Ray K. Metzker

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In 1928, regarding photography, László Moholy-Nagy noted that "a small quantity of white is capable of keeping in balance by its activity large areas of the deepest black. . . .” A majority of the 190 photographic works by Ray K. Metzker in this retrospective exhibition, “Unknown Territory,” call to mind—so calculated are their extreme tonal contrasts—this principle of optical design. For example, in Europe: Frankfurt, Germany, 1961, the graphic legacy of Moholy and the Bauhaus (via the Institute of Design , Chicago) are emblematically present. From above—Moholy’s “bird’s eye view”—we are shown a flattened scene of light figure against dark ground. A canoeist holds a double-bladed paddle straight across his kayak, which fits like a narrow seed pod around his seated body; the shape of the boat becomes a finely pointed flame rising up from the bottom of the frame into the undifferentiated blackness of the water’s surface. The entire configuration—the luminous vertical kayak crossed horizontally by the even more brilliant paddle, and floating in an opaque pictorial space—represents flawless formal perfection. Platonic realism, it seems, ultimately plays host not to symbolic interpretation but to reified abstraction.

The exhibition’s title ostensibly refers to the relatively unknown status of Metzker’s voluminous production over 27 years. To its credit, “Unknown Territory” is both straightforward and definitive,a systematic organization of the work into ten thematically or structurally distinct series, plus “miscellanea.” Together, the exhibition and book-cum-catalogue of the same title—with an essay by curator Anne Wilkes Tucker and notations by Metzker—give textual logic to a body of work that otherwise tends to atomize within an esthetic vacuum.

Since the mid ’60s, Metzker has enjoyed a reputation among fellow photo-practitioners as an emancipator of the single, fixed-frame image and its autocratic proscriptions. He is also thought of as a master technician in the Modernist mode. All of this first became evident in his “Double Frame” ·series, 1964–66, for which Metzker printed sets of two negatives, nonsynchronous but contiguous, on the roll of film, as though they were a single double-sized frame. Significantly, the early unlabored and aleatoric percept ions of Double Frame: Wisconsin, 1964—two shadowy profiles conjoining totally discrepant fragments of landscapes—give way to synthetic collage effects in the later double frames. These tend instead toward a self-conscious gestalt of visual novelties.

The “Composites,” which begin at about the same time, are the most immediately imposing and perhaps the best known of Metzker’s photo series. In a virtuosic, systematic method of construction , Metzker doubles and redoubles image fragments in a process of pattern building, subjecting his source material to a radical reduction into positive and negative snippets which in turn are permuted into striking displays of purified formal elements. As a group the ”Composites" have an unresolved relation to certain debates contemporary to the work, for example that on the syntactical structure of the photographic surface. Composites: A Maze ’n Philadelphia, 1967/1984, and Composites: Spruce Street Boogie, Philadelphia, 1966/1981, although admittedly tours de force, are in the end exasperatingly impenetrable surfaces whose phenomenal basis has become one-dimensional under the weight of visual excess and formalist compulsion. There are moments, however, such as the complex rendering of time’s movement in Composites: Philadelphia, 1967 (Arches), or the delicate manipulations of perceptual information in Composites: Philadelphia, 1966 (Car and Street Lamp), that indicate a distinctive structuralist sensibility at work.

“Pictus Interruptus” (one of Metzker’s more revealing titles), 1976–80, is by far his most provocative undertaking. The series fixes on the disparity between the perceptual act of looking and the photographic act of showing, through a scheme whereby an out-of-focus “object” in the foreground interrupts—indeed, dominates—the visual field beyond. It is an obvious yet effective device to disorient the usually unconscious operation of focal accommodation and to destabilize the correspondence, usually taken for granted, between camera lens, human eye, and picture. It is also quite in line with Moholy’s notion that art affects consciousness through education of the unconscious. This is the series of work that most satisfies the implied promise of “Unknown Territory.”

Metzker’s recent series, “City Whispers,” 1980–83, by comparison, would appear to be the exact opposite: these photographs seem produced under the aegis of technical and conceptual predictability. They are a highly refined reenactment of his first major series, “The Loop,” 1957–58, and like that work represent a controlled exercise in penumbral street photography. In fact, the difference between the two series is one of increased management, not evolutionary vision, which leads one to suspect that all along Metzker has been performing his hermetic dance to the same old seductive tune of “photographic truth.”

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom