At the Henry: The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker

City Whispers, Philadelphia 1983
City Whispers: Philadelphia, 1983. Courtesy Lawrence Miller Gallery.

You are entering the North Galleries of the Henry. From the hall you turn left and pass into a small room containing a few photographs, mostly anonymous, of late 19th Century Japanese subjects. Most are in black and white, some albumen prints, some gelatin on paper, with five hand-colored lantern slides. It is formal portraiture, mostly, as influenced by the Western tradition of stiff daguerreotypes as it is by the Japanese tendency toward nostalgia for simplicity. The exhibit, titled Camera Nipponica, reminds you that you should return to the Henry again and seriously look it over.

Where you are really going, however is down the hall to the right, past the David Hartt: Stray Light exhibit into a large gallery: the Norcliffe gallery. In front of you, across the chamber, on the wall hang the bold Akzidenz Grotesk letters that announce the name of the exhibit: The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker. The name of the exhibit matches the name of the book assembled by Keith Davis from the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art at the end of last year. The exhibit is similar but smaller to the one at the Getty earlier in the year, given there a slightly different title: The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design.

Astride and below those bold sans-serif letters are nine photographs: early work by the photographer. A pair of them are from Wisconsin, his birthplace. The rest are of Chicago, where the photographer attended the Institute of Design, studying with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. They are relatively simple. They do not show the formal concerns of abstraction and gesture that occupy the work of Siskind. They eschew the ethereal tonal qualities of Harry Callahan. What they do reveal of his teachers’ influence is a strong sense of graphic design, particularly rhythm.

Chicago, 1959.Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Chicago, 1959. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Your closer look at the print, Chicago, 1959, confirms your initial observation. The design sense is profound. Dominated almost completely by blacks with little grey, the rising rhythm of the solid white bars plays against the grid-like suggestion of line made by the rivets and the explicitly highlighted lines of the window frames. The presence of three seated human figures, one in black, one in white, one in grey shows the conscious hand of the photographer and further suggests a sly comment on the boredom of civic transit on “The Loop” (as Metzker has named the series elsewhere). But these figures are not the real subject of the photograph. The subject is the design.

You walk around the Norcliffe. There are twenty-three other photographs in the room, arranged chronologically from 1957-1963. You have seen the seven prints from his Chicago studies. You walk next to a wall displaying six other prints, these from Mr. Metzker’s travels in Europe.

Something in them tells you that the photographer’s craft is beginning to change. There were hints in the Chicago series but now it is starting to flower. The high-contrast prints show the photographer’s increasing mastery of hard light as the primary basis for composition. The human figure is still present, but now the figure is becoming abstract, suspended in large blocks of darkness or light, encompassed if not devoured by the urban world around it.

Valencia, 1961. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Valencia, 1961. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

In the photograph Valencia, 1961,  the photographer has reduced the image almost to pure black and white. Grey tones exist only to anchor the photographic design to realism: without them, the figures would simply float in space, detached from the earth. But they are overwhelmed by the stark black and overpowering white. The repeated arrowhead shapes formed by the legs of the walking figures simultaneously convey jagged motion left-to-right as well as point to the backgroud letter forms that tower over the figures. You read this as a quick essay in the human figure oppressed by the designs of finance and construction that drive their world independently of their action, but then you think it is perhaps not so obvious.

Other photographs from the European series are equally stark, especially the Frankfurt, 1961 image, in which a lone white kayak is suspended in a river of total blackness. This compression of design and tendency toward ever higher contrast and starker printing continues through the Philadelphia prints as well. The effect of viewing them in sequence is cumulative, and oppressive. You finally reach the last of them and ease through the arch into the next gallery, the much smaller Benaroya Gallery.

The rhythm of the Philadelphia photographs continues into the room, which is arranged clockwise like the first gallery. The realistic yet heavily designed photographs continue in a process of five ever-darkening prints until you turn to the west wall. There you feel the first shock of the exhibit. It jolts you out of the predictable rhythm that has been established up till now. It is your first view of photographs from the Double Frame series.

You take in four photographs from the Double Frame series. The high-contrast printing of the Philadelphia series continues, but here the frame itself is extended. These are a single image formed of two separate images stacked on each other. Two of them in particular strike you as reminiscent of an early comic strip, The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo by Gustave Verbeek.

Right side up.
Upside down.

You wonder what they would be like if the gallery mounted these photographs with the explicit purpose of allowing them to be rotated. But of course you are in an art gallery, a culturally sacred place where fun is not allowed and “interactivity” is a buzzword, a diminution to be strictly controlled by the gatekeepers of culture who tell you what you can and cannot touch and see and how you “should” passively consume it all as a detached spectator. The gatekeepers’ guards follow you around the gallery to emphasize the point.

Double Frame: Philadelphia, 1965/1972 practically begs you for this treatment. But you are a person of culture and civilization and you must decline, lest your culture card be revoked. Instead you have to put on your student hat and admire its craftsmanship: its stark blacks and whites, its sharp lines, its dark and irregular polygonal core from which the composition radiates.

Double Frame: Philadelphia. 1965, printed 1972. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Double Frame: Philadelphia. 1965, printed 1972. Courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The other Double Frames are equally admirable. As you walk about the gallery chamber, the Double Frames give way to a related series Mr. Metzker names Couplets. The Couplets overall seem to extend the explorations of the Double Frames. They reintroduce the human figure as a compositional element but retain the high degree of abstraction of the Double Frames, yet are somehow simpler. No topsy-turvy here: even when a Couplet is arranged vertically by stacking two images, there is only one way to read it. This series is just as technical as the previous, perhaps even more so, but it is far less ambiguous in its narrative approach.

You notice the first pair of Couplets and admire them on this basis. They continue from the small Benaroya Gallery into the much larger Andrew. Suddenly one stops you. It seems to reach out to you. It is Couplet: New York City, 1968.

Couplets: New York City, 1968. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2009.6.45. © Ray K. Metzker, courtesy of the Laurence Miller Gallery.

Looking at it, you sense that realism is at its absolute minimum. The human figures are identifiable, but only just. The boy’s head on the left frame, as the woman’s back in the right frame, blend seamlessly into blackness. That blackness itself crosses both frames, to blur any possible distinction between the two pictures: where one begins and one ends is mysterious, just like the blackness itself. This is Mr. Metzker’s work at its most spartan, and simultaneously at its most abstract.

The Couplets series slowly blends into a group of pictures from Atlantic City, and five pieces of a larger series called Sand Creatures. This series was the basis of Ray K. Metzker’s first book, published by Aperture in 1978. In many respects it seems his most atypical work. It is far more witty than his other work, even his often humorous Couplets. Also, the human figure is no longer simply a design element as in his other work, but comes forth front and center. Even in this series, however, the approach is far from standard portraiture.  In the pictures of individual subjects, flesh texture is erased, reduced to overall tonal areas, largely without gradation. Other images contain masses of people reduced to lines and dots. Still others become essays not in the subject of human form but in the shape human bodies give to light.

Couplets: Atlantic City/New York City, 1969/1968. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. © Ray K. Metzker, Courtesy of the Laurence Miller Gallery.
Couplets: Atlantic City/New York City, 1969/1968. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. © Ray K. Metzker, courtesy of the Laurence Miller Gallery.

One of the remaining Couplets alongside the Sand Creatures photographs that deftly bridges the work between the dark urban photographs of the Philadelphia, Europe and Double Frames series and the glaring essays in white and whiter in the Sand Creatures series. It is almost a before and after pairing: the happy bright tones of the beach contrast harshly with the urban woman seemingly being swallowed by the dark shadows of New York City.

You probably think to yourself that at some point all of the photographer’s interests will converge. Hard light and high contrast. The human figure as bearer of light and darkness. Multiple print pairings. The deep darkness of urban space. All of them are visible in the other work. You wonder where is the piece where it all comes together.

Then you turn and see it on the north wall of the Andrew Gallery.

The first thing that you notice about it is its size. At just about 19 inches by 25 inches, it is twice the size of anything else you have seen in the galleries so far. From a distance you are struck by its overall abstractness. It appears to be a painting, rhythmically placing pure daubs of white and intermittent grey lines across a canvas. But this is not a canvas. This is paper. And this is not a painting. This is a photograph. Or, rather, a sequence of photographs.

Composites: Night at the Terminal, about 1966. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. © Ray K. Metzker, courtesy of Lawrence Miller Gallery.
Composites: Night at the Terminal, about 1966. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. © Ray K. Metzker, courtesy of Lawrence Miller Gallery.

You move in closer. You do not  see a single photograph, no, but rather a grid of fourteen columns and ten rows. One hundred forty images. arranged in strips. But the borders of the strips are almost invisible in the overall pattern of point, line and blackness. As you examine even closer, you begin to count individual images. Then you notice the exercise is a bit like playing Concentration: the images are repeated. In total there are twenty distinct photographic images frames but they overlap. The photographer has printed them erratically, cut them even more erratically, yet the effect is musical–an extreme sort of canon with variation. You read the strips left to right. Then you read them up and down and realize that both directions work to tell a story by design.

Within each image frame, too, you notice different things. Light and darkness are obvious, as is the abstract printing, but the human figure, too, is present–both in the light spots (which prove to be windows and outdoor lamps) where one can see human shapes through the light, and in the darkness where a solitary human figure seems to pass mysteriously through the composition.

It is by far one of the most intricate photographs you have ever seen. The two older gentlemen in front of you look puzzled for a moment before one finally describes it as “like a goofy art student project,” revealing the exact depth of public understanding of photography that artists confront everyday. You look at the date: about 1966. Your context for understanding not only the physical labor of the piece as a handiwork, but also the intellectual conceit of the piece, shifts. Temporarily overwhelmed by the thought of it all, you sit down on one of the two benches in the gallery and close your eyes.

When you open your eyes once more, ready to take in the rest. Two more Composites follow, and three other composite works from different series, Faces VIII, City Drillers and Passants II. You recall an interview between Anne Wilkes Tucker and the photographer. Ms. Tucker asked why he had not returned to work on the Faces series, and Mr. Metzker replied, “They scare me.” Looking at the representative piece here, you can believe him. The other two pieces turn away from the direct human gaze toward more figurative work but are every bit as dark.

Pictus Interruptus: Philadelphia, 1977. Courtesy of Laurence Miller Gallery.
Pictus Interruptus: Philadelphia, 1977. Courtesy of Lawrence Miller Gallery.

Walking through the rest of the Andrew Gallery, you move from the darkness of composite works and the four prinst from the City Whispers series into the bright whites of the New Mexico series. Combined with the four pieces from the Pictus Interruptus series, the New Mexico prints come from the photographer’s teaching stint at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Far from the urban canyons of Philadelphia, Chicago and New York that dominated his work up to then, the photographer opened his camera lens on the Southwestern landscape and its vivid, coruscating light. You observe dark shadows these photographs of course–no Metzker work would be without extreme blacks–but these photographs tend toward higher zones of white with occasional midtones. You sense they are more closely related the the essays in brilliant light from the Sand Creatures series than they are to the rest of the photographer’s early work.

The Pictus Interruptus series draws you in from there. You notice that they, too, are primarily higher zoned, mostly white. Their design includes black and grey as indices of a different attention. Instead of the traditional blacks, it is whites that serve here as negative space. Too, these photographs show the photographers first real inclusion of blur as a compositional element, quite a change from the sharpness inherent in virtually all Mr. Metzker’s early work. You notice the primary strategy of the series is that the photographer purposely obscures some part of an otherwise “realistic” scene with some object, creating a section within the picture that is highly out of focus while the traditionally sharp, “documentary” scene surrounds it. The overall effect is surreal. It does not surprise you that the spirit of Josef Sudek lurks within these frames. The photographer always admired Sudek but nowhere is it more obvious than here.

You have by now figured out that this photographer is one of the most formally innovative people ever to work in the medium. So many ideas run through your head after seeing all these photographs that your mind probably needs a rest. And yet there is still one room to go. Will it be too much? Can you take it? Perhaps you need to visit the café down the stairs and come back. But you think better of it and you push on into the Bagley and Virginia Wright Gallery, a bit nervous.

To your surprise, the first thing you notice are landscapes. Landscapes. Trees. Water. You haven’t seen a landscape in this exhibit since the very first photograph (Wisconsin) at the beginning of your gallery walk. Suddenly your whole body relaxes. The room is brighter by far than the previous three, and so are the prints on the walls. Ten seemingly traditional landscapes hang there, six from the photographer’s sojourn in Europe.

What you notice first about them is simple. They are grey. Not black and white with no midtones, but the converse: they are virtually all midtones with only accents of black and white. The values are smooth, warm, even gentle at times. Contrast is still high, but the contrast is variable and dispersed fairly throughout the picture. The overall feeling of the room is one of quietude and pensive observation. That these prints are square rather than rectangular adds to the sense of stability and poise.

Earthly Delights: Denver, Colorado, 1986. Courtesy of Lawrence Miller Gallery.
Earthly Delights: Denver, Colorado, 1986. Courtesy of Lawrence Miller Gallery.

As you look closer, however, even within the landscapes there is a rigorous design. The Maryland, 1987 print catches your eye, revealing to you that this is most definitely still the work of Ray K. Metzker. It is high key, almost completely light grey and white. Yet within the frame are distinct solid black accents formed by branches. The photograph titled Earthly Delights: Denver, 1986 is even more stark. It is the closest thing to a Suprematist painting you can imagine in photography, almost completely white. Yet the solid blacks are there; they are simply hidden, as if to suggest that beneath the bright appeal of the natural world there is still an incredible and subtle structure.

And just to drive the point home to your brain, the final landscape, Untitled, 2007 hangs right next to the exit. The only word you can use to describe it is “rarefied.” In it there is no texture, no detail. Even lines barely exist. There is only shape and value. Lots of black negative space. Sparely distributed white leaf forms. Touches of grey tie everything down to a fractal composition. This is the work of a master who continues even in his eighties to explore the possibilities of finding abstract composition within the simplest of scenes. Though his nominal subject matter continues to change, his sense of visual music–rhythm, tonal harmony, dissonance–remains as curious as ever.

You have reached the end. Eighty-four prints by one of the most fascinating photographers you have seen. You have much to think about. Your mind buzzes from the experience, especially the exquisite craftsmanship of the photographer’s monochrome printing, his ability to tell stories both simultaneous and sequential, and his keen sense of the underlying design of things from man and nature both. Your eyes now are open to the possibility…and many others provoked by the work of Ray K. Metzker.


Categories Photography

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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