Ray K. Metzker: Urban Shadows

at Stephen Daiter, through June 3

John Davies

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through June 10

By Fred Camper

Photography can be divided into two branches: “straight” photography, which respects the integrity of the negative and the photographic process, and the more manipulated kind, which allows greater artistic freedom at the expense of a connection to reality. But Ray K. Metzker’s show of 34 prints at Stephen Daiter confounds this division. At times Metzker prints two negatives (or in a few cases many) together or places objects in front of the lens to echo urban forms with abstract shapes; but he also simply finds abstract forms in his many straight photographs. In his hands, photography is neither a documentary tool nor a medium to be bent to the artist’s will but a means of bringing out deeper truths.

Metzker’s photographs in this show are mostly of cities, among them Chicago (he attended the famed Institute of Design in the late 50s); Philadelphia, where he teaches and lives today; and New York. Urban life, his work seems to say, is far too fractured to present a unified view: his compositions aren’t organized around a single subject or even a single focus, nor do the different elements come together in a single gestalt.

One of three photos in the show titled Philadelphia, 1964 (number 15 on the checklist) has three main elements, none of which is dominant. In this “straight” photograph, a woman looks out from a first-floor window; below her on the building wall is the shadow of a man who hasn’t yet entered the frame; and to the left another woman stands in deep shadows in an entryway. No one looks at anyone else; each seems isolated and almost imprisoned by the architecture. Chicago, 1959 (number 14) shows several people on a sidewalk, among them a sailor at right looking down and a young man at the far left reading. Though half of them seem to be looking at one another, the empty space between the characters is just as prominent as their figures, and their facial expressions suggest disconnection and a loss of coherence.

Other photos appear to have been inspired by film noir, popular in Metzker’s youth. City Whispers: Chicago, 1981 shows two men backlit at the top of a long stairway and a third who’s just begun to descend. This foreboding scene is dark but contains some vivid details–the mottled texture of the wall illuminated by light from a doorway, for example. Here as elsewhere the rich tones of Metzker’s prints combine with visible fragments within the darkness to create blacks that are not at all flat abstractions but resonant with mysterious depths, inviting if not exactly welcoming.

Indeed, Metzker is a poet of shadows. Many more of his figures are seen nearly in silhouette than have visible facial expressions, but this seems less a sign of the dehumanizing influence of cities than a wish to encourage the viewer to imagine his subjects’ emotions, to suggest a story. City Whispers: Philadelphia, 1981 (number seven) gives us a street scene with the silhouettes of a young boy against a sunlit wall and a person who appears to have a box over his head. To the left, a man mostly in shadow has a bit of sunlight on his shoulder, and we can see the multiple tones his clothing acquires under different lights. Like so many other of Metzker’s details, this one seems of crucial importance: his articulation of grays reminds us of the richness of even those forms that are obscured, so that the viewer looking at shadows will imagine textures just as rich within them.

There’s more than just a desire to be mysterious behind Metzker’s use of darkness. Anne Wilkes Tucker in her book Unknown Territory: Photographs by Ray K. Metzker quotes him as saying: “In ‘City Whispers’ I want a deep space that overpowers the figure: worlds of voids.” His darkness hints at a profound emptiness, an unfathomable lack. The people in Chicago, 1959 aren’t isolated from one another because of any cultural failure but because that’s the nature of existence. Urban architecture is just a manifestation of an underlying emptiness.

In Metzker’s “Double Frame” pictures he simply prints two adjacent negatives on a roll together. Less manipulated than a photomontage, these prints arguably remain true to the process of photography if not to reality. But in his choice of images, Metzker often illuminates some truth about the world. Double Frame: Wisconsin, 1964 suggests a narrative. The left half shows a silhouetted head with a gas station in the background while the right shows a silhouetted man against a large body of sunlit water. Though the two men are different, the idea seems to be that gasoline allows you to escape the city. The way the two silhouettes meet at the center of the combined image, however, makes the scenes pivot around darkness, an unknown and unknowable human presence.

For the series “Pictus Interruptus” Metzker placed objects in the foreground of his cityscapes. Pictus Interruptus: New York City, 1978 shows a bulky dark building against a white sky, but much of the building is obscured by rectangular shapes so close to the lens they’re a bit out of focus–reminders that urban architecture and photography are both rectilinear, and possible references to the formal exercises at the Institute of Design. More than mere gestures, these foreground shapes seem the expressions of a fundamental condition: whatever object we choose to look at in effect obscures other forms, just as the background building blots out part of the sky.

Over 20 negatives are printed in an irregular grid in Chicago, 1959 (number 29), all apparently of the same stairway. Sometimes it’s empty, sometimes a lone person ascends it, sometimes it’s crowded. This might have become a mannered exercise in repetition, but the rigor of Metzker’s vision–he makes the stairway and figures nearly abstract forms of light and dark–turns this piece into a statement about urban space and time. Relentlessly vertical, alienated from the land, urban spaces emphasize movement and seem to alternate between overuse and emptiness.

The unmanipulated Washington, D.C., 1964 also reveals the verticality and isolation of cities, though no human figures are visible. On either side of a concrete post at the center are the floors of a multilevel parking garage. The tops of cars peek from each level, their empty windows resembling the inscrutable faces of Metzker’s shadowy figures, the concrete separating them from one another even more profoundly than darkness would have.

John Davies–a British photographer who lives in Wales–like Metzker sets up compositions full of contradictions and not easily unified; his 13 photos at the Museum of Contemporary Photography articulate fundamental truths about human modifications to the land. Davies even brings out the contrasts in the relatively harmonious setting of Arco, Italy (1998)–contrasts between the cultivated fields and the far less ordered forest, between the orderly roofs of houses and the wonderful texture of the rock faces behind them. As critic Rob Powell wrote, “While Davies’ story and style speak of the inter-relationship of things, their message is also one of disconnection, snapped continuities, of a narrative that has somehow come unstuck. For the Davies landscape is a fragmented, sliced, broken, often bizarre terrain, where the remnants of multiple constructions are simultaneously mutated by the present and haunted by the past.”

Towards Isles of Cies, Vigo (1992) is certainly fragmented, even bizarre. In the foreground is an outdoor swimming pool, in the background the sea, its rough water announcing that it’s the real thing. Heightening the feeling of the pool’s artificiality are its neat sides and noticeable elevation. Two distant figures play near the edge of the pool, faraway peaks are visible on the horizon, and to the left there’s a small island sporting what seems to be a gigantic luxury high-rise. Davies’s talent is to make the various human modifications to the landscape look incongruous not only with nature but with one another.

Barrage and Severn Estuary (1996) overlooks a harbor with a large freighter leaving it. One of the peninsulas forming the harbor entrance is likely artificial and appears to be still under construction–earthmovers are visible, and the surface looks like a construction site. Near the bottom of the frame, a lone fisherman wields his rod from a beach. This tiny figure–like the two boys in Towards Isles of Cies, Vigo–suggests both a remnant of human freedom and the incongruity of the human presence in these chaotic spaces. A tiny plume of smoke stands out against the horizon, both drawing attention away from the freighter and echoing its significance as a sign of industry. Indeed, most of these pictures have no single focal point; instead their splendid chaos illuminates the utter alienation between nature and humankind.

Perhaps the most dramatic image here is Apartments, Vigo, Spain (1992), which foregrounds our dependency on technology. Three ugly white apartment blocks face us, each with a large tower supporting power lines in front of it. The central tower is the biggest, dividing the frame in half; its power lines, like the others, move into the background, toward the apartment blocks. Less a central subject than an object that fractures the frame down the middle, it does lead the eye into the picture–toward buildings one would rather not look at.

The one picture here that does present a unified scene is Up Stream From Ponte Alle Grazie, Florence (1995). Appropriately, it was taken in the city where the Renaissance first emerged, and the landscape includes features unchanged since then. We see the placid Arno surrounded by buildings, which converge toward a vanishing point in the background. But the eye never reaches that vanishing point–it’s stopped by a small dam at the center. I took Davies’s composition as a gentle bit of ecological commentary: it seems that the origins of all our modifications to nature, and the chaos they’ve engendered, lie deep in the history of Western culture and art.