May 31, 2012

Getty Presents the Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design

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Alexandria Sivak
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Exhibition offers overview of Metzker’s long career and includes inventive photographs by Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and others at Chicago’s Institute of Design



City Whispers, Philadelphia, 1983. Ray K. Metzker (American, born 1931).
Gelatin silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. © Ray K. Metzker


LOS ANGELES—Ray K. Metzker (American, born 1931) is one of the most dedicated and influential American photographers of the last half century. His photographs strike a distinctive balance between formal brilliance, optical innovation, and a deep human regard for the objective world. The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design, on view at the Getty Center September 25, 2012–February 24, 2013, offers a comprehensive overview of Metzker’s five-decade career, while also providing examples of work by instructors and fellow students at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where Metzker studied from 1956 to 1959.

Organized in collaboration with Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, MO, the exhibition is curated by Virginia Heckert, curator of photographs, and Arpad Kovacs, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition features nearly 200 photographs, including approximately 80 from the holdings of The Nelson-Atkins Museum.

The Institute of Design

Revered for an energetic atmosphere of experimentation, Chicago’s Institute of Design (I.D.) opened in the fall of 1937 under the name New Bauhaus, with avant-garde artist and educator László Moholy-Nagy at the helm. Modeled after the German Bauhaus (1919–1933), the school’s program integrated art, architecture and design, with photography quickly becoming an integral component of the curriculum. The I.D. was noted for creating an environment of inquisitiveness, investigation and individual style that attracted a number of well-known artists and designers.

Ray K. Metzker

At once dynamic and composed, Metzker’s luminous black-and-white photographs feature subjects ranging from urban cityscapes to nature, all demonstrating the inventive potential of the photographic process. While a student at the I.D., Metzker was mentored by renowned photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. His curiosity led to experiments with high contrast, selective focus, and multiple images.

Metzker’s thesis project for the I.D., a study of Chicago’s business district, or Loop, displayed many of these techniques. One image, a multiple exposure of commuters ascending a sun-bathed staircase, prefigures the novel Composites that he began to make in 1964. Whether documenting everyday life in an urban environment or exploring the natural landscapes, Metzker’s photographs often incorporate elements of abstraction. A longtime resident of Philadelphia, Metzker taught at the Philadelphia College of Art for many years. His frequent focus on Philadelphia and other cityscapes has yielded iconic images of automobiles, commuters, consumers, streets, sidewalks, and architectural facades.

"Metzker’s love of the photographic process has produced a rich body of work that suggests a vulnerability underlying the human condition," explains Virginia Heckert, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "With highlights and shadows pushed to extremes and multiple frames combined in innovative ways, his photographs create a graceful choreography of human interaction against urban and natural settings."

Metzker titles and groups his images based on their location or technique. The exhibition features Metzker’s most significant bodies of work, including Chicago (1956–59), Europe (1960–61), Early Philadelphia (1961–64), Double Frames and Couplets (1964–69), Composites (1964–84), Sand Creatures (1968–77), Pictus Interruptus (1971–80), City Whispers (1980–83), Landscapes (1985–96), and Late Philadelphia (1996–2010).

Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind

In 1946, the year of Moholy-Nagy’s sudden death, the I.D. introduced a new four-year photography program and welcomed instructor Harry Callahan. Callahan was instrumental in hiring Aaron Siskind in 1951, and together they became a formidable teaching duo. Their work will be featured in two galleries within the exhibition, with a focus on photographs they created while at the I.D.

Harry Callahan’s work benefitted greatly from the attitude of experimentation that was a hallmark of the I.D., and his time at the school marked a particularly productive period in his own career. Architectural details, views of nature and intimate photographs of his wife Eleanor and daughter Barbara became subjects that defined his career. A central tenet of his teaching was to return to previously explored subjects, an approach that he himself practiced, as did Metzker.

Influenced by the Abstract Expressionist painters he befriended in the 1940s, Aaron Siskind’s work features abstracted textures and patterns excerpted from the real world. Often calligraphic in form, the urban facades, graffiti, stains and debris he photographed capitalize on the flatness of the picture plane. In Pleasures and Terrors of Levitation, his studies of male divers against a blank sky experiments with the figure-ground relationship.

"Callahan and Siskind had vastly different visual styles and interests in subject matter," said Arpad Kovacs, assistant curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum. "However, both emphasized the expressive possibilities of the medium rather than the mechanics of producing a photograph. It was this shared interest in constantly challenging their students that came to define their influential presence at the I.D." 

Also featured in the exhibition is work by a number of founding I.D. photography instructors and those who taught in the years Metzker attended the school, including György Kepes, Nathan Lerner, Henry Holmes Smith, Arthur Siegel, Edmund Teske, Art Sinsabaugh, and Frederick Sommer. Another gallery is dedicated to the work of I.D. students Kenneth Josephson, Joseph Sterling, Joseph Jachna, and Charles Swedlund, all of whom, together with Metzker, were featured in a 1961 issue of Aperture magazine that extolled the virtues of the I.D.’s photography program.

The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design is organized in collaboration with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.  The J. Paul Getty Museum has added photographs from its own collection and other key loans to those on loan from The Nelson-Atkins Museum. The exhibition will be accompanied by a publication about Metzker’s life and work by Keith F. Davis.  

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that includes the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, the Getty Conservation Institute, and the Getty Foundation. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations:  the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

The J. Paul Getty Museum collects in seven distinct areas, including Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings, drawings, manuscripts, sculpture and decorative arts, and photographs gathered internationally. The Museum’s mission is to make the collection meaningful and attractive to a broad audience by presenting and interpreting the works of art through educational programs, special exhibitions, publications, conservation, and research.

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