By Charles Bethea | Originally published in The New Yorker
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport—which is located a short drive south of Georgia’s capital, and within a two-hour flight for eighty per cent of the U.S. population—is visited daily by more than a quarter of a million people, making it the busiest airport in the world. That’s a lot of luggage, to say nothing of the emotional baggage rolling through its concourses. I live in Atlanta and, this past month alone, have hovered along Hartsfield’s moving sidewalks, ridden its ricocheting trains, and inhaled its jet-fuel and French-fry fumes a half-dozen times while waiting to be transported somewhere else. I nodded off once at my departure gate, only to be awoken, thankfully, by the nearby theatrics of a travelling teen-age baseball team.
Mark Steinmetz, a photographer based in Athens, Georgia, and best known for his black-and-white portraits of strangers—accumulated through prolific wandering and watchfulness—has, in recent years, turned his attention to Hartsfield’s labyrinthine spaces. As he explained in an episode of the “Magic Hour” podcast, he photographed the airport from all sides: “outskirts, the people on the sidewalk, the drop-off, the pick-up locations, in the terminals—because I fly so much—and pictures of the planes taking flight, pictures in planes, pictures of planes.”
But his images, now on display at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, do not offer the encyclopedic view of airport travel seen in Garry Winogrand’s posthumous, pre-smartphone opus “Arrivals & Departures,” published in 2004, which captures the beehive activity of pre- and post-flight moments. In Steinmetz’s Hartsfield, we instead find moments of intimacy and solitude. A baggage cart becomes an unlikely beach chair, and a sidewalk a waterfront. A disembodied hand reaches for a sliver of light let in by an airplane’s triple-paned window. A jumbo jet passing overhead blends into a tree, and, beneath it, kudzu—the invasive, voracious, photographically beloved plant that has swallowed up vast swaths of the South—continues to do what it does best: grow unimpeded.
The kudzu is just one motif through which Steinmetz seems to remind us that the natural world remains supreme, that even our unnatural ability to fly is less impressive than the rising of the sun or the moon; he captures the latter glowing against a pitch-black night sky, the thin, white streaks of what look like runway lights forming the only sign of human activity below.