I have been looking at these photographs for over a month now. I’m not certain why but they draw me in and I keep coming back to them. They hold me. And by hold I’m thinking of what Roland Barthes may have been suggesting when, talking about another photograph, he says, “Bob Wilson holds me, but I cannot say why…” (1) That’s the exact feeling I get when I’m looking at these images Ray K. Metzker.
Inkjet reproductions rest on my bedside table. I have not known what to say about them or what exactly they might be saying to me. Something about extremes. Something about sidewalks and saturated shadows. Something about walking in, toward, and around. Something about fracturing, dancing apart, even. But there is also something about play, something wonderfully naïve about them, as if they were taken with the eye of a child. But there is more. After the child grows up he discovers the long-forgotten roll of film and develops it. But now, with more life behind him, the process of developing them results in something darker, heavier.
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It is more than just the way a child sees. It is the child’s imagination of space or the experience of space for the first time. With this there is the child’s fear of the unknown, but also that fascination that draws inward, into the darkness. This, more than any other reason, may be why they follow me into my dreams. They seem to coax this remembered strangeness out of the familiar, the magic of corners, the ways buildings come together in your field of vision, what the city does to the sky.
For his thesis at Chicago’s Institute of Design, Metzger took his camera into Chicago’s business district, the Loop. Perhaps this is why I sense a spirit of discovery in them, appearances, even apparitions. And then the further apparitions he added in the darkroom.
In the image, Chicago, for example, the city reveals something, something dead-like, on the ground. I’m not certain what. A fallen object? A paper airplane? Some random refuse? But I am drawn to it, down there at the bottom of the city in a shaft of light.
Like this object in the street, the photographs somehow seem almost accidental and found, though clearly a lot of intention went into them. They’ve been positioned through art and artifice—the processes of photography Metzker so exploited.
Take, for example, Atlantic City. We are told it is a gelatin silver print, 20.3 cm x 20.3 cm, but the image holds out the idea that it is somehow constructed, imagined, dreamt up by a creator, a manipulator of space, light, and time. It was not merely captured. Metzker was all of these things, because he fully utilized his agency in the process of photography. But, in this case, it is precisely what it was, wherever and whenever it was, when he took the photograph sometime in 1966. Or, rather what he found was the potential for that image in that space he chanced upon at the right time of day. Was the boy, or man, running through the dream image, staged? Or did that just happen like those sticks of light striking the ground and wall? The light and shadow, defining space, needed someone to pass through. The presence of a human in this space makes it all the more unreal and fantastic.
These photographs do not seem intended to be faithful reproductions of urban spaces. They aren’t necessarily capturing anything, but they say quite a bit about how one processes the world, if there is such a thing. Though Metzker is known for his experiments with composite images, there is something almost composite-like about his single shots. The photographer seems to have been playing with the city, the ways it propels people, blocks them, and liberates them.
In City Whispers: Philadelphia, the image seems to split in two from a tower of sunlight that erupts between two buildings. Here the world itself was caught in a moment of division, of pulling apart. Despite having crossed the threshold of shadow, the man’s face remains strangely illuminated, enhanced, almost. He seems distant from the woman. I get the immediate sense that they are not together, but then there is the possibility they were captured right at that instant of parting ways. She, bent within that brilliant tower of light, face hidden, striking her heels on the white hot concrete, seems more the representation of woman than an actual woman.
I find in these photographs what Barthes called the punctum. In his words, “a kind of subtle beyond—as if the image launched desire beyond what it permits us to see…” It is what we bring to the image that completes it, makes it speak.
The exhibition, The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design will be on view at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center, Los Angeles, September 25, 2012—February 24, 2013.
(1) Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill & Wang, p. 54. He was describing a photograph done by Robert Mapplethorpe. In the photograph, Bob Wilson and Philip Glass are sitting in wooden chairs in front of a white background, looking at the camera while they seem to be talking to each other.
(2) Ibid, p. 59.