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Exiled from Eden

Garden captures conflicts of man vs. nature

You could almost divide contemporary photography into two camps.

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On one side, there are photographers who look at the world around them as if it were a strange planet they must document for our scientific edification. Germany's Andreas Gursky epitomizes these ranks by shooting the contemporary landscape of discount stores and hotel atriums with a sense of dispassionate, horrified wonder.

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Then there are the romantics, represented by the likes of Sally Mann and Michael Kenna, who use their cameras to essentially stop, smell the roses and savor the fleeting beauty of the natural world.

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Mark Steinmetz, a graduate of Yale's noted MFA program and a resident of Athens, Ga., is an odd duck for synthesizing both of these strains. He takes little bits of inspiration from both camps and processes them into new forms.

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Steinmetz alternates between black-and-white images and color ones (though the latter tend to be stronger). His works vary from formalist odes to nature to environmentalist critiques of the pigsty the human animal has made of its Earth Mother.

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On one hand, Steinmetz exemplifies the romantic tradition of artists awed by the natural world. In a telling bit of wall text, Steinmetz quotes from New Age writer Eckhart Tolle, who sees in nature "a higher order in which everything has its perfect place and could not be other than what it is and the way it is."

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Steinmetz summons up a shocking amount of empathy for this divine and instructive nature by investing his flora with gravitas. Dried-out sunflowers are set against a stark winter-white sky and hang dejectedly from their stalks in suggestive misery. He shoots a field of pumpkins decaying in misty morning light like dead soldiers on a Civil War battlefield.

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The cyclical nature of life, including the decomposition and death that fall and winter bring, is the subject of many of Steinmetz's vegetable vanitas. When contemplating Steinmetz's rotting gardens, it is hard not to think of the original Christian one, where all is abundant and fruitful until the sin of human origin steps in.

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Thankfully, Steinmetz occasionally drops the rose-colored glasses and shutterbug equivalent of tree-hugging to decry the mess we have made of the planet. In far more captivating work, Steinmetz veers from reverent celebration of the beauty and variety of nature to a Koyaanisqatsi fear of humankind's willingness to treat the world like its personal spittoon.

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Mostly Steinmetz invests his comic and telling juxtapositions with real personality and passion, such as the image of a line of frilly, vivid green kale marching through a brown, decaying field like some Christo installation. Steinmetz provides a punchy, wry testament to nature's resilience.

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Steinmetz's chronicle of nature going head-to-head with bullying humankind proves especially captivating. Defiant weeds and plucky trees lose their fight to bring a touch of green to the concrete onslaught. Vegetation proves less able to fend for itself in Steinmetz's multiple images of Georgia roadsides, from Athens to Atlanta, littered with advertising, concrete and a mulch of fast-food trash blown onto greenery unlucky enough to command front-row seats at the carbon monoxide parade.

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You might laugh if it weren't all so tragic and familiar.

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On a desolate strip of land where parking lots and roadways crisscross, Steinmetz captures a winter-stripped tree, the only emblem of life amid the concrete and long-haul semis. The image proves as spine-tingling in its own way as Edvard Munch's famous "The Scream." The tree's amputated limbs continue to reach toward the heavens in an aborted, hopeless gesture.

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Resistance and resilience seem futile in this context. The only thing a desire to grow and thrive will get you, these canny images suggest, is more pruning, more pollution and more efforts to keep your growth in check.



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