Photography as Life
By Ray K. Metzker
The following article is taken from notes kept by Ray K. Metzker and excerpted in Anne Wilkes Tucker's book Unknown Territory: Photographs by Ray K. Metzker, which will be published this falll in conjunction with the November 16 opening of the exhibition of the same name at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
"Art must affirm. This is our treasure: our capacity to affirm human intelligence, sensibility, inventiveness. Art is not a luxury; it is the due for man's hope''
People are seen today as wandering (if not lost) solitary figures, subject to a labyrinth of fantasies, laboring under the imaginary quest for Utopian freedom, afraid of their singularity (individualness), dependent on the now, and apprehensive of the future, stripped of charity, lamenting war but unable to live in peace.
I recognize the desire, the need to affirm. This requires perseverance and a belief that there is purpose and meaning to our being. To make work and life meaningful is a struggle. Werewe not to try, life would be sad and empty. From the magnitude and intensity of the struggle comes the greatness we hope for.
I approach photography in the context of art, as a key to understanding.
The need to make photographic images goes so deep that it is difficult to imagine doing anything else. Photography serves as the alter-ego, the "other" of my private dialogue. There is something in that light- formed, silver-fixed image that causes me to respond with excitement.
Photography provides the means for speculation about meaning; I am not an objective reporter, I prefer to go further, to the unstated things of our existence. What I can't understand and grasp seems to lead me.
Art is man's action on commonplace material. To state something more than the material or the act, something must occur to make the object special. Just what that is and how it enters the work is always cause for wonder and endless speculation. Strong work startles us. We recognize the ingredients but we can hardly believe the result. Something jumps, glows, flutters. It has tactility, flavor — so convincingly we say it is real.
Art must affirm. This is our treasure: our capacity to affirm human intelligence, sensibility, inventiveness. Art is not a luxury; it is the clue for man's hope.
Somewhere in development the artist comes to a juncture with one path emphasizing self-importance and the other leading to passionate concern for ideas. To follow the latter path calls for a divestiture of self, an effacement, a drawing away from ego-centricity. That makes the going slower, more challenging. It becomes necessary to acknowledge the importance of honesty and forthrightness.
It is not a question of what one chooses to do, but how one does it; hot whether it is intellectual or emotional, but whether it is inventive, enriching. or caring. Does it touch central issues or play on peripheral issues?
Isn't art the need to hold, to make visible, what we believe or wish to believe? The elusive search, the frustration of incompleteness or inadequacy, the failed attempt at seeing, catching, recognizing, knowing something that points to and reveals the nature or essence of our being this attempt is an act by the artist: art is the message of that act.
Rage is about the world not being what it could be. The euphemism for this is passion. In the artist, it has to be more than anger: it has to be rage. The fire has to burn strong. What saves the artist is that working caps the rage and channels it into something constructive.
If you have any intelligence, you realize that rage will destroy you, so you have to discover sweetness, to seek balance. Some things I point to but know not to dwell on them, for to dwell would be to sink and invite the viewer down. That is no solution and shows no sense of invention. Menacing and yet playful. I am always conscious of those features.
The artist does not need to follow an event, instead, he takes what is workable in his system of values and determines his own event, injecting and incorporating visual devices (confusing the space, eliminating detail, introducing ambiguity). The artist looks on objects and sensations as providing the raw material, and imposes a scheme upon it.
The artist digs holes to trip the viewer; climbing out is the act of participation. Slick work does not have the means to hold the viewer.
Photographic life alternates between periods of reflection and work. The questioning that goes on during reflection is- as it should be — unsettling. Working is the attempt to step off into space. The heat of intensity melts the bands of restraint.
Most significant work is the result of concentration, which implies a shedding of the nonessential. In the end, the mix of what remains gives character and meaning to the work.
There are a number of strong examples: Aaron Siskind's rocks and divers, Bill Brandts nudes, Richard Misrachs cactuses, Arthur Sinsabaugh’s elongated landscapes. Marsha Burns and Robert Mapplethorpe’s portraits. In each of these artists' series, look for the constants. Often you will see that they are obvious and simple. Then look for the way these constants have been worked, combined, added, and subtracted. Finally, consider the different meanings that result. Along the way we discover how some small decision, a different attitude, maybe even an intrusion, adds a whole new dimension.
The more you are willing ro invest in your work, the greater the clairity you will get in return.
Because daily living requires being positive, the tentativeness you have to maintain in working is formidable. For the sake of sanity we need certainty. To a great extent we fabricate and manipulate our lives to create new illusions of certainty. But working takes us into an area where we face uncertainty. Sometimes it's very frightening. Either courage or obsession brings us through. The toughest thing is to know when to be decisive and controlling and when to roll with the work and let it take over.
Often, as I am working, the developments inform me and that influences the next step. Sometimes I want the work to do one thing but it proves unwilling and tells me to do something else.
As a creature in this world, I have to reach out and touch. That is a very deep motivation: to interact, to touch, to examine as a means of survival. Photography can take me out of the ordinary world.
Once I start touching, I start shifting. I begin to push, trying to transform meanings.
Manipulation leads to discoveries. That which we retain is what we call our reality. That's what appears in the pictures.
Without transformation, work would be a dull activity. Being cognizant of transformation, one senses the mystery and the joy of existence. All of our world has potential as material for our re making. Excitement comes with seeing something in a new meaning that we previously either took for granted or overlooked.
Imagination delights in leaps, change is cherished. Changing something into something else .,.something happens...we detect a spirit, elusive and fluttering, beyond the pale of knowing.
The elusive is what we seek, be it of the heart or the mind. The artist learns to live with uncertainty, for it is in meeting the unknown that spirit is exposed and tested. The certainty of knowing is fool's gold.
What is alive is in the midst of becoming. Acts in the light of moaning can be construed only as tentative. Action is of the now: meaning exists in past action. The act anticipates future. To live is to project. Our lives are balanced to the future; today is the preparation for tomorrow. Experience constantly instructs that the next will be better than the last — unless of course, one is committed to nostalgia.
I experiment with forms and probe for experience. Form cannot live without experience nor can experience communicate without form. There is the magic of forms and the mystery of our lives. Where they come together is where I have a photograph that is vital.
Design is overemphasized by others as a deliberate concern of mine. For me, design is more innate, operating subconsciously or automatically. If anything I have tried to restrain it.
Design is part of the total package It is the vehicle for the idea, which is the attempt to integrate experience. The design elements can serve as signals to attract and direct the viewer, and to suggest something. They can create an effect at a distance or at first viewing, but there has to be something else as the viewer comes closer to the work
Formalism implies gamesmanship - how you move from A to B, how you capture the queen; it is separate from and only a container for the encoded life experience. What is contained is not always obvious — but that's part of the gamble.
Ultimately, the concern has to be for images with symbolic content. Frequently, encoded experience is the stuff for speculation. That images can affect us we can:net deny, but how and why?
Eventually, one has to meet the notion of responsibility which is the point of all meaningful work. It is not enough, not fulfilling, to live the now as an isolated moment for the pleasure of self. Meaning grows when one begins to think of the future and the welfare of the collective.
The order of my working process: observation, questions, seeing the problem, concentration, obsessive examination.
The first part of the process is open ended, when I am scanning or simply looking. When I realize there are certain stimuli that I keep responding to, that reoccur in my perceptual field, then I can begin to identify a pattern. What is really curious is how the clues appear in other areas such as what I am reading or discussing or noticing on the street.
The second part of the process then begins: structuring. I start to rid myself of other elements, close the door around what I have. Then I begin to beat through to the inventive process, where playfulness becomes important. Invention and play work together. When it is finally time to invent, i am soaring.
A photograph seems to come to us on the wings of angels. It harks of magic. The uninitiated assert that photographs appear without antecedents; background and preparation which are the feet of serious work are overlooked.
Many artists and viewers are inclined to attribute to the artist powers of mastery which may exceed the fact. One of the fictions commonly cherished about photography is that images are made in a flash, a significant or great picture delivered with lightning speed, I like to refer to this as the Immaculate Conception Theory.
It’s easy to get lost if an aesthetic goes no further than technique or composition. It is something else to examine the work for the maker's concerns or values to see how personal sensibilities are manifested. The self needs to be tested and new doors opened on the way to discovering the terms of personal aesthetic.
Many of those working in the medium are not taking the photograph beyond some kind of factual notation. Often, accompanying verbal description is far more exhaustive and animated than the photograph, which is an unconvincing visual experience. This kind of picture operates as a sign.
Art has other concerns. It must fight its way above the flood of overwhelming detail. It strives for larger meanings. It would peel away the husk from the seed. It is an embodiment of essences.
Time and again I reject the lifelessness that I find in so many photographs. It is mere exercise to execute theories and follow prescribed methods, working each detail to the maximum, only to end up with a dead body. That the work will ultimately have a life of its own is the undeniable challenge of working.
Excitement is to be found in the suggested, in what the minimum of articulation can lead us to see. ft is one thing to enhance the obvious; it is quite another to catch the elusive. Unnecessary de tail is the death of a lot of photo graphs. The viewer can see and get involved with every pebble, but the experience is only inventory taking. No work is left for the imagination.
We are experiencing excessive traffic of the obvious: combination and recombination of knowns, adorning and embellishing knowns.
Today's snapshot genre of exploratory photography suffers from lack of imagination. The best that can be attributed to it is spontaneity. Conceptually it is old hat, something to which we are now thoroughly conditioned.
The snapshot genre is weak because it is obvious. The image is determined by little more than the presence of the photographer. More is revealed of the objects photographed than about the photographer, regardless of the skill of the rendering.
Many of those photographers walking the streets, shooting from the hip. are interested in obtaining souvenirs. Their results indicate only change of time and place. The viewer is presented with signs, but nothing symbolic. As it occurs today, the snapshot is not pushing any frontiers; it holds lit tie power within the medium.
The key term is waste. Wasted time, wasted material, wasted ef fort, wasted people. Nothing depresses me more than human effort which results in nothing. I want to go in the other direction. Substance is my obsession.
Tragedy is failure in the face of possibility, the inability to communicate. For all the show of communication, the fact remains that one person does not fully understand any other.
Tragedy is unwanted change, loss, or destruction accompanied by the belief that somehow it could have been prevented.
Other kinds of tragedy include:
• so much to give, but rejected
• preparing to do. but doing nothing
• aspiring to do good, but doing wrong
• the attainable, unattained
Man made barriers: duty, family, country, revolution, or aban donment to hedonistic pleasure.
Work is of a constructive nature and requires on-going attention. To be involved is a constant struggle to define and orchestrate a complex organism. It can be no other than an integrated activity.
Thoughts and decisions can Take you deeper into quality. There is the dream of wanting to do something better and more meaningful with ones life and giving that dream form and a sense of order. When I look back, I see I was willing to gamble on the possibility of something better, that I could get just a little more nourishment if I made a decision.
The explanation of why we work is not simple. Some say: "I like beautiful things'' or "I want to express myself."
I know this about myself: I have to lay hands on, to seize and to build, to beat the stuff until it
I doubt if any work can really be called fun. Fun is just that: carefree and irresponsible, a light moment, a respite from our endeavors. However, there is joy. full of body, which one encounters only from intense endeavor
You stand out there with nothing on. with so much at risk. It is amazing that one proceeds, but one does.
If you are committed to working, you don't measure your successes by the rate or degree of acceptance. You make the work and people start looking and responding. In time, someone comes along who wants it. That is the natural process.