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Posted October 10, 2014 in News Articles

Ray K. Metzker, Art Photographer, Dies at 83

Author: Douglas Martin

Ray K. Metzker, a modernist photographer who called himself "an intellectual wanderer" and proved it over six decades of audacious experiment - he sometimes overlapped exposures to make a single picture from a roll of film - died on Thursday in Philadelphia. He was 83.

Laurence Miller, a Manhattan gallery owner who is now showing a retrospective exhibition of Mr. Metzker's work, announced the death.

"He wasn't just trying to be different," Mr. Miller said in an interview on Friday. "He was terrifically different. He was never satisfied with simplicity."

Mr. Metzker captured scenes from gritty city streets, sunlit beaches, the Southwestern desert and idyllic rural landscapes in black and white. In the darkroom, he manipulated light to create effects that ranged from eye-catchingly stark to soothingly gentle to perplexingly peculiar. One of his techniques was to hold up white cards or other objects in front of the camera to disrupt real-world scenes into bold abstractions.

He once said his goal was "a unique way of seeing," one in which "new eyes replaced the old." To critics, it was a goal achieved.

"Throughout his career, Metzker constructed images that push viewers to scrutinize and decipher their way to a moment of discovery," Alice Thorson wrote in The Kansas City Star in 2011.

Mr. Metzker's "composite" compositions from the 1950s and '60s - in which he combined, repeated and superimposed frames of a roll of film to create a picture - were an "exquisite puzzlement," Margarett Loke wrote in The New York Times in 1999.

Richard B. Woodward, writing in The Wall Street Journal in 2013, said Mr. Metzker's composites belong "among the glories of postwar American art," adding that they "may pack more energy, suavity and pizazz into each square inch than any works their size."

Mr. Metzker loved trying new perspectives, Mr. Miller said, which often prompted critics to say of a new approach, "Ray doesn't look like Ray." One example was his shift from densely shadowed, angst-ridden urban environments to sunshine and trees in the '80s and '90s. He then returned to shooting the streets of Philadelphia, where he lived, but in a more playful, lyrical manner.

"Everything led to another thing, led to another thing, led to another thing," Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Metzker had more than 50 one-man exhibitions, and his work is in more than 45 collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Museum of American Art in Washington and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Ray Krueger Metzker was born in Milwaukee on Sept. 10, 1931. He grew up loving classical music, history and drawing. But photography became his passion after his mother gave him his first camera when he was 12. He began developing prints in his bedroom, studied photographs in Life and Look magazines and won high school competitions sponsored by Eastman Kodak.

His sister had cerebral palsy, and he believed that this affected the dark attitude of some of his early urban photos. He once wrote: "It was a difficult situation for anybody to surmount. Clouded with fear and despair, the problem had no solution. It was not the battle of life, but the wait of an unending night."

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Mr. Metzker graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin with a fine arts degree in 1953. He was then drafted into the Army and stationed in Korea, where he taught photography and music appreciation. After his honorable discharge in 1956, he went to the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and studied there with the eminent modernist photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. He earned a master's degree in 1959.

The series of pictures of Chicago's downtown that constituted his master's thesis caught the eye of Edward Steichen, then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who bought 10 of his photographs. The same year, Mr. Metzker's photographs were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He then traveled around Europe for a year and a half, taking, developing and selling pictures. After that he moved to Philadelphia, where he taught and was chairman of the photography and film department of the Philadelphia College of Art, now part of the University of the Arts.

He took evocative city shots in Philadelphia, as he had in Chicago. One showed a darkened building filling most of the frame, providing a hulking backdrop to a tiny car. He began his "composites" technique in Philadelphia around 1964 and continued it for 20 years.

In the late '60s, he prowled Atlantic City beaches, concentrating on the patterns of light penetrating the boardwalk in one series. In the second half of the '70s, he concentrated on what he called "Pictus Interruptus," photographs in which objects close to the camera lens obscured the distant view. This technique, which created tension between sharp and out-of-focus forms, was often compared to surrealism.

In the early '80s, he returned to taking city pictures, then switched to luminous rural landscapes. For the last decade of his life, he mainly photographed Philadelphia.

Mr. Metzker received two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and two from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is survived by his wife, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, a photographer, and his brother, Carl.

"Photographers are victims of paradox," Mr. Metzker once said, "tracking the impermanent to make it permanent."

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