By VICTOR SLEDGE December 13, 2023
Life moves fast, and we don’t catch everything. From the billboard we zoom past on the highway to the growing cracks on the sidewalks we pace every day, it’s easy to miss the commonplace. But artist and writer Steven Seidenberg has built a portfolio that catches it all.
Not only does he take time enough to notice the minute scenes in the world around him, he also takes an extra beat to really decide how he can make rich, substantive work out of those liminal details.
“I think of my photographic projects as conceptual,” Seidenberg explains. “I don’t shoot in relationship to happenstance. I find in my environment the unseen details that will structure a broader conceptual framework.”
We live in a visual world riddled with impulsive photos of everyday moments that now serve as a sign of our lives. Even the most haphazard collections of photos on a social media profile have become one of the windows into someone’s life that we most often rely on to form an idea of the people we meet.
“Because of the ubiquity of the camera and an ease of use, that allows the act of making photographs to feel neither entirely conscious nor controlled, it is easy for the casual photographer to be entirely guided by aleatoric considerations – an expression of astonishment at circumstances as they randomly occur,” Seidenberg says.
While this take is no indictment on the state of photography or how it’s used in our world today, Seidenberg’s practice comes from a very intentional, fully formed, cohesive concept or project idea.
“It allows me to push against some of the cliches of commonplace photography and to guide the viewer past their familiarity with a certain kind of image, the photographic snapshot or cellphone pic that bombards us at every turn. Such images are nearly unthought and uncomposed, presented only through platforms that emphasize the self-referential character of the form––a raiment of sorts, meant to present the personage behind the lens in a particular way, without any real aesthetic or documentary content,” he explains.
Seidenberg’s new series, collected in his latest book, The Architecture of Silence, exemplifies his approach to composition, both in the individual images and the manner in which those images cohere through a broader philosophical and aesthetic framework. Working in the south of Italy, in and around abandoned houses built during a failed post-war land reform movement, the series counters the familiar aesthetic fetishism of urban ruin to reveal more about the history of these homes and the people who inhabited them.
His partner, Professor Carolyn White, an anthropologist whose work is heavily concerned with historic preservation, helped Seidenberg clear the muddied waters around the history of the Riforma Fondiaria, which many Italians are hesitant to fully confront even today.
“The descendants of those who were moved through these houses don’t want to talk about the impossibility of making the policies work, or of sustaining their cultures and families in these inhospitable environs. It’s hard for victims of abuse to not feel like it’s their fault in some way, which, of course, is absurd, but it’s a part of a human response to trauma,” Seidenberg says.
However, Seidenberg and White’s work isn’t meant to pick at the scab of this painful history. Instead, it’s meant to properly heal a wound that’s long been neglected.
“We can’t forget these people who went through this. We can’t forget this trauma,” he says.
Seidenberg honors this history and grapples with this trauma not by depicting the people who faced it but by the homes that held them.
“I don’t photograph people, both to avoid the objectification of the human subject that accompanies so much of the imaging of poverty, and in recognition of the ways in which the centering of a composition around the person paradoxically works as a distancing mechanism, preventing the viewer from placing themselves in the mise-en-scene the photograph presents. Which is to say, such images may invoke pity or sympathy, but not empathy.”
Seidenberg’s work may be void of the human figure, but work like The Architecture of Silence has so much to offer about humanity and how it survives. The more time you spend with Seidenberg’s work, the more you start to think past the people that once called these places home. You start to wonder about the ways in which families functioned in their homes, the ways they modified them to meet their needs and purposes, and where they conducted the most routine parts of family life throughout the house.
The Architecture of Silence explores what was left behind, and these items become just as important as whatever might have been there before. In that way, these objects take on a life of their own that’s indicative of the human lives that once developed alongside them.
“The objects are evidence of distant or very recent inhabitation of these spaces, and they reveal both the limited means of the people who lived in them, and their ingenuity,” he says.
Whether it be something as commonplace as a scribbled kitchen table that doubled as a child’s desk, or, more particular, a hole carved out of the wall that gave access to a family’s livestock from inside the home, The Architecture of Silence reveals the character of the people who inhabited these spaces, the lives they led, and their precarious existences.
“Both large and small scale modifications of the structures reveal some of the ways in which the original designs failed to account for the needs of the residents”,” he explains.
It’s only with a keen eye for detail that an artist like Seidenberg could illuminate these dark, abandoned spaces and the ghosts of the lives they once housed. In Seidenberg’s work, every little detail matters. Misplaced drawings on the doors and walls, discarded trash, eroded tape on the street—everything you get out of Seidenberg’s work is everything we leave out of our selective observations.
“Those details are often the heart of the project,” he says. “They allow us to enter the space in deference to its erstwhile occupation, rather than its abandonment. Which is to say, the composition of the images should suggest the living of the lives of those whose vestiges remain, an evocation of what was possible in the traces of what was lost.”
Seidenberg’s attention to the overlooked details of the world around us isn’t just a paramount feature of him as a photographer, it is a throughline in him as an artist overall, and it makes sense when you consider his work as a writer and poet.
In his photography, Seidenberg is meticulous about choosing conceptual work, and he captures the small, forsaken parts of whatever project he chooses. It aligns with the careful diction of a poem or the steady meter from line to line.
“There is that common element of absolute focus,” he says. “I don’t even realize that anything is happening around me when I’m capturing the image.”
There’s a certain respite that presents itself when Seidenberg works.
In his series, Tokyo Tape, for example, he captured images of adhesive tape used to indicate direction, construction, or danger on the floors of the Tokyo subway system that are so conspicuous yet quotidian that they blend into the background of the average person who passes this tape on a daily basis.
As anyone could imagine, the urban scenes in which Seidenberg found these tape markings were crowded and bustling with multitudes of people.
“I know that’s true, but I don’t remember it that way. It feels so incredibly still in those moments for me,” he says.
For Seidenberg, as he works, all of that, like the tape itself, seems to blend into the background of his process. He somehow manages to block out the world and focus on the most ignored parts of our daily routines. Even further, he invites us into that still, hyperfocused moment to discover what can be found when we surrender to the details that hide in the corners of our everyday lives.
Seidenberg is an artist of pause in a rushing world. He’s a big picture artist that builds the puzzle of whatever space he’s working in through the tiny, disparate pieces in that space that have been stepped over time and time again.
As an artist of intention and concept, as in the case of The Architecture of Silence, his work also brings light to a history and to lives that the world may be working to forget, sometimes out of pain, sometimes out of arrogance. But with an artist like Seidenberg, that history and what it left behind is no longer stepped over. Instead, it takes on a life of its own.
If you want to learn more about Seidenberg and his new book, The Architecture of Silence, you can visit his website at www.stevenseidenberg.com. WM
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.