Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ray K. Metzker: Light Lines

With two large career retrospective books on Ray K. Metzker on my shelf I was wondering if a third is necessary. What could be added to the collections found in Unknown Territory from the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (1985), or City Stills from Prestel (1999). This year Metzker enjoyed a retrospective at the Musee de l'Elysee in Lausanne and a huge catalog called Ray K. Metzker: Light Lines published on that occasion is just out from Steidl.

For more than 50 years, Metzker has bent the medium of photography to meet his curiosities. His many series of photographs usually depart from traditional individual picture making to take advantage of multiple frames, composites and printing techniques that produce puzzling and pleasing results. His is a concern for formalism tied to humanity which reinvents itself through his many working methods.

My initial interest in Metzker was due to an association I saw with his work to his teacher's, Harry Callahan. Both worked the streets of Chicago and both were drawn to the hard contrasts of brilliant direct sunlight and deep shadow. Both experimented with multiple exposure and found a lyrical quality in a strong concern for the formal elements and yet each seemed to be humanist to the core. Not taking anything from Callahan but Metzker in the end appealed to me more once I had acquired a copy of Unknown Territory. It seemed Metzker had learned the lessons from his master and taken them to new levels.

Getting beyond the confines of single images, Metzker's double and triple frame photographs string information along in panoramas dynamic in their design and content. Not a gimmick created without necessity, these are sound and irreducible images that create a dialogue between the disparate elements. His are often photographs that at once wish to be appear as one unified field of vision and at the same time bisect and divide inducing spacial confusion.

His Pictus Interruptus series is very adept at creating that confusion. Even with many viewings, figuring out what the image describes is a pleasurable chore to try to discern. In these Metzker breaks up sharply focused landscapes with unsharp slashes of white shapes close to the lens (white card? metal?) that disrupt the field of view and create unnatural puzzles that fit tightly together with surprising fluidity.

Many artists have resorted to altering their images when their 'straight' work is proven weak or derivative. Metzker however is of a rarer breed that has produced substantial amounts of work both ways. His street photographs from Philadelphia and Chicago are as carefully formed as his composites and each rewards the viewer with lasting strength.

Light Lines was edited and sequenced by William A. Ewing the director at the Musee de l'Elysee and it presents a chronologic walk through Metzker's life in photography. Even for those readers who are familiar with these bodies of work, this catalog is dense with more than 200 images, many of which are not represented in his other books. The quality of those reproductions is close to perfect. Since Metzker's work often relies on deep black tonalities, the printing has to be rich in order to represent the work well - this title does just that. Along with a very clean design and large trim size Light Lines is a hard book to resist. This work has finally been given the full attention it has long deserved.

Buy online at Steidlville