Ray K. Metzker, 1931–2014
Written by Keith F. Davis
Photographs by Rachael Jane
After a long illness, the great photographer Ray K. Metzker died on October 9th, 2014. He will be dearly missed by his family, friends, and many others in the world of photography.
I treasure the time I was able to spend with Ray over the years. I first met him in the early 1980s, after Harry Callahan encouraged me to contact him. I had already been a fan of Ray’s work for at least a decade, and had begun adding his prints to the Hallmark Photographic Collection. At this time he was living in a wonderful space: a renovated nineteenth-century firehouse in an old area of Philadelphia.
Our visit that afternoon was relatively brief, but fascinating. Ray was not excessively outgoing; he always had a good deal of Midwestern reserve. He spoke quietly and carefully: everything he said—and did—was deeply considered and deliberate. And of course, his working space was beautifully organized. As we climbed the stairs of the old firehouse, I remember passing one level with a well-equipped wood shop. When I asked what use that served, Ray told me that he made his own frames. As simple as that idea might have been, I remember being surprised—and impressed. I had never heard a photographer say that before, and it made me realize that Ray put far more than "average" thought and effort into what he did. I got the unmistakable idea that everything about his photography mattered to him: there were no shortcuts.
It was clear that everything in Ray’s meticulously organized space served his process of art making. He was completely devoted to an artistic life. This was not a matter of any superficial “lifestyle”—it was an all-encompassing commitment. This, in turn, stemmed from an unwavering enthusiasm for the process of photography and a deep faith in the validity of his effort. As quiet as he typically was, Ray had an iron will and a profound belief in the significance of what he was doing. As a result, he had arranged his life in order to pare away all but the bare minimum of real-world distractions.
After seeing him several times in subsequent years, my contact became more regular after about 2007 as I began exploring the possibility of a major acquisition and show. As a result, I made four or five in-depth studio visits to look at work and to talk. Usually, I was accompanied by his dealer, Laurence Miller, who knew the work only slightly less well than Ray himself. Larry had shown Ray’s pictures during their mutual years at Light Gallery in the late 1970s, and became his primary dealer in the early 1980s. It was a partnership of enormous mutual respect and support.
On the first of these extended visits, I realized that I had only presumed to know Metzker’s work. The quality and range of what I saw was genuinely amazing. Organized in boxes by date and project, the prints were a revelation. Ray was definitely “old school” in his printing, and he was a true master. His prints had an amazing life and presence. He could use the extremes of the tonal scale—from deep black to gleaming white—like no one else. The prints tended to be small in size—many of them were on 8x10 or 11x14-inch paper—but they had more visual impact than vastly larger prints by most other photographers. They exuded intentionality, care, and integrity. Metzker never released prints that were mere approximations of what he wanted to say. The placement of tones, the overall quality of light, and the formal structure of the image were all precisely determined. Metzker wanted his viewers to look long and seriously at his prints—and so he worked hard to make every one worthy of that attention.
In addition to their physical quality, the sheer range of what I saw was stunning. For every picture I knew, there were dozens that were completely new. There was some difference, of course, between the best-known images and some of the unknown ones—famous pictures do not become famous for entirely arbitrary reasons. That said, the overall level of quality was staggering—one box after another was full of fascinating and exquisite photographs. Some of these were variants of better-known images, revealing Metzker’s process of working up to and around a given subject. In other cases, entire boxes of pictures were new—complete projects or thematic pursuits that had gone unmentioned in any of his several monographs.
The sheer variety of work made me consider the relationship between Ray’s “place” in photo-history and the reality of his working method. It is probably safe to say that he is best known for his Composites of the mid-1960s, with his early Chicago and Philadelphia pictures, his double-frame works, his Sand Creatures series, his 1980s City Whispers, his landscapes, and his Pictus Interruptus works bringing progressively less recognition.
While understandable, this limited familiarity obscures the true genius of Metzker’s process: his endless curiosity, his willingness to take risks and to change, and the sheer breadth of his creative interests. From his boldly graphic city pictures, to the geometric tapestry of the Composites, to the delicacy of his landscapes, to the optical abstraction of the Pictus work, Metzker was engaged in a relentless quest to see how the photograph worked, and to challenge himself over and over to discover new ways of seeing. While the means of photography mattered a great deal to him, he was also deeply attentive to subject matter—he cared, in some real way, about the people and places he photographed. They were special because they were his: they were part of his world, and thus of his identity.
Metzker was a humanist, but not a sentimentalist. He had a real feeling for the lonely figures he photographed on the streets of Philadelphia and Chicago. But he did not pity them—he gave them a fundamental human respect, and he saw something of himself in all of them. In a slightly different way, he also loved the cars and buildings he recorded—as well as the basic beauty of light and shadow. That is, he accepted the reality of the world around him, recognizing that it held all kinds of treasures and revelations. The transformative power of his images is a product of his surgically precise vision—his ability to find, to isolate, and to magnify very particular facets of experience. He is the great visual poet of Philadelphia. That is not a subject that most photographers would instinctively think to claim, and yet consider what Metzker was able to do with it! He created an amazing visual world that was entirely his—because his dedication to seeing it was like no one else’s.
While Ray was a “formal” master, the emotion of his work has been less widely acknowledged. In a broad way, the tenor of his pictures was a reflection of his inner, emotional state. His shadowy “City Whispers” work of the early 1980s, for example, was produced in a period of unusual moodiness and emotional darkness—a time pervaded by a sense of melancholy and mortality. It is also significant that the open, light, and vibrant landscapes of the mid-1980s were made when he was falling in love with his soulmate and future wife, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen. All of Metzker’s pictures have this duality: they record some facet of real perceptual experience, while suggesting the photographer’s state of mind.
It is important to note that, for all of his seriousness, Ray had a great sense of humor. He loved to laugh, and even to be silly. In this regard, the wonderful names he gave to some of his images or series—“Spring Tingle,” “Glo Man Glo,” “Flickety Oops”, “Hula Cola,” “Pictus Interruptus,” and “The Whimsies”—reveal an important side of the man. Just as he loved music, he loved the playful sound of particular words and phrases.
My visits resulted in my museum’s project, “The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker.” We presented our exhibition in 2011 (and a book of the same title came out in 2012). At the time of our show, we had Ray and Ruth out to Kansas City. Ray and I did a public conversation in front of a near standing-room-only crowd in our main auditorium. Ray’s energy had been somewhat up-and-down in the preceding months, but he was totally “on” that day. He was thoughtful, witty, clear, and inspiring. It was an honor to be with him on stage for that hour. We could never have guessed it, of course, but this turned out to be his last major public appearance.
Ray is one of the giants of modern photography. He was never a critical “flavor of the month,” but that is fine. What he leaves is a true artistic monument: a body of work of genuinely lasting importance. I got the sense over the years that Ray never wanted to waste a minute: he knew what his life was about and he got on with it with a passion that was renewed every day, day after day. He certainly appreciated the attention he received, when curators and writers like William Ewing, Anne W. Tucker, Richard Woodward, or Evan Turner undertook important projects. However, in the end, the motivation for what he did was self-generated. The work expressed—and satisfied—an internal sense of curiosity and intellectual adventure. Until very near the end, he was always looking forward—always on the hunt for the next good picture, the next visual discovery.
In truth, Ray was always ahead of his audience. To everyone other than him, every body of work was a surprise and, to be honest, a bit of a puzzlement—until, with the passing of a few years, the beauty and the logic of each project would become clear.
With his passing, Ray is giving us all a chance to catch up.
Keith F. Davis is Senior Curator of Photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author/editor of The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker (2012, no longer in print).
Rachael Jane is an editorial, portrait, and wedding photographer in Kansas City.
TOP extends grateful thanks to Keith and Rachael for this post.
Text © 2014 by Keith F. Davis, photographs © 2014 by Rachael Jane, all rights reserved
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