Outside a relatively small circle, Ray Metzker does not seem to be well known or understood. I first saw his work in a booth at Paris Photo some years ago. He is truly one of the great users of light and deep shadow. A student of Harry Callahan in Chicago, Metzker went on to make some of the most graphic and in some ways lonely and sad cityscapes in modern photography.
A man who photographed in the streets of the big city, Metzker often worked among the skyscrapers of Philadelphia for great effect. Through experience, he learned where the light was at its most intense, and I get the impression that he would lay in wait for just the right person to enter the otherwise cold and clinical trap that he had set for them. Then in a tiny fraction of a second he would turn an otherwise normal day in Philadelphia into great art.
Ray Metzker made small photographs that lesser photographers would be tempted to blow up to enormous sizes. Yet Metzker seems to want to bring the viewer into a very close relationship with his work. My kind of photographer!
Virtually all of Metzker’s photographs are printed on 8 x 10 inch (20 cm x 25 cm) paper with fairly generous white boarders. The viewer, while getting in tight to properly view a Metzker photograph and enjoy the quality of the printing, is treated to subtle detail in what at first appears to be black fields, but turns out to be a cityscape of shapes in deep, deep shades of grey, interrupted by bright shards of white that strike the frame of a car, or the outline of an often solitary person.
In his more abstract work, simple lines created by a white center-line on a street, or the outline of a parking spot, are often the only elements of light in otherwise very dark fields. One might be excused for thinking of Pierre Soulage or an ink drawing by Chillida. A lot of shades of black and shards of white. Patterns of light and deep, deep shadow.
On a dark, dark grey field, a dirty glass bus-shelter presents a dull grey rectangle that is lit by a shard of pure white light, trapping a handful of soon-to-be bus riders. The rest of the small photograph is a barely visible cityscape of buildings and an empty steet and sidewalk. In another photograph, this time vertical, a white line on the road leads to what looks like a beam of light from a search helicopter. The narrow shaft of light seems to have fought its way through a forest of high-rise buildings, found in any downtown American city. The column of light forms an elegant continuation of the white line on the road that leads to its base and the woman standing there. Deceptively simple. Graphically beautiful.
One might argue that the strength of Metzker lies not in the photograph itself, but his deep understanding of how fields of dark and fields of white made from the sun’s strongest rays in early morning, or late afternoon, put together just so, can create a graphic whole, which is pleasing to the eye, superbly balanced and truly masterful.
Ray Metzker passed away at 83 in 2014. His work is so rich and timeless, that surely the viewers and collectors will be drawn to his superb body of work and will treasure it as a milestone in the simple use of light and shadow, of black and white. The photographers among us will honor the skill it takes to make deceptively simple, yet incredibly complicated photographs on a consistent basis.
Les Douches la Galerie is located in the 10th on 5, rue Legouvé. The Ray Metzker’s incredible work is on display until May 27th, 2017. If your travels bring you to Paris, there is no excuse not to visit.
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