as reports from the existential heart of the country.

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