A Formalist with Heart: An Interview with Ray K. Metzker
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, December 1982 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Black-and-white photographer Ray K. Metzker (1931-1914) has spent over twenty years producing a varied body of black-and-white work ranging from single-negative prints to complex composites of up to four hundred images. Though his photographs have found an enthusiastic audience of art critics, curators, and the Guggenheim and NEA committees, they continue to bewilder a larger public. Far from regretting this, Metzker is pleased at having escaped the celebrity he feels has compromised many better-known photographers’ work
JB: Your studies with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at the Institute of Design in Chicago clearly played a major role in your development as an artist. How did you happen to find yourself at the Institute in the first place?
RKM: After I got out of the army, I was intent on continuing my education. I returned to Beloit, where I did my undergraduate work, for a post-graduate semester. But I had done photography in high school and college and just felt so close to it that I thought somewhere, somehow, I should try to expand it. Some people from the Institute came to Beloit to give a lecture. They raved about the program—said that serious, experienced photographers were teaching there, that they were the best, and I wouldn’t find anything like it anywhere else. So I went for a visit and met Siskind and Callahan. I was beginning to be open to doing things without knowing the outcome: putting myself in a position where I’d meet people of quality, letting my confidence build step by step until I knew that this was the right challenge, that something was going to happen.
JB: After meeting Siskind and Callahan, you sensed you were putting yourself…
RKM: …in very good hands.
JB: The first series of your photographs to attract serious critical attention was your thesis—the Chicago Loop series. How did that project come about?
RKM: All the things I had done up to that time were primarily on assignment in the photojournalistic area. So whether I was working on the high school newspaper or in the college PR department, people were telling me, “I want you to do this. I want you to do that.” It was assignment and business oriented.
JB: And you wanted to put more of your own preoccupations into your photography?
RKM: Yes. That’s a change that came about as a result of being at the Institute. When I went there, I continued to think in terms of photojournalism. Then I considered freelancing in the realm of annual reports and working with industry, but still with freedom to make my own decisions.
JB: What made you decide on the Chicago Loop series? I understand it began as a documentary and ended as a statement on photographic form.
RKM: My experience at the school began to open up all these possibilities—working with people and architecture, going in and exploring the unfamiliar. I wanted to do something that had scale to it. It just hit me one day—the idea of this territory that’s defined, physically, by the El tracks. Night and day activities. The buildings. Traffic. It’s a melting pot. It seemed to be a place where there was everything. It was a question of going in and seeing how I would respond. It’s so big that you really can’t control it. I don’t know that you ever get on top of it really.
JB: You don’t feel the series is complete?
RKM: No. In fact, I’m back in Chicago now teaching at Columbia College, and I’m still photographing the Loop. It’s never finished. It’s just that at some point you’re exhausted.
JB: Why did you decide to teach, as opposed to working in commercial photography?
RKM: I knew I wanted to concentrate on ideas of an exploratory nature, rather than service other people’s demands.
JB: Does working with students have any effect on your own work?
RKM: It intensifies my resolve.
JB: What do you mean?
RKM: Well, you watch your students responding vaguely, sliding over a point, and you know that you’ve got to work harder to clarify things to nail them down. Students in general aren’t very well focused. I can help them in this area.
JB: You’ve been credited as a pioneer of a new photographic vocabulary. Was that a conscious goal—using photography in new ways?
RKM: The real goal is the broadening and the deepening. When I apply that to myself, I’m a photographer. And when I’m working, it’s important that there’s some kind of growth and some kind of broadening of what I can relate to and how I can see things.
JB: You’re talking of photography as a personally motivated thing. But a photographer also has an audience to contend with. Do you consider your audience’s reaction to your work when you’re photographing?
RKM: There’s always an audience and an audience always has responses. For myself, I’m always curious how they’re going to respond, but there’s no way to determine it. I don’t work to evoke specific responses.
JB: Your work was once described as “even at its most accessible, difficult to understand.”
RKM: Yes, but is the responsibility on the work or on the viewer?
JB: How large is the audience that finds your work accessible?
RKM: Two. My mother and my dog. Seriously, it just isn’t a concern. What I believe in is that you follow your own course, based on your interests and beliefs. You don’t do this in isolation because you’re looking, reading, and hearing. That’s the basis of social intercourse. I think it’s basic that the individual wants to communicate, but I’m not acting with a special audience in mind. When I act, I’m synthesizing all that I take in with this flexible medium. Something results that you hope engenders discussion and debate. Many exhibitions seem to lose sight of that goal. They get involved in celebrity. They say, “Isn’t so and so terrific.” It becomes a flexing of muscles, showing off, a display of virtuosity. But it doesn’t prompt people to think. I believe the good show is one that stimulates people to think or to debate what’s going on. That’s difficult for many people because they want to be able to look, identify, categorize, judge, and move on.
JB: So, for viewers to be able to appreciate your photographs, they are going to have to give them some time and thought.
RKM: Yes. I want to build a body of work of which people can say, “Hey. This is something that demands attention. I can’t read it according to the last book I read or the last picture I saw. I have to, in a sense, decode it.”
JB: Your imagery is so varied, from the Loop series to your Pictus Interruptus series where you held objects in front of the lens to obscure parts of your subject, to the large multi-image composites. Have your concerns changed from series to series? Is each one a new statement and a new challenge to your viewers?
RKM: I think that after a while, when you deal with a body of work, you’re going to see some common denominators. The more one works, the more one is aware of the question: Is it really changing? Is each photograph something new, or is it simply another step in the process of clarifying those basic concerns? And it takes a while to understand just what those basic concerns are. I can’t state them clearly in words. That’s what all the work is about.
At this point photography dealer Laurence G. Miller, who is selling limited editions of Metzker’s work and who has been sitting in on the interview, joins in.
LGM: I think that one of the concerns people overlook is your tenderness and concern for humanity. Most people don’t see that because of the formalistic nature of your work. People associate coolness with formalism. There’s that formalistic resolve to your images, yet your preoccupation with small details reflects caring.
JB: Your photographs also reflect a rather impish sense of humor.
RKM: That’s right. They’re funny pictures. I may not make such an overt demonstration of it, but I think one of my deepest motivations is a desire to touch, to reach out. That, I think, is the basis for the sensuousness I strive for in a photograph. One wants to make—to touch the materials and see them come alive. That certainly belongs to the experience of the artist. You want to know the world you’re living in through very specific sensations. That seems to me fundamental to the act of making.
JB: How would you say your photography fits into the photographic “scene” in general? Do you ever feel you and other photographers have polar concerns?
RKM: I would sense that.
JB: Does that matter?
RKM: Every individual yearns for acceptance. That’s what communication is all about. But you also want to do what you feel is right. Of course it would be nice if someone else found it of value. I think that’s a dilemma for an artist. You want to follow your own course, but you would also like to have it validated.
JB: What happens when it isn’t validated? Have there been times when you’ve felt you were working in a vacuum?
RKM: I found that my multiple images weren’t really accepted when they first came out. Certainly not by photographers—they were the last ones to get excited about them. But that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I just felt that from what I was seeing in the nonphotographic world, my responses were valid. My world was based on general creative activity—what was going on in music, sculpture, painting, and dance.
JB: Do you think acceptance, both by viewers and your peers, can be debilitating to artistic growth?
RKM: This is the essential paradox of a contemporary artist’s life. I think it’s true that what’s initially sweet often turns out sour, and what’s difficult later has its reward. You arrive in terms of success, but then you’re stuck. You’ve lost your options. You have to be more sensitive to your public’s expectations. You watch photographers become famous. They build a body of work. They get, say, a two-year PR play—they get a show and maybe the New York times will discuss it, the photo magazines will discuss it, they get a Guggenheim and shows around the country. They get a taste of all that, and then it’s gone, and the photographer slips into obscurity. It’s unfair. It doesn’t contribute to serious work.
JB: So photographers really need a sense of their own destiny to keep doing original work these days.
RKM: Yes. I think of “acceptance” as having an audience that wants to share what I’ve experienced or seen. That calls for looking at work intelligently. Too often, images by well-known photographers are printed and reprinted, and too often the photographer loses interest and the image’s original intensity is no longer there. Or papers have changed. Some of the things belonged to the original image are gone. Say somebody made an 8×10 photograph that really took off. Once that has been acknowledged as a super image they, or their dealers, decide to go for an 11×14 or a 16×20 because it moves the print into a higher price category. But light, focus, and tone are distinct qualities that find a relationship in a given size. The critical collector or curator should also be making those distinctions.
LGM: Ansel Adams’s work is a good illustration of this. The prints he was making in the thirties were for the most part no larger than 4×5. They are these wonderful small pictures with a very specific idea behind them. Now, in today’s marketplace, Ansel is known for his big prints. They really have nothing to do with what he built his reputation on. The small prints are really his genius. The big reprints forty years later are different photographs. Some may argue they’re better, some may argue they’re worse. With Ray, we’re creating limited editions of his prints now because if he made them thirty years from now, they’d be different.
RKM: The point is that further down the road I would hope I’d be involved with something more contemporary, and I don’t want to interrupt my work and go back. Any given photograph is a telling image because you can see what my concerns were then.
LGM: In an important way, the limited edition philosophy protects the artist. Because if and when you become a celebrity in the marketplace, the orders for your work increase significantly, and you’re forced to start cranking them out. Not always, but certainly several major photographers have fallen into this trap. By limiting the edition, you provide a safeguard that every print is going to be very high quality. There will never be a compromise because of marketplace demand.
JB: What are you limiting editions to?
RKM: They’ll be varied. Some ten, some maybe as high as twenty-five.
LGM: But I think twenty-five will probably be the top limit. Each one will be just right; then Ray will go on to what’s next. Also, by limiting editions, it will make the work competitive in an investor’s market.
RKM: I don’t want this interpreted as just a device to make money. I simply resent the idea that photographers are defined by a few popular images when there are a lot of other images that show concerns that are just as valid. And in current gallery practice, buyers make their decision based on what they see on the gallery wall and how many red dots they see on a print, but that may not be what they get. We want to deal with people who come in, sit down, and spend time with the photographs—who want a comparative experience and come to their conclusions based on first-hand looking. I think this should make collecting photographs much more interesting.
LGM: Another thing. Many dealers insist that photography as a business, in this bear market, must now rely on the corporations. Well, if you go corporate, you’re going to forfeit the intimacy of small photographs. I’d rather find clients to appreciate them in their intended scale. To think bigger is better is to give in to the notion that you can’t make something intimate and wonderful and still get people to buy it.
JB: One final question, Ray. You’re known for your work in black-and-white, exclusively. Have you experimented with color at all?
RKM: Well, I can’t say that I never put a roll of color film in my camera. But I’ve never really been curious about color simply because I think the black-and-white work medium is unfathomable. I’m skeptical of people who work in more than one medium. I think that in a sense it’s showing off: “Look, I can go from one medium to another! I can do cinema! I can do this! I can do that!” It also has a tendency to lead you to the conclusion that you’ve done everything. Every day, I work in black-and-white, and I know I’ll never get to the bottom of it. If I had one hundred years, I don’t think I could exhaust the medium.
© 1982, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman