When hands weave the light
For this second exhibition dedicated to the work of Ray K. Metzker, we brought together some fifty prints taken from various series, highlighting his sustained interest in experimentation.
A virtuoso of light and absolute master of his prints, Metzker pushes the formal boundaries of the photographic medium as well as those of American urban space.
These photographs, taken between 1957 and 1982, offer a unique visual journey through the streets of Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlantic City and several European cities.
In twenty-five years, Ray Metzker has produced more than a dozen series of photographs, each series radically different from the others. Each new series of photographs begins with a change in his preoccupations about photography or with a change in what — or where — he is photographing. Each new series of photographs begins with a change in his preoccupations about photography or with a change in what — or where — he is photographing. He opens himself to new experience and watches his ideas emerge and develop.
This working process evolved during Metzker’s first major project, My Camera and I in the Loop, 1957-1958, which was his graduate thesis at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Metzker’s initial “term” for The Loop was the physical boundary formed by Chicago’s elevated railway, which encircles downtown. As Metzker photographed, he realized that the project was also about formal limitations: the relationship between his camera and himself, and his search for significant form, which took precedence over the objects yielding the forms. Using a Leica (with 35mm, 50mm, and 135mm lenses) and a Rolleiflex, he made images that explore motion blur, depth of field, vantage point, frame, focus, and back lighting, a sampling of the in-depth explorations that later work would compass.
When Metzker traveled in Europe in 1960-1961, he mastered his skill of composing with highlights and heightened his sensitivity to lyric sweetness in human gestures. In his view, Europeans are unhurried; they converse, touch, and appear to integrate with their surroundings rather than pass through them in the preoccupied isolation that characterizes the people in the Chicago series.
When Metzker moved to Philadelphia in 1962, the dual enchantment of photographing people and of composing with highlights was refined into two distinct pursuits. (…) Also like The Loop pictures, the Philadelphia photographs were taken in a prescribed area, within walking distance of Metzker’s apartment. (…)
Not wanting to describe his downtown neighborhood, he took graphic delight in its details: signage, wrought iron façades, street lamps, and pavement markings. In these widely published images from Philadelphia, people are either excluded or seen only in silhouette. The most striking aspect of these pictures is the economy of the compositions. They reach a simplicity and directness that Metzker regards as a climax in his pursuit of minimal but evocative spaces.
There are also ideas that Metzker carries from the studio to the street. The studio work of the mid-1970s culminated with the series Pictus Interruptus, 1976-1980. For Pictus, he fashioned objects in the studio to be included in photographs made outside. He held small objects directly in front of the camera lens, partially obscuring the scene beyond the object.
Extending the predominance of light over dark tones which began in New Mexico, the images of Pictus are composed of angular black occluding devices held against hard white planes or of winding white shapes on light gray fields. (…) The Pictus photographs are breathtaking in their originality and disjunctive associations. They are haunting and indecipherable.
In City Whispers, people are isolated, fragmented, and often faceless. While his cities are neither inviting nor kind, the streets are jumpy with bright lights and movement in a lively play of highlights, shadows, and reflections that contradicts the weight of human isolation, of beings alone in a huge dark universe. The bittersweet pain in the pictures is made palpable through the elegance of its expression.
This recent work incorporates ideas and pictorial devices from previous series without establishing elaborate, technical terms. He achieves, in single-negative format, graphic events first realized in multiple-negative compositions.
The spatial ambiguities created by abutting two negatives in Double Frame are brought about now with shadows and shafts of light. As in all of his previous work, the “event” that he is photographing is light, but in City Whispers, he reaches new levels of synthesis and control of multilayered scenes.