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Photo of the Week #110

Ray Metzker

Ray Metzker, Chicago, 1958

Ray Metzker, Chicago, 1958


October 12, 2020
In 1958 Ray Metzker was enrolled in the graduate photography program of the Institute of Design in Chicago. The school had been founded as “The New Bauhaus” in 1937 by László Moholy-Nagy, and the work that emerged from the program came to be seen as a direct descendent of European avant-garde photography. Certainly Metzker’s photography bears the stamp of European modernism’s rigor: while his photographs of the period were named for their location, The Loop in Chicago, they tended to be less a document of place and more an opportunity for formal invention.

What sets Metzker’s photographs apart from their European antecedents is a sense of heightened drama that was likely influenced as much by American cinema as European art photography. In what came to be known as the Film Noir movies of the 1940's the cinematographers used urban settings cast in dramatic light and shadow to convey a foreboding sense of the unknown. The films were produced as popular entertainment, but French critics would later celebrate the way they expressed the loss of American innocence amidst the second World War.
In Metzker’s writing he often referenced the idea of the “everyman” and his classic pictures frequently depict lone figures traversing the starkly lit streets. These figures also resemble the fedora wearing protagonists in Film Noir: normal people who become caught in an inexplicable web of intrigue - think Henry Fonda’s lead role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. Even though Metzker often shoots these figures at a remove, the assured way that he will depict a solitary person, illuminated as if by a stage light, makes clear that his concept is grounded in the American embrace of individualism.

There's a satisfying circularity at play here - the direction of American film was also influenced by European expat directors like Fritz Lang and, while the films they made were quintessentially American, it was European critics who hailed them as artistic achievements. This Möbius loop is further extended by Ray Metzker’s travels across Europe following his graduation from the ID, a long journey that yielded his maturation as an artist.

Jacob Cartwright