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How Ray Metzker re-framed the modern city

Ray Metzker’s film noir

An American photographer entranced by the modern city, Metzker devoted his career to changing how we see it

An American photographer entranced by the modern city, Metzker devoted his career to changing how we see it

Sarah Moroz | May 17th 2017

The city was his siren song. Over his 50-year career, American photographer Ray K. Metzker returned to the metropolis again and again, fascinated by the textures and shapes of the city streets – be they the zig-zags of fire escapes, the smooth metal surfaces of cars or the patterns he saw in the play of light and shadow. “Abstractions”, an exhibition at Les Douches la Galerie in Paris, focuses on his early work from the 1960s, during which he took photographs of Philadelphia, Chicago and several other cities. It reveals how he experimented with montage, intense contrast and multiple exposure in order to express his vision of the urban landscape, a place in which pedestrians – lonely silhouettes – meander through streets reduced to shapes and lines.

Metzker grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1930s and 1940s. His mother gave him his first camera when he was 12, and he began experimenting with a Kodak developing kit, combing Life and Look magazines for inspiration. He completed a fine-arts degree in 1953, then enrolled at the Institute of Design in Chicago. His teachers there didn’t just influence his style, which became simple and streamlined: as Metzker later put it, “They made photography a noble endeavour.”

“Philadelphia” (1965)

At the time, photography was starting to be regarded as a fine art, thanks in large part to “The Family of Man,” a groundbreaking exhibition staged in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Though Metzker was several years too late for “The Family of Man”, he still attracted the attention of the photographer who organised it, Edward Steichen, who bought ten of his prints in 1959. That same year, Metzker’s images were included in a group show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago; in 1967, MoMA gave him his first one-man exhibition there. Five years before, he moved to Philadelphia, where he taught photography at the Philadelphia College of Art for many years. The city became his home, and frequent subject, until he died in 2014.

For Metzker, photography was a calling, a way of life. He did not regard it as a profession; he never took on commercial work. It was a stance that gave him the freedom to experiment. This is how William Ewing, a curator who worked with Metzker, described him: “Rare is the photographer who can strike as skilful a balance between formal brilliance and a tender gaze for the world…as Metzker does.”


“Chicago” (1957)

This is an image that requires the viewer to play the part of detective. These vertiginous buildings seem like swaying cousins of the triangular Flat Iron building in New York, but how did Metzker produce those white criss-crosses, like rubbed-out tyre marks? Where do those wispy traces of “Post No Bills” signs come from? Laurence Miller, his New York gallerist, thinks Metzker exposed the same negative several times, rotating the camera like a kaleidoscope so that each time he took a new picture the vertical column of light on the left appeared in different places on the right. Miller believes he started experimenting with this technique as early as 1956, probably as an assignment from one of his professors at the Institute of Design. The result is a disorientating composition that conveys the experience of navigating a major city and decoding its chaotic signs.


“Chicago” (1958)

Metzker made this photograph using the same technique: he exposed one negative multiple times, capturing a building, a grating and some fire escapes. It’s an image that draws upon recognisable elements of the urban landscape but fits them together in unexpected ways, producing a cross-hatching that is as confusing as it is graphically pleasing. In the mid-1960s, according to Miller, Metzker turned this technique on its head: rather than exposing a frame multiple times, he began to think of the entire roll of film as one negative. He would print ten-inch sections of film onto long strips of photographic paper and mount these strips into rows forming what he called a “composite”.


“Philadelphia” (1962)

It is hard to determine what is depicted in this image, let alone how Metzker made it. Miller believes it’s a “straight” photograph, made without any camera or darkroom tricks. “Since the top windows look ‘normal’, I think what Ray saw was possibly a string of lights hung along the side of a building.” What the photograph really documents is less important than its symbolism: peer into the darkness and you’ll find flashes of illumination.


“Philadelphia” (1963)

An unorthodox subject for its time, this line run amok is not only a bold image but a wry rejoinder to the neat, straight lines that typically compose the modern cityscape. “The most striking aspect [of his work],” writes Anne Wilkes Tucker, a curator, “is the economy of the compositions. They reach a simplicity and directness that Metzker regards as a climax in his pursuit of minimal but evocative spaces.”


“Early Philadelphia” (1963)

Fluorescent lights loom over the silhouette of a man in a fedora hat. This is Metzker doing what he does best: strong lines and bold contrasts between light and dark. “There is the magic of forms and the mystery of our lives,” Metzker wrote in his notes in 1983. The film-noir vibe here seems less about louche goings-on in garages and more about the solitary experience of navigating the modern cityscape.


“Atlantic City” (1966)

In this image, from his series on Atlantic City, two figures walk through an underpass illuminated by shafts of light shining through slats in the boardwalk overhead. The light seems layered on top of the scene instead of being integral to it – but in fact this is another one of Metzker’s “straight” photos. He returned to this boardwalk several times to see where the shadows would fall at different times of day. When he took this picture, the camera’s depth of focus was greatly reduced, notes Miller, because of how dark it was – “which Ray used quite creatively by having the man in the background appear almost like ET”. He must have liked how the light reflected in the woman’s glasses echoed the beams of light raining down upon her.

Abstractions Les Douches la Galerie, until May 27th