Ray K. Metzker, Light sculptor
For its third solo exhibition of Ray K. Metzker’s work, Les Douches la Galerie has assembled a new selection of photographs representative of his strength of experimentation and his mastery of the medium. From his graduation work in 1957-58 at the Institute of Design in Chicago to the City Whispers series in the early 1980s, the exhibition follows the figure of the ordinary man through his various major series.
Ray K. Metzker is a quiet giant of modern photography. He has received all the honors possible in his field and is represented in major museums worldwide. As documented by prestigious retrospectives and several important monographs, Metzker’s place in photographic history is secure. Nevertheless, he falls short of “household name” status. He is more accurately described as an “artist’s artist,” with the caveat that the scope of his achievement remains less than fully known even to other artists and to scholars of the medium. In part this selective understanding is entirely characteristic of the age: in a world of sound bites and short attention spans, the richness of any great artistic achievement tends to be reduced to summary and a handful of putatively characteristic works. In addition, however, Metzker’s reserved personality and diligent focus on the creation, not the promotion, of his work have further discouraged any notion of “celebrity”.
Metzker’s passionate devotion to his art has been more than enough to ensure his artistic stature. All great artists have their periods of peak achievement. For some, this is a few truly white-hot years. With others, it may be ten or even twenty years of original activity. With a smaller number yet, this creative energy sustains an entire career, decade after decade. Metzker, with his remarkable work ethic, his experimental daring, and his restless hunger for growth, is one of an elite group of photographers who have worked steadily, at the highest level, for more than half a century. As a result, he has realized one of the greatest achievements in modern photography – an oeuvre of extraordinary quality, depth, and invention. His life’s work profoundly rewards our attention, challenging and inspiring in roughly equal measure. This volume aims to suggest the full scope, inner logic, and fundamental humanity of this achievement. (…)
Metzker flourished at the ID, but his most dramatic growth came later, and his real achievement extends well beyond the history of the Callahan circle and Chicago School. The ID encouraged students to find their own way – to come to their own understanding of photography, the world, and the self. Metzker was primed and liberated by this educational philosophy, but the relentless creative urgency that so characterizes his career came from within. Thus, in addition to his brilliant extension of the classic ID aesthetic, Metzker holds a key position in the larger history of modern American photography. Born in 1931, Metzker came to artistic maturity in the late 1950s. He was at the forefront of a critically important generation of American creative photographers shaped by a reasonably distinct set of characteristics. Metzker is at once a unique case study and an ideal exemplar of this generation’s larger ideas and values. (…)
The photographers of Metzker’s generation also tend to hold a distinctive attitude toward the nature of the photographic image and the integrity of the photographic print. This was the first generation to begin a wholesale questioning of traditional notions of photographic objectivity. The willfully subjective work of Robert Frank (b. 1924), the formal complexity of Lee Friedlander (b. 1934), and the surreal combination prints of Jerry N. Uelsmann (b. 1934) all helped reshape broadly held attitudes about the medium. Artists such as these were instrumental in changing the terms of discussion for creative practice, shifting it from the shadow of journalistic reportage to the realm of contemporary art, from the context of the printed page to the walls of the museum. Metzker’s work – and particularly his explorations of the multiple image in the 1960s – is absolutely central to this history.
Metzker’s generation is the last to be fully committed to analogue photography. Relatively few key figures of this age group have made any notable shift to digital imaging and ink-jet printing. Instead, nearly all have continued with the tools they know best, shooting film and making prints in the traditional wet darkroom.
More specifically, it is black-and-white photography that lies at the heart of this generation’s analogue practice. Trained to think and see in monochrome, these photographers valued black and white as aesthetically superior to the flat-footed “realism” of color. The palette of black and white was not viewed as inherently limited; on the contrary, it was embraced as a perfect mode of interpretation, elevation, and clarification. (…)
Ultimately, the power of monochrome photography derived from the integrity of the well-made silver-gelatin print. Metzker’s generation loved the subtleties of the black-and-white image and the craft involved in producing rich, beautifully modulated prints. Monochrome photography is based on an elemental scale of tonal values, from white through a succession of grays to black. The beauty of this process lies in both its simplicity and its richness. On one hand, a schoolchild can be taught to develop film and to make prints. On the other, this limited syntax is like music – capable of nearly endless subtlety and personal inflection. For photographers of Metzker’s generation, the black-and-white print was at once a visual lingua franca and a subject of great discipline and proudly honed expertise.
The physical realization of the photograph stemmed from specific notions of craft and the ideal viewer. Intended as precise and intimate visual experiences, prints by Metzker – and many others of his period – were typically made in modest sizes. Metzker reveled in the crispness of a well exposed and sharply focused negative, and he emphasized this clarity of description by minimizing the scale of his enlargements. Indeed, all of his individual images of the 1960s – whether from 35mm, 2 1/4-inch, or even 4 x 5-inch negatives – were rendered on sheets of photographic paper no larger than 8 x 10 inches in size. These prints have great graphic power and a compacted wealth of detail. Metzker loved this duality in part because it rewarded the most astute viewers – the ones who looked at the print from a “normal” viewing distance but then routinely moved in closer to savor the subtleties of individual details, the delicate information in highlight and shadow areas, the grain structure of the image, and the print’s surface texture and luminance. Photographers and informed viewers shared an understanding of these prints as intentionally embodied images – compelling pictures that were also skillfully crafted objects.
Metzker stands at the apex of this great tradition of modernist, monochrome photography. His commitment to the analogue black-and-white image is unparalleled – indeed, in more than fifty years of creative work, he has never made serious use of color. Not surprisingly, his understanding of his chosen materials long ago became deeply intuitive. For example, it is instructive to know that Metzker has not used a light meter for the last twenty-five years or more – he understands light and film so intimately that he can judge correct exposures simply by eye. This deep comprehension of the process is revealed in the consistency, precision, and elegance of his prints – a result, in part, of his ability to keep the entire visual scale alive, from radiant highlights to emotion-laden shadows. Metzker devotes enormous effort to the making of these prints since they represent the full and true realization of his visual ideas.
We are now in the lengthening twilight of photography’s great modernist age. The peak artistic achievements of this twentieth-century analogue paradigm are already a matter of history. Other processes, with their own syntax and expressive potential, dominate contemporary practice. Inevitably, however, these new technologies grow from, and remain deeply informed by, the achievements of the preceding era. For this reason alone, Ray Metzker will remain central to our collective understanding of creative photography. Yet, while he exemplifies this modernist, analogue age, Metzker also transcends it. His work represents an ideal union of personality and process, image and idea, work ethic and openness to change. Many others have made photographs, but very few have lived a more devoted, sustained, or original visual life. Ray Metzker has provided a truly inspiring example and model: constantly striving to refresh his perception of the world in order to know it, and himself, more deeply.
Keith F. Davis
The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker, Yale University Press, 2012
Excerpts from the introduction