Ray K. Metzker isn’t a name in American photography that elicits instant recognition
But maybe he should be.
Metzker is primarily an urban photographer fascinated by city shadows, lights and infrastructure as they all intersect with fleeting human presence. Some of his most haunting shots are of single figures passing through geometries of urban light and shadow of which they’re unaware. Others use trick photography — multiple exposures, collage — to highlight the fuguelike complexity of urban landscapes.
Metzker’s longtime base is Philadelphia, a city that serves as his most important “muse” (though not his only one). And “The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker” — a five-decade overview of his career at the Henry Art Gallery — reveals that his often eccentric compositional eye has been in active play right from the start. The multiple exposures in “Chicago” (1957), for instance, pleasurably confuse points-of-view in a print that bristles with urban energy. Are you looking up at the buildings? Down? In multiple directions at once? Are those fire escapes or scaffolding?
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The answers hardly matter. The vertigo-inducing powers of the image are more to the point.
Later experimental shots include his “Double Frame” series, where he uses factory silhouettes, traffic lights, telephone wires and hurrying pedestrians as raw materials for compound images that fancifully convey city essence while upending the laws of gravity.
Metzker doesn’t need collage techniques or multiple exposures, however, to achieve striking results. “Frankfurt” (1961) is simplicity itself: an overhead view of a kayaker — bright kayak, bright paddles, bright clothes, dark hair — floating on an ink-dark void of water.
Two similar studies of figures in a void are both titled “Philadelphia” and both date from 1963. One shows a lone sailor, shining in his naval whites, in what seems to be a waiting room composed entirely of shadow. The other is of an old bonneted woman in pale clothing climbing a staircase with suitcase in hand, again emerging from featureless darkness.
Metzker’s single-image works can also explore dramatic complexities. “Philadelphia” (1964) has one obvious protagonist: an older woman spot-lit by sunlight in a cafe window. But look more closely and you’ll see four more human presences in the image, creating a five-way drama of disconnection.
Elsewhere, Metzker has fun throwing curveballs at your eye by shifting a photograph’s focal point to its outer margins or mischievously decontextualizing a subject so that it takes a moment to register what you’re looking at. (A seeming abstract study of geometrical shapes, for instance, turns out to be a multistory parking lot — but it’s not until you spot the one car visible that you realize it.)
Again and again he’s drawn to the power of silhouette, using it in spooky film-noir fashion with a hatted male figure in an underground garage (in yet another 1963 shot titled “Philadelphia”) or employing it more selectively in “City Whispers: Philadelphia” (1980) where a woman strolling along a sidewalk is brightly sunlit, except for her face which, in a quirk of shadow play, is entirely blacked out.
In “Pictus Interruptus,” a series from the late 1970s and early 1980s, he actually inserts sheets of white paper into the frame, obscuring most of his ostensible subject matter — a building, a boardwalk — as if to prompt the viewer to deduce the whole image from what’s visible on its periphery.
Metzker entered a more “pastoral” phase in the late 1980s, with nature studies shot in Italy, France and Utah. But it’s surely cause for celebration that one of the most delightful images in the show dates from 2009 and finds him back on the streets of Philly. Titled “Autowackies: Philadelphia,” it’s a funhouse-mirror reflection of town houses off the gleaming windshield and hood of a parked car. Here’s a photographer who, in his 80s, is still having offbeat visual fun with his camera.
The Henry’s other offerings this fall are more dubious.
“David Hartt: Stray Light” (through Jan. 5, 2014) assembles one video and four huge color photographs of Chicago’s Johnson Publishing Company building, longtime home of Jet and Ebony magazines. The images are handsome enough — but an office is an office is an office.
Contending for the Emperor’s New Clothes Prize of the Year is Jason Dodge’s “What We Have Done.” It consists mostly of empty spaces, meant to convey the ephemeral nature of those who passed through them. “the living” is a (semi-cleaned up) area where farm animals were led into the Henry and then led out again. Some randomly scattered pillows that only acrobats and ornithologists have slept on are titled, respectively, “the acrobats are sleeping” and “the ornithologists are sleeping.” Two sets of two doors are titled “two doors, two doors.” What you see is what you get.
Haegue Yang’s “Anachronistic Layers of Dispersion” consists of an aerial arrangement of custom-made venetian blinds. You can debate whether this is art or interior design — but at least it’s pretty.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com