Ray Metzker: Knowing Shadow

By David Portz

Unknown Territory: Photographs by Ray Metxker, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
November 17, 1984 to January 29, 1985

Ray Metzker's photographs have begun to behave as a life's work. This extensive retrospective organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, together with an excellent catalogue and appearances by the artist, bring Mr. Metzker for the first time to the view of a mass au­dience. It is a dramatic introduction. We are met by an artist confident of his inventive techniques, and emerged from the shadows of his predecessors.

The exhibition's title and cata­logue emphasize Ray Metzker as an artistic innovator. The exhibitions 190 photographs span twenty-five years of work, and represent the results of twelve projects, or series. Metzker has formalized an ap­proach whereby he structures a "term" for each project — a sort of contract with himself to confine the work by some constraint. Some terms were chosen to confine him to a place, as in, for example, the series photographed within Chi­cago's Loop or the series within walking distance from his Philadel­phia apartment. In his Sand Crea­tures series, he prowled Atlantic City Beach to photograph the bul­bous and unglamorous bathers.

Other terms for his series have been more theoretical, designed to explore a viewer's expectations, or a photographic technique. For ex­ample, in questioning the conven­tion of a photographic print being only one frame, he has combined two. In double Frame, or the frames of a whole roll, in his Com­posites. The Double Frame series utilized the black dividing line be­tween the frames as a composi­tion el I element, which merged with two disjunctive images to form a single teasing abstraction. The Composites series resulted in large posterish prints, which from a dis­tance are highly patterned, the simpler Composites resembling the early motion studies of Muybridge. On closer viewing, each Composite reveals a single sequence of events — a sailor walking, for example, or persons passing through a glass re­volving door. Rhythms are often established by overlapping images and multiple exposures, which give some Composites a bewildering complexity.

The Pictus Interruptus series resulted from a term which re­quired that the clearly focussed distance be largely obscured by a blurry object set in the foreground This method confounds the eyes tendency to see closer objects more clearly. Many photographs in the series are landscapes in New York, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, or Greece, though skies and street details were also interrupted.

Metzker returned to city streets to photograph City Whispers, the most recent series presented. Or­dinary pedestrians are isolated in huge sluices of brilliant light, which cut the predominating darkness. All of Metzker's work has utilized sparkling white highlights and intense blacks. But following his experiments in printing the un­derexposed, overdeveloped Dark Probes. Metzker has placed much of his daylight city in detailed sha­dow. The emotional tone of the photos is lonely and reflective, not the emotions of the unidentifiable persons in the photos, but those created by their isolation in the textured darkness. The swaths of light falling on each photograph's inhabitants arrive as unacknow­ledged salvation, skeptical tran­scendence. The results of his earlier visual studies are folded and compressed into the “City Whispers” series, where it is most evident that Metzker achieves expressive­ness, despite his restraint.

Concurrent with the Metzker ex­hibition, the Museum of Fine Arts displayed works of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy selected from its recent ac­quisitions, and a travelling exhibition of Harry Callahan's pictures of his wife and daughter. Anne Tucker, the museums curator of photog­raphy, is to be thanked for orchestrating the museum's resources to present the Metzker exhibition together with works of these two photographers, who had significant influence upon him. Ms. Tucker is also to be praised for the Metzker exhibition catalogue, which is ex­tremely well written and commen­datory, though overzealous toward Metzker's preachy philosophizing.

The catalog traces Metzker's pho­tographic pedigree to Moholy-Nagy, who founded the New Bau­haus m Chicago and to Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, who succeeded Moholy-Nagy after the New Bauhaus became the Institute of Design. Metzker studied under Siskind and Callahan, and several attributes of his work are said to be derived from the Institute of Design; its experimental spirit, the printing with high contrast of black and white, deep focus, and the em­phasis on design. Some of Metz­ker's prints have particular affinities with Siskinds - the fascination with surface and texture, the tendency toward abstraction. Harry Callahan's work also finds thematic parallels in Metzker's photographs, as in the candid nature of his street photo­graphs and the superimposition of imagery. Callahan also worked within parameters for each project, similar to Metzker's use of terms.

Most striking of all, however, are Metzker's congruence with the work of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, particularly in the subject matter of his prints. Some of Metzker's favorite motifs can be seen in the Museum's collection of Moholy-Nagy — blandly looming, fore­ground shapes which force atten­tion to their perimeters; faces unfocused in the foreground, others focused in the distance: pedestrians hurrying in bustling urban settings, or sometimes only their legs; and the abstract shapes and patterns plucked from vehicles and machines. In the distance of time from Metzker's schooling, however, the similarities with the work of his forbears have receded into his own distinctive photo­graphic language. He is more stri­dent, for example, in forcing darkness to do his bidding, imposing it where once there was light.

Moreover, the tone of Metzker's work is different from that of his photographic ancestors. Moholy-Nagy’s work often communicated his exhilaration at the technical and societal changes he was witnessing, and the diversity of those events. Siskind and Callahan, even within their aesthetic and abstract preoc­cupations, show a whole-hearted-ness and playfulness of spirit. Metzker seems instead the solitary man, willfully aspiring to an intel­lectual vision. Though a distancing from human subjects can be ob­served in the works of all four artists. Metzker's aloofness is most severe. Aaron Siskind, the nearest contender in dehumanizing his prints, nevertheless frequently references the human form, and uses graffiti in a way which com­municates vitality. Metzker's pho­tographs contain human figures but deny their consequence over the other elements in the composition. There is seldom anymore a person's distinctive gesture in Metzker's pictures. There is seldom an un­usual face.

A viewer cannot make requests of an artist. A viewer cannot ask Ray Metzker for an unusual human situation, a circumstance which brings a fact to light, sympathy, empathy, or an emotional depth which is not Metzker's own. There is much that Metzker excludes from his photography. His efforts to for­cibly order his photographs' visual content, expressive of an austere ethos, honors his artistic mentors. They are honored too by that other quality that comes from Metzker's efforts, the secret source of many viewers' admiration of his work. We are brightened by his purely visual wit of light in darkness, as subtle as the edges of the silhouettes of City Whispers.
Unknown Territory: Photographs by Ray Metzker, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. November 17, 1984 to January 29, 1985.