The Photographs of Ray Metzker and the Institute of Design

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You should see Chicago the way that Ray Metzker did in the 1950's. His black and white photographs capture the energy, the architecture, the cars, the people with a razzle dazzle confidence. Metzker was a graduate student at Institute of Design there from 1956 to 1959, when it was the preeminent photography program in the country. The exhibition at the Getty, The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute of Design, organized by Virginia Heckert and Arpad Kovacs, curators at the Getty, with Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City continues through February 24, 2013.

Ray K. Metzker: City Whispers, Los Angeles, negative 1981; print 2006
Gelatin silver print print
Image: 26.8 x 41.4 cm (10 9/16 x 16 5/16 in)
Sheet: 40.6 x 60.8 cm (16 x 20 in)
© Ray K. Metzker
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation


It had opened in 1937 as the New Bauhaus, under the leadership of László Moholy-Nagy, after the Nazis forced the closure of the German Bauhaus in 1933. That school had been radical in its integration of art, architecture and design and the incorporation of photography. Those ideals continued at the ID, as it was later named, after Moholy-Nagy's death in 1946. A four year photography program was introduced with Harry Callahan as instructor, who then hired Aaron Siskind. These two great photographers created photographs of patterns, textures and forms that were entirely abstract, much like the advanced painting of their time though Callahan's portraits of his wife Eleanor and Siskind's photographs of divers isolated against the sky are equally compelling. 

Harry Callahan: Eleanor, Chicago, 1952
Gelatin silver print 10.2 x 12.7 cm (4 x 5 in)
© Estate of Harry Callahan
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Metzker was their willing student and took some of their ideas even further. He photographed the Chicago Loop as towering planes of dark patterns broken by rays of white light. The high contrast prints elevate the suggestion of drama with high rises, signs, reflections and patterns. Many used the technique of multiple exposure. Ten were purchased for the Museum of Modern Art by Edward Steichen!

Ray K. Metzker: Chicago, negative 1959; print 1989
Gelatin silver print print
Image: 25.7 x 25.2 cm (10 1/8 x 9 15/16 in.) Sheet: 52.7 x 42.5 cm (20 3/4 x 16 3/4 in.)
© Ray K. Metzker
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc

After living in Europe to photograph for almost two years, he returned and started teaching at Philadelphia College of Art in 1962, where he remained for 20 years. This traditional curriculum spurred his rebellious nature to take on more unconventional photographic techniques.   Specifically Composites, born of his boredom with a single image. He made gridded fields of images and he combined images onto a single negative, what he called a double frame picture. Portions of adjacent frames of 35 mm film were printed together to create a new image of slightly overlapping exposures. Composites are just that, multiple arrangements of an image appearing to change over time while not actually moving. Inspired by Eadweard Muybridge's photographic studies of movement, they were the largest and most experimental photographs of their time, the mid-60s. Inspired in part by kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, they are assembled, print by print, strip by strip, in way that is almost invisible.


Ray K. Metzker: City Whispers, Philadelphia, 1983
Gelatin silver print
Image: 24.5 x 24 cm (9 5/8 x 9 7/16 in)
Sheet: 35.6 x 27.9 cm (14 x 11 in)
© Ray K. Metzker
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Metzker went on to spend time in New Mexico, where the penetrating light led to pictures of shadows, walls, abstract forms and Atlantic City, where he captured the barely clothed figures at the beach. He then married photographer Ruth Thorne-Thomson and spent time in Italy where his work softened, and he photographed landscapes that recall those of his great teacher Harry Callahan.

Ray K. Metzker: Atlantic City, negative 1966; print 2003
Gelatin silver print print
Image: 20.3 x 20.3 cm (8 x 8 in.) Sheet: 35.6 x 27.9 cm (14 x 11 in.)
© Ray K. Metzker
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation

This exhibition may be focused on Metzker but includes a generous and rewarding selection of prints by Callahan and Siskind as well as photographs by other teachers and students at the ID. This slice of modern American photography is overflowing with great images but also offers a fresh view of the history. For more information, go to