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New Southern sensibilities
The cityscapes of photographer Steven Anselm
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
Steven Anselm constructs salient images out of the least remarkable objects, locations, and people, turning misconceived subjects into photographic vistas. The tact he uses in this practice includes an editorial eye for annoyance, boredom, and the psychological sublime, all of which allow him to shock the viewer once they have established his images as being of a certain quality in their first observation.
"Steven Anselm: Panama City Beach, Florida" — a show currently up at Wunderkammer Company through January 29 — is a particularly effective exhibition, highlighting these aspects of Anselm's work through the singular focus of a very stereotypical subject viewed quite radically in his eye. In “Panama City Beach, Florida,” his newest solo exhibition, Anselm sets his aim on re-contextualizing a destination into a static, nearly "non-space," like an opposing mirage, giving the Wintered Indiana viewers a black and white view of a quite tropical locale.
Steven Anselm began making images in the 1980s growing up in South Louisiana. There he developed a passion for cityscapes and low-light street photography, leveraging the capabilities and limitations of both digital and film as a means of documentation. In Orlando, Florida, he worked as a photographer and graphic designer for national recording acts.
Since moving to Fort Wayne for his employment his work has been featured at Artlink and Wunderkammer Company, and is in both concurrently with the "9th Regional Winners Exhibit" and "Panama City Beach, Florida" through the end of the year. Anselm is primarily based in Fort Wayne, working as a product photographer, free-lancing for musicians and performing artists. "My drive is to use photography as a tool to record the world as it is today,” he says. “Any visually appealing aesthetic follows behind an image's function as documentation. I trust the viewer to complete the endeavor by viewing and reacting without my interference." This relationship to the viewer is encouraged and repelled by Anselm's specific images in various degrees through his work, producing an intriguing, consistently challenging push and pull.
Influences in Anselm's work are difficult to pin-point, not only because he is by and large self-taught, but because his work is designed to hide its tracks. While the formal aspects of his images seem to be of primary concern, it is not in the view of the greats from the past like Weston, Adams, or Cartier-Bresson. And while his concern for his subjects does mirror the documentarians like Arbus, he is not attempting to fabricate or chronicle a great tale either. "I have photographed whatever was around me with whatever I had to photograph it with since I was three years old,” Anselm says. “What drags me forward taking two dimensional slices of the third and forth is the same time that links everyone and everything. I do it to create a living record of things as they are so it may provide insight into things as they will be." In this way, Anselm's work must be taken in an almost disengaged scientific documentation, more like that of a cold anthropologist, watching his subjects get hurt, but not breaking ethical guidelines of interference. Some visual references and strategies for Anselm's work would place him somewhere between Man Ray, Juergen Teller, and Andreas Gursky.
Particularly, images within Anselm's work — like his series highlighting the lives and times of a small family of meth users — stands out, outlining this approach of giving his audience an honest documentation of these people, leaving the viewer to find the warm, human connections through drug use, familial bonding, and expressions of trust, or the colder examinations of isolated dregs of society grinding themselves down into a cluttered tumble. This work contrasts his larger focus on monotonous architecture, silent spaces, and abstracted visual processes of movement and space.
In "Panama City Beach, Florida," Anselm produced a series of city vignettes, highlighting different aspects of this tourist town, mainly its high rise architecture and its namesake beach. Anselm continues the "photographer as anthropologist" in even the nomenclature associated with his images, detailing them as "Panama City Beach 1" and so on. As it turns out, "PCB1" is a someone foreboding introduction to the City, taken from a particular height within the city limits, detailing the sea-wall of high rise condos along the beach and giving particular focus on its chain restaurant signage in the foreground, immediately cheapening even the eerie vibe of the architecture. This image also sets the tone to the series of incredibly high resolution, black and white large format and wide view images.
The "Panama City Beach, Florida" series then dramatically shifts with "PCB2" and "PCB3," rapidly changing the view from a tight, reverse view image of the "condo sea-wall" from the beach, now taking the form or a consistent grid of sliding door windows, balconies, support beams. The beach is now emptied of people and baring itself as a thoroughly used space. Then shifting again to a very different space, another aspect of the beach, removed from the constraint of the sea-wall condos (only one lonely building in the distance) and highlighting a lone figure, negotiating her way through a shallow tidal pool, that upon further inspection is actually run-off, with its origin being an enormous drainage pipe in the immediate foreground, giving a more pointed understanding of just how used this beach and overall environment may be.
This somewhat anti-climactic, melancholic view of man's place within both the frame of Anselm's images and his place in the world is a consistent mood in the work. There is a very clear difference between the dystopia presented in certain work and Anselm's cautionary tales. This last point allows the viewer to wrap their overall experience of the work in an ambiguous moral framework, one where there are distinct lessons somewhere, but little imperative for these lessons to be learned. Anselm's work is a great example of where a personal aesthetic can go once an artist is given the opportunity to show the work they are able to create through a long, disciplined process.
For More Information:
"Steven Anselm: Panama City Beach, Florida"
Up through January 29th
Open: 1-9pm, Wednesday-Sunday