The exhibition The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design in the Center for Photographs charts the five-decade-long career of Philadelphia-based photographer Ray K. Metzker (American, born 1931) and offers a context for his visual aesthetic through a selection of works by founding members and influential students of Chicago’s Institute of Design.
In revealing the significance of quiet moments, sophisticated darkroom techniques, and a deep regard for the inherent virtues of beautifully crafted prints, Metzker’s photographs echo the approach of his mentors Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. However, during a brief period in the 1960s, Metzker shifted away from the single frame and began an investigation that combined multiple prints in various forms of repetition and on an increased scale.
While a graduate student at Chicago’s Institute of Design from 1956 to 1959, a school famous for advocating and encouraging the use of experimental techniques to push the medium beyond documentation, Metzker began to employ in-camera experimentations. Chicago from 1959 is a picture of a rather humble stairwell flooded by light, but it is also an early example of Metzker’s interest in complicating the flat picture plane. In exposing a frame multiple times through partial advancement of the film, he created a loose grid-like structure in a single frame that interrupts a clear reading of the subject. The partial advancement of the film ensures that each exposure is slightly legible and one can read the presence of people walking up and down the steps.
It was following his move to Philadelphia in 1962 that Metzker reexamined the singular image. Philadelphia’s geographic proximity to New York encouraged him to make multiple visits to galleries, where he would likely have encountered large works by prominent Pop artists Andy Warhol and kinetic pieces by Robert Rauschenberg and his contemporaries. In 1964 Metzker began to combine multiple prints on a single support to create one larger work, and soon the Composite series began to take shape. These works are often ambitious in scale, visually complex in their intense use of repetition, and varied in their presentation. Some are mounted to board and matted, while others are affixed to wooden dowels that raise the prints from the backboard and offer a sense of three-dimensionality.
The presentation of the Composites was unique, but the photographs maintained Metzker’s long-standing interest in the quotidian subject matter of his previous street photographs. The prints are populated with passersby or architectural scenes and, when viewed from afar, confront viewers with a compelling mass of abstracted shapes and patterns. Often presented in a grid form, which suggests a high degree of control in design and assembly, the works betray the significant role of chance in capturing a swell of people moving from one space to another or the uninhibited facial expressions of subjects caught unaware. Upon close inspection the individual frames offer terse glimpses into private lives while at the same time creating relationships between complete strangers.
Employing multiple strategies, like using an entire roll of film as a single negative or combining multiple prints to create a single work, Metzker began to move away from the notion of photographs as handheld, intimate objects and instead created pieces that were made to “hold” the wall. In so doing, he was not only constructing visual patterns by carefully composing the placement of the various lines and shapes in each image, but also creating relationships between the various people he may have photographed at different times or even locations.
Metzker would often turn his camera toward structures cast in stark shadow that presented a wide range of graphic possibilities when the image was multiplied. Static architectural subjects like parking garages or the façade of a building would be assembled into strips of prints to create fluid patterns with looser lines and a more pronounced sense of rhythm. The juxtaposition of a static concrete parking structure with the playful lines in a work like Parking Pavilion reveals a truly photographic sense of humor.
The visual language of the various Composites is generally quite similar, in that the subject is initially somewhat obscured or abstracted when viewed from afar and then becomes crisp and clear when viewed upon closer inspection. In focusing solely on a figure for Nude Composite in 1966, Metzker made yet another shift in his practice. While his previous Composite works were created from pictures he made while walking along the street, this work is entirely focused on the figure, with no surrounding architectural details as distraction. In fact, the background has been rendered in such a bright white tone that at first glance the figure more easily resembles a silhouette made with ink than a photograph. This piece teeters between legibility and abstraction perhaps more convincingly than his earlier works, and as a result presents an exciting moment in the history of photography.
On October 25, 1967, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a small exhibition of Metzker’s Composite works in which the wall label described Metzker’s practice as consisting “not of a preserved moment but of assembled related moments presented for simultaneous viewing.” This idea of simultaneous viewing is perhaps the most appropriate summation of the Composites series, because it places the task of unraveling a complex image in the hands of the viewer.