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Steinmetz Captured Sarasota's Past

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Elaine Rogers, former Preservation Assistant
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Steinmetz Captured Sarasota's Past photo

"In this life of ours, with its limited time, we should do what we like to do, not be compelled to do something because of economic necessity. Your hearts should be in your work, and if you like what you're doing you'll be successful at it and happy. You many not become a millionaire, but you'll undoubtedly make a nice living" - Dr. Max Thorex as quoted in the Pelican Press, April 7, 1983, by Sally Baxter.

This was the advice that decided Joe Steinmetz's career. He easily could have been successful in the insurance business or in his father's industrial furnace firm. He could have followed the path he set when he obtained a degree in English from Princeton University. But Steinmetz's heart wasn't in any of those vocations; it was in photography.

Beginning in pre-World War II Pennsylvania, Steinmetz created a visual record of the United States' social history. His early work exhibits the comfortable side of life of the affluent Northeast. Society weddings, debutante parties and Princeton reunions made Steinmetz popular among the upper crust. He soon became a professional studio photographer, well known for the invention of the candid wedding album. As demand for his work grew, the Saturday Evening Post approached Steinmetz for his first magazine assignment. Throughout his career, Steinmetz also provided photographs for Life, Time, Holiday, Colliers, and Town and Country.

Steinmetz and his wife, Lois, move their family to Sarasota in 1942 in the interest of their son's health. In contrast to his work up north, Steinmetz's Florida photography shows a lifestyle of carefree leisure. The photos feature trailer parks with shuffleboard courts, golf courses and beaches, mostly occupied by people in swimsuits and shorts. Pictures like those of the 1940 Lido Casino and the aerial shots of Sarasota from over the bay, document the rapid growth of Sarasota. Steinmetz particularly enjoyed working with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. His personal favorite piece was a portrait of the clown, Emmett Kelly.

Steinmetz's work took on sociological significance when it was included in the 1976 Harvard University exhibit of American Social History. In 1982, Steinmetz's personal exhibit, "Killing Time," opened. Barbara Norfleet produced this exhibit along with a book of selected photos, also titled "Killing Time." The images were chosen to portray the difference in interpretations of the two distinct American landscapes and cultures of Pennsylvania and Florida.

Steinmetz, while amused and honored by the admiration shown for his work, preferred a simpler approach to the pictures. Instead of looking at if from a modern perspective, he saw his work as practical attempt t shoot the best photos possible in the given settings.

While photography was a family affair for the Steinmetzs, all members have succeeded in their individual pursuits. Louise, Steinmetz's second wife, was an accomplished artist. Joe's daughter, Lois Duncan, has authored several young adult novels, including "I Know What You Did Last Summer." She is also well known for the non-fiction book, "Who Killed My Daughter?"

Before his death in 1985, Steinmetz served twice as president of Florida Professional Photographers and was twice awarded the degree of Master Photography by the Professional Photographers of America. The Steinmetz legacy continues through the Joseph Janney Steinmetz Memorial Photo Award, which is presented annually to the Best of Show winner at The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens Photo Show.