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Review: Ray Metzker exhibition at Getty should boost his profile

'The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design' at the Getty Museum is a retrospective that should set him firmly in the canon.

October 30, 2012|By Leah Ollman
  • City Whispers, Philadelphia, 1983, Gelatin silver print, by Ray K. Metzker.
City Whispers, Philadelphia, 1983, Gelatin silver print, by Ray K. Metzker. (Ray K. Metzker / The J. Paul…)

Almost everything you need to know about the prodigious talents of Ray Metzker announces itself in the earliest group of photographs in his retrospective now at the Getty Museum.

The pictures were made in downtown Chicago between 1956 and 1959, while Metzker was a graduate student at the Institute of Design (ID), the famed Bauhaus-inspired school that opened in 1937 under the direction of László Moholy-Nagy.

One was shot at asphalt level, focused sharply on what looks like a scrap of abandoned cardboard. In the distance, a woman crossing the street is captured as a blurred generality in the corridor of light between buildings. Both Metzker's extreme perspective and tight control over depth of field disrupt expectation, yielding a piquant, mildly destabilizing take on an everyday scene.

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In another early work, Metzker printed a sequence of 25 pictures of the luminous landing beneath a dark flight of stairs as a single, grid-like image. Figures appear on the striped steps like ascending or descending notes on a musical staff. Muybridge's motion studies come to mind, but with their logical progression of sequential moments traded in for a jazzy, syncopated rhythm.

From the start, Metzker's pictures have had stark graphic punch. They are organized with architectural precision, with assertively high contrast between light and shadow. The varieties of visual energy invigorating his work trace back directly to the ID photo program's course of instruction, led (during his years there) by Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Formal invention and experimentation were mainstays of the curriculum, and the Getty's companion exhibition of photographs by ID faculty and students sets the stage for Metzker's fascination with the malleable dynamics of visual perception.

(Getty curators Virginia Heckert and Arpad Kovacs organized the ID show and collaborated with Keith Davis, from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., on the Metzker survey, which is accompanied by an excellent catalog.)

Born in Milwaukee in 1931, Metzker had been photographing since he was a teenager, doing journalistic work in high school and college, where he also made abstract sculpture. After a stint in the military during the Korean War, he enrolled at the ID, where, as he later put it, there came to be "a marriage, something of both Callahan and Siskind flowing in me." A selection of Callahan's work from the '40s shows how his use of multiple exposures, shifting perspectives and strong contrast became the foundation for much of Metzker's aesthetic.

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Metzker's master's thesis, "My Camera and I in the Loop," brought him immediate attention. The Museum of Modern Art purchased 10 photographs and the Art Institute of Chicago featured 70 in a one-man show. Metzker took a job at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1962 and taught there for 20 years. He earned two Guggenheim fellowships and has continued to exhibit regularly, but boldface status in the canon has eluded him. This is his third major museum retrospective, and it contains enough marvels to do the trick.

The show thoughtfully tracks Metzker's repeated returns to the street, where he distills the cacophonous urban environment into exquisitely concise, dynamic patterns. It makes clear the through lines of his ongoing investigations into composite imagery, the combining of negatives or points of view to interrupt spatial and temporal continuity. It demonstrates how he has extracted maximal potency from a minimalist vocabulary of seriality, the grid and reduction to formal essence. Not every group of pictures carries an equally intense charge (the "Sand Creatures" beach shots are particularly low voltage), but work from Metzker's first decade alone is electrifying.

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