Sarasota’s Joseph Steinmetz illuminated decades of American life, both through his pioneering style of documentary wedding photography and his carefully posed images of everyday life. His subjects ranged from the wealthy to the weird, but even when he was shooting ordinary people, he set himself apart from the mainstream by his technical brilliance-every single negative was perfect-and his wit. Many locals remember him as a congenial man who wore flowery Florida shirts even to formal occasions, loved a good pun and entertained guests with magic tricks and jokes.
"He was a very humorous man, and that shows in his pictures," says Barbara Norfleet, the former Harvard Art Museum curator who edited a collection of Steinmetz’s work called Killing Time. "He had a fantastic eye and he was rather ironic about what he was seeing. Most studio photographers go out of their way to flatter their customers. But in every package from Steinmetz, there’s one in which he was also expressing his attitude."
The son of an inventor and a concert pianist, Steinmetz photographed social events in the Northeast until he moved to Sarasota in 1942 and began to shoot the circus, beaches, development and social life here.
"My father was more of a recorder of events than a participant," says his daughter, the writer Lois Duncan. "He was a gentle, creative man, who stood quietly on the edge of life and looked at it through a camera lens. By distancing himself in that way, he was able to focus only on things that were lovely."
Lovely they may be, but the images we have chosen for these pages are also thoughtful and evocative, capturing a Sarasota as recognizable today as when they were taken.-Anu Varma
Caps [they want a credit line for each work reproduced. Harvard University Art Museums. Also don’t allow cropping, overprinting, etc]
Gathering of innocents: One of Steinmetz’s best-known images, this 1958 photograph of a Sarasota Tupperware party evokes the genteel domesticity many associate with the era.
Wish you were here: The quintessential snowbird image of a vacationing couple in their modest Sarasota trailer home in 1954.
A cultural capital: The bohemian intellectualism of this painting class on the beach is vintage Sarasota.
Casual elegance: Tropical luxury living at its best, as defined by an earlier era in this photo of chairs and TV in a sun porch, Paradise Shores.
Pure Florida: Along with orange-laden trees and palm trees whisking the sky, alligators endure as kitsch symbols of the Sunshine State. In this 1949 photo, girls play Gobi on Lido Beach.
Backyard barbecue: Steinmetz excelled in capturing intimate, ordinary moments with gentle humor and without condescension. This 1969 picture of a barbecue in Lehigh Acres speaks volumes about the raw, new lifestyle being carved out of this hot land.
Frozen moment: A self-aware picture like this one of a family picnic on Longboat Key in 1958 can speak volumes about the subjects’ beliefs, aspirations and values, says editor Norfleet.
Entertaining image: Steinmetz made a name for himself by shooting tony society events in the Northeast, and his skill shows in this 1960 photograph of a Sarasota woman taking a tray of sandwiches out to the patio.
In Killing Time, Barbara Norfleet writes: "Joe Steinmetz thinks everything has beauty and all people are nice. Like a good portrait painter, he takes what he sees with no idea of what he is capturing." This couple working outside their trailer home in Bradenton were captured on film in 1951.
Building boom: No Sarasota story is complete without a developer, in this case, I.Z. Mann with his building model, standing on Longboat Key in 1969.