Chicago / Ray K. Metzker

Chicago, negative, 1958; printed later, Ray K. Metzker. Gelatin silver print, 5 3/4 x 8 3/4 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2009.6.15. © Ray K. Metzker

Ray K. Metzker is one of the most innovative photographers of the last half century, though he is not as well known as some of his contemporaries. The new exhibition The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design, organized with the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, sets out to change that. Featuring nearly 200 photographs, the show introduces us to five decades of Metzker’s career, from his beginnings at Chicago’s Institute of Design (ID) in the ‘50s to his recent work.

The exhibition places Metzker (born 1931) in context, presenting photographs by his mentors Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, plus other ID instructors such as György Kepes, Arthur Siegel, Frederick Sommer, and Art Sinsabaugh, and fellow ID students Kenneth Josephson, Joseph Sterling, Joseph Jachna, and Charles Swedlund.

“New Bauhaus” was the original name of the ID, which opened in the fall of 1937 with avant-garde artist and educator László Moholy-Nagy—a key figure of the original Bauhaus in Germany—at the helm. Just like the Bauhaus, the school’s program integrated art, architecture, and design, with photography an integral component of the curriculum.

Inspired by the ID’s atmosphere of inventiveness and investigation, Metzker began creating his luminous black-and-white photographs of Chicago as a graduate student in the late 1950s. His work expanded to include urban cityscapes, studies of nature (particularly trees), and the more experimental practice of printing adjacent or non-adjacent films of frame as a single image, which he called Couplets and Double Frames. His most ambitious and complex works are Composites, incorporating entire rolls of film into grids of photographs that deliver crisp, decorative passages when viewed up close and intricate, rhythmic patterns of light and dark when viewed from a distance. Metzker’s preference for unusual angles and deep contrasts is not only formally mesmerizing but also deeply evocative, suggesting the vulnerability and transience of all life.

Feste di Foglie: Italy / Ray K. Metzker

Feste di Foglie: Italy, Ray K. Metzker, 1985. Gelatin silver print, 13 5/8 x 13 3/8 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2009.6.57. © Ray K. Metzker

Couplets: Atlantic City / Ray K. Metzker

Couplets: Atlantic City, negative 1969; print 1984, Ray K. Metzker. Gelatin silver print, 9 x 6 1/8 in. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2009.6.41. © Ray K. Metzker

Metzker’s work is on view at the Center for Photographs through February 24. The exhibition is complemented by a range of programs, including a free lecture this Thursday by Keith Davis of the Nelson-Atkins, author of the new book accompanying the exhibition.