The West Pavilion photography galleries of the Getty Center have for several years been the site of an annual visit hosted by Kodak for the Cinematography Fellows of the American Film Institute
At the behest of Stephen Lighthill, Senior Filmmaker-in-Residence at the AFI, and Lorette Bayle from Kodak, I’ve been able to conduct walkthroughs of some of the Getty’s most significant exhibitions. Last month, it was for a career retrospective of the work of Ray Metzker.
Metzker has never fit easily into any of the categories that define most contemporary photographers. Although he had an early interest in photojournalism, perhaps coming from his experience as a veteran in the Korean War, the empathic humanism of the “Family of Man” artists so popular during his student days in the mid and late 50s, never became his focus. Metzker enrolled in the graduate photography program at Chicago’s Institute of Design, a school that had been founded by the experimental artist/photographer László Moholy-Nagy in the late 30s as the New Bauhaus. Hungarian born, he taught at the Dessau Bauhaus before coming to Chicago where he died of leukemia in 1946.
The school became a locus for photography that focused on an experimental, formalist aesthetic. The same year as Moholy’s death, photographer Harry Callahan came to teach, joined by Aaron Siskind in 1950. These two highly personal artists informed much of Metzker’s photographic training. Callahan’s wife, Eleanor, was the subject of much of Callahan’s work, just as Edward Hopper’s wife Jo, had been for Hopper a generation earlier.
Siskind’s photographs presented an even more reductive, formalist aesthetic than his fellow teacher; many have deigned Siskind the “house photographer” of the Abstract-Expressionists. His images of graffiti, signage, poster fragments, even of peeling paint evoke resonance abstractions of that hard-living New York School. Separate galleries at the Getty exhibition are devoted to these two seminal figures. They adumbrate the shared formal concerns of Metzker’s work.
Chicago is the city most oft cited as the capital of great American architecture. The soaring, jutting lines of Chicago skyscrapers, the Loop, the El, and the piercing sun and deep shadows of the downtown streets afford an almost readymade canvas for Metzker’s art. If Ansel Adams is the definitive American landscape photographer of deep, rich chiaroscuro nature, Metzker’s urban landscapes are landscapes of stone and steel.
From the street images of his student thesis days in 1959, “My Camera and I in the Loop,” to his return after several decades of technical experimentation, to the hard-edged urban photography of his early years, Metzker has remained pre-eminently a flâneur of the city. He represents a fascinating antipode to the spontaneous urban photographs of Garry Winogrand, or even the more studied ones of Alexey Titarenko.
An unlikely but irresistible exhibition would be a gallery hung with checker-boarded images of these three artists of the street. It’s easy to imagine Winogrand shooting from the hip as he strolls down a NYC or LA street while Metzger plants himself at a location and waits for that moment when the slow procession of light and shadow intersects with a human caught in an ephemeral ray of sunlight.
It is evident that Metzger’s studies of urban chiaroscuro are not fortuitous. His patient eye is manifest in the work that the casual observer is most likely to know: a series of images shot from a single position, over a period of hours, recording the changing light and flow of human traffic—dozens of images composited on a single print, with minute variations apparent only on close scrutiny. It’s easy to think of the serial image lithographs of Warhol, a contemporary. But the time/motion studies of Eadward Muybridge are often cited as an influence as well.
Only recently has the Getty Department of Photography participated in co-sponsored, traveling exhibitions. The institution has one of the great photo collections in the world, begun in 1984 by Weston Naef, who left the Metropolitan Museum in New York to come to the Getty. The Metzker exhibition is done in conjunction with the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, which has 120 of Metzker’s images. Not only will the Getty continue to curate its own shows such as Naef’s valedictory (a comprehensive Carelton Watkins exhibition), but it will benefit from co-operation with other great collections.
Every year, I look forward to a walkthrough with the cinematography Fellows from the AFI. Usually we do it at the beginning of the fall term before they are absorbed with their own films. This year, I was in production on a movie in Brooklyn until late October, so we chose to spend an afternoon in early January studying Metzker as well as a smaller exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe in the smaller “In Focus” gallery next to the book kiosk. This pocket exhibition of several dozen Mapplethorpes spanning his career is curated by Getty staffer and my friend, Paul Martineau, who conducted a tour for the Fellows. Paul has recently curated the recent Herb Ritts retrospective. The inky blacks and burning, defined whites of Mapplethorpe’s nudes and flowers, different as these subjects are from Metzker’s urban street scenes, were a perfect segue for the AFI Fellows to move through the galleries and analyze Metzker’s aesthetic formalism.
The photos pictured here only represent a fragment of the artist’s subject matter. The more intricate composited pieces, incorporating dozens of images, do not reproduce well as a small image. Metzker has traveled widely throughout his career and a change of place has often precipitated a change in subject and technique. In France, he made vibrant, high key botanical studies with no apparent formal, compositional locus.
Some of Metzker’s quieter landscapes are even evocative of the albumen park scenes of the retiring Eugene Atget. You can also study dozens of Metzker’s photos on the web page of the Lawrence Miller Gallery. There are examples of his experimental work: the composites, double frames and couplets, as well as the landscapes:
As we were walking through the galleries studying Metzker's images, one of the AFI Fellows asked me to what degree I am influenced in my own work by museum and gallery exhibitions. I told her there’s usually not an obvious correlation for me when I am prepping or shooting a movie—but sometimes I realize afterwards that certain artist monograph exhibitions, especially career retrospectives, do inform me, even if on a subliminal level. A case in point was the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition I saw at the National Gallery before starting Silverado in late 1984. The connection there was obvious; the artist lived near Abiquiu, New Mexico, and we staged some scenes close to the nearby Ghost Ranch bluffs, one of her favorite subjects.
Although the character of light in Edward Hopper's paintings differed from what I was preparing, I had seen an exhibition of his work at the Whitney Museum shortly before beginning American Gigolo; I had also seen a deeply emotional retrospective of Mark Rothko at both the Guggenheim and a second time at LACMA, that caused me to reflect on the subtle sense of depth to be seen in the scumbled surface of non-representational abstract paintings. But the most intensely moving exhibition I have ever experienced was of Jean Tinguely’s kinetic sculptures in the Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Perhaps it was the cinematic, steampunk motion of the pieces with attached animal skull memento mori that so caught my breath.
But the point of this personal nostalgic reflection is only of the implications it may make for other cinematographers. Those of us who work in fiction, narrative films are servants of that movie’s dramatic structure. Cinematography is not an independent, personally expressive medium as it may be with photo-artists such as Metzker or with his teachers at the Institute of Design.
A roll call of major cinematographers from the studios’ golden era of the 30s-50s will still highlight individual styles even in that factory-like environment. The challenge for the cinematographer today, as then, is to serve the movie in the most immediate way, while employing a much greater “toolbox” than ever before, and while fending off the insistent temptations of becoming a gearhead. None of the cinematographers who influenced me were inclined to lose their way in the equipment. Some, such as Conrad Hall and Nestor Almendros, prided themselves on their indifference to technical gadgets and gargoyles.
Surrendering one’s self to the life work of any visual artist need not diminish your own creativity. I’ve often heard this caveat as if such an engaged study of other artists were a kind of virus sapping your creative juices. On the contrary, the single thought I and many of my cinematographer colleagues try to give to students, is to jump into the creative maelstroms around you and allow yourself to be swept away. You emerge clearer and stronger.