Ray K. Metzker quietly made extraordinary and influential photographs over the course of a five decade career. Today, he is recognized as one of the great masters of American photography, a virtuoso who pursued his chosen medium passionately throughout the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
Metzker was born in 1931 in Milwaukee and attended the Institute of Design, Chicago--a renowned school that had a few years earlier been dubbed the New Bauhaus-- from 1956 to 1959. He was thus an heir to the avant-garde photography that had developed in Europe in the 1920's. Early in his career, his work was marked by unusual intensity. Composites, multiple-exposure, superimposition of negatives, juxtapositions of two images, solarization and other formal means were part and parcel of his vocabulary. He was committed to discovering the potential of black and white photography during the shooting and the printing, and has shown consummate skill in each stage of the photographic process. Ray Metzker's unique and continually evolving mastery of light, shadow, and line transform the ordinary into a realm of pure visual delight.
Major American museums began showing an interest in Metzker's work in the 1960's. Cementing his reputation as a master photographer, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him his first one-man show in 1967. Retrospectives were organized in 1978 by the International Center of Photography in New York, and in 1984 by the Museum of fine Arts in Houston. The Houston exhibit was subsequently shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, the International Museum of Photography, Rochester, and the National Museum of American Art, Washington, DC.
In 2011, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City organized a major retrospective of Metzker's work that travelled to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Henry Art Museum in Seattle.
Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins describes Metzker’s work as the “very best of a classic form of American modernism” that “transcended any simple notion of technical experimentation or formalism to illuminate a vastly larger human realm.”
Ray Metzker died in October 2014 at 83 in Philadelphia, a city he had made his home and frequent subject since 1962.