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Remembering Ray Metzker Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

10 October 2014

The word most often used to describe Ray Metzker is "quiet." His work, however, is anything but. It draws you in with its chiaroscuro tonality but holds you with its human drama.

Metzker, who was born in 1931, passed away after a long illness Thursday in Philadelphia, where he had lived since 1962. He was 83.

Describing what subjects interested him as a photographer, Metzker said:

I never wanted to make portraits -- to photograph celebrities, beautiful people, beautiful landscapes, beautiful buildings, or people in distressing situations. I have always been interested in everyman -- average, ordinary people in everyday situations.

And that, indeed, is what holds you when you look at his images.

But you are first drawn to them by their graphic power. Metzker experimented with cropping, multiple exposures, high contrast, unusual juxtapositions and other formal qualities throughout his career.

He redefined the language of the photograph, an achievement that advanced photography as an art as much as the work of the Pictorialists and Group f/64 had before him.

'Why one picture stands out among many others is always a mystery.'

His innovative black and white work of the 1950s and 1960s was unusually dramatic, boldly capturing cityscapes of Chicago where he attended the Institute of Design and studied under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind.

In the mid 1960s through the mid 1980s, he developed his Composites series, in which every frame of a roll of film was used to create a single storyboard image, and his Pictus Interruptus series, in which the scene was partially obscured by objects he held in front of the lens.

He spent the last three decades of his career photographing cityscapes, particularly of Philadelphia, which were perhaps even more poetic than his earlier Chicago cityscapes.

"I don't need exotic places to be stimulated," he said. "Out of familiarity comes nuance. The more you revisit a subject the more you're likely to discover."

His early cityscapes were made with a 4x5 view camera and a 35mm camera. But he used whatever gear served his purpose.

Writing about two beach images he had paired, he said, "With both, my camera was an Olympus half-frame, a small amateurish piece of equipment that let me move about freely. The choice of the camera was essential to the development of the series."

Last year the Getty Museum exhibited The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design. The Web page for the exhibit, which neatly outlines his career, includes a number of his stunning images along with audio appreciations by the curators.

His work was most recently published in The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker.

Reflecting on the art of photography, he once said:

Why one picture stands out among many others is always a mystery. In the beginning the subject is never quite known, but in the course of working something shows up on the film or in the print that speaks to me. I can never predict when this will happen. However, when it does there is an excitement -- there is the ecstasy of recognition. And this is one of the things that keeps me going.

We are fortunate that the work of this quiet man will continue to resonate throughout the history of photography.

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