In a career spanning six decades, Ray K. Metzker, who called himself “an intellectual wanderer,” created images of rare variety and intensity that reflected his commitment to exploring blackandwhite photography. From overlapping exposures to making a single picture from a roll of film, from using prints as building blocks for composite works to playing with the developing process, he was photography’s great experimenter.
Metzker, who died in October 2014, captured scenes from the streets of Chicago and Philadelphia, sunlit beaches, the Canyonlands of Utah and idyllic rural landscapes. In the darkroom, he manipulated light to aid his goal of creating “a unique way of seeing,” one in which “new eyes replaced the old.”
Starting with his first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1967, Metzker’s career spanned 50 oneman exhibitions. His work is held by more than 45 collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. He received major midcareer retrospectives in 1978 at the International Center of Photography, New York and in 1984 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
In fall 2014, the Laurence Miller Gallery, Metzker’s longtime New York representative, celebrated his 83rd birthday with an exhibition titled One and Only: Unique Photographs and Works on Paper. This show featured the noneditioned works he crafted at every stage in his career, from 1957 to 2007 — many shown for the first time. These oneofakind images exemplify the restless experimentation that defined Metzker’s approach. Photograms, multiple exposures, collages and smoky, cameraless light drawings that evoke the natural world reveal Metzker as darkroom alchemist, seduced by pattern and repetition. “He wasn’t just trying to be different,” says Miller. “He was terrifically different. He was never satisfied with simplicity. ”
Born to German immigrant parents near Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1931, Metzker grew up loving classical music, history and drawing. At age 12, his mother gave him a camera, and photography soon became his passion. He created a darkroom in the basement, studied photographs in LIFE and LOOK magazines and won high school competitions sponsored by Eastman Kodak. As photography took up more of his time, it became what Metzker referred to as “a ladder, a way out,” of his insular immigrant upbringing.
His world opened wider still at Beloit College, where he was exposed to an academic program that emphasized social awareness. Photographic assignments with the college’s public relations department helped support him during those years. Following graduation in 1952, he began working for a small photographic studio, taking news pictures and portraits. He was considering a career in photojournalism when he was drafted for service in the Korean War. He taught photography while in the military, an experience that deepened his resolve to continue his studies in the field.
A chance meeting with a visiting professor at Metzker’s alma mater led him to enroll in graduate photographic studies at Chicago’s Institute of Design. There he studied under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. The Institute was an outgrowth of the American School of Design established in 1937 by the Hungarian expatriate László MoholyNagy, who won fame during the 1920s for his avantgarde photography at the Bauhaus. The program combined Callahan’s interest in recording the real with Moholy’s belief in an educational environment that melded strong technique with freedom for selfdiscovery.
From the beginning of his career, Metzker used the world at hand to provide imagery for his artistic composites, multipleexposures, negative superimpositions, multiple image juxtapositions and solarizations. It was in Chicago that he first began street photography, choosing to make that body of work his master’s thesis. His images during this period reveal his interest in photographic form, the tension between light and dark, and what critic Andy Grundberg calls a fascination with “the vagaries of the natural world.”
Metzker graduated in 1959 and traveled through Europe for two years, with extended stays in Austria and Malaga, where he set up darkrooms to process hundreds of accumulating negatives. He worked in a photojournalistic mode, drawn to the different qualities of the locales he visited — whether capturing the visual rhythm of a line of wash hung to dry in Italy, or the stark angularity of a single scull slicing through the dark waters of the Danube. These images have a clarity of form and focus that stand in contrast to his darkroom experiments.
In some of his earliest experimental compositions, dating from 1957, he combines, repeats and superimposes frames to dissolve objects past recognition, leaving form and light as the subjects. (In 1991, Margaret Loke, writing in The New York Times, called these images “an exquisite puzzlement.”) In “Chicago, 1957,” the defining longitude and latitude of the city’s skyscrapers are reduced to rhythmic encounters of black and white. In another, lit paper lanterns acquire the translucency and transience of blown bubbles. “I have to explore,” Metzker said. “Mine is a linear, stepbystep pursuit. Throughout is confrontation, black versus white, light versus darkness, chaos versus order.”
In “Chicago, 1958,” a multiple exposure of a street grate superimposed over a building façade is further confounded by a white cutout. Some of the most complex of his unique images are collages, such as a dense grid of 154 tiny pictures of pedestrians striped by the shadows of an overhead railing. His Pictus Interruptus series, made between 1976 and 1981, offers inexplicable images — landscapes and cityscapes disrupted by abstract forms that combine, complement and contrast with recognizable elements. Metzker held white cards or other objects like coat hangers or folded paper in front of the camera to disrupt realworld scenes into these bold abstractions.
The natural world is often a subject in the photographer’s later work. Metzger turned suddenly to landscape photography in 1985 during an autumn trip to Tuscany, where he produced Feste di Foglie, a celebration of leaves. This trip followed on a period of loss, reevaluation and transition. He had spent two years preparing for Unknown Territory, a retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which led him to realize possibilities he had left unexplored in earlier work. He later said, “My mind was cluttered from the experience of looking back over 25 years of work. A lot of things hadn’t been finished — not that I wanted to go back and finish them. I’d look at things and say, ‘I wish I’d done more in that area’…I really wanted to cut it off, to leave things behind, and try to go out and see things with a fresh mind, fresh eyes.”
The loss of his sister and parents occurred during this period as well. Metzker decided to leave the Philadelphia College of Art, where he had taught since 1962, and focus completely on his art. He found himself thinking, “The best thing to do is to have a new foreign experience and leave all this behind.”
The body of work he produced in Italy launched him on a theme that would consume him for years to come. He spent four months in a small, isolated house surrounded by an olive orchard, and his subject became the terrain in walking distance. “I’d realized, after 25 years, the work usually comes out of familiarity with something that is fairly close at hand.” Drawn to a square format, and without a darkroom on site, he chose a Rollei 66 and tracked his progress through contact prints.
Each day he wandered for an intense two hours, shooting six to seven rolls of film. Potential subjects were circled and evaluated from alternate points of view. In the silvery olive trees, the dark upright cypresses, the aspens and umbrella pines, and the shifting grasses of the fields, he found himself drawn to an intimate vision, putting the viewer on an immediate footing with his subjects. We see grass as though we are lying in it, woods as they unfold one footstep at a time. The forest is experienced tree by tree.
In 1991, after searching for a second residence in a setting that would inspire him aesthetically, Metzker bought a house in the Canyonlands Region of Utah. This area became the focus of all his forthcoming work. In his earliest photographs there, Metzker concentrated on closeups of vegetation that filled the entire frame, conveying the character of the West through details. The “big view,” and the fear of becoming overly picturesque, made him steer clear of the vistas that had drawn photographers before him.
His photograms from this period and beyond further distill nature: for example, ghosts of leaves traced onto the paper itself. Works like “Flutterby, 2007,” a composite of 13 mounted prints, draw the eye to the play of light and shadow, the contrast of shape and texture. A sense of the radiant emerges; natural forms shimmer with life and light, creating a tension that makes them thoroughly electric.
In Metzker’s lightdrawn “landscapes,” sublime whorls of clouds and darkened peaks rise not from the camera’s viewfinder but solely from the manipulation of light and darkroom chemicals. In their reductive abstraction and exploration of lightsensitive emulsions, these images evoke Alfred Stieglitz’s latelife Equivalents — photographs of clouds in motion. Stieglitz often rotated his final cloud pictures, allowing them to be read as abstractions. “All ways are up,” he said. So it is in Metzker’s patterned experiments where light touches dark — transforming people, buildings, mountains and clouds into evocative abstractions that embody his ongoing obsession with the essential.