Issue #196  3/17/2013
Photo Books: Terry Evans, Ray Metzker Get Their Due; New Catalogues Reviewed

By Matt Damsker


Published to accompany an exhibition of the same name at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO. Hardbound; 220 pgs.; ISBN No. 978-0-300-19075-5.


Published to accompany an exhibition of the same name in modified form at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, through Feb 24, 2013, and at the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Sept. 22, 2013 through Jan. 24, 2014. Hardbound; 224 pgs.; ISBN No. 978-0-300-17105-1.

Both books published in 2012 by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and distributed by Yale University Press. Information: http://www.nelson-atkins.org and http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/browselist.asp?cat_id=1&subcat_id=20 .

These two stunning exhibit catalogues are the latest in a series based on the Hallmark Photographic Collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and each in its way pays tribute to the diversity and depth of the Hallmark holdings, which chronicle American photography at its highest--but not necessarily highest-profile--level. While both Terry Evans and Ray K. Metzker are widely esteemed, neither has quite achieved the ultimate recognition they deserve. Despite her 40 years of superb work, this exhibit is Evans's first true retrospective, while Metzker has always been more of an "artist's artist" than a "name," as curator Keith Davis of the Nelson-Atkins points out in his preface.

Let's hope all that changes as these two displays, and their accompanying books, reach the public over the next two years. To start with the Missouri-born Evans, her art studies at the University of Kansas in the 1960s led her to drawing at first, inspired by the Abstract Expressionists as well as by the flattened perspective of California painter Richard Diebenkorn. Turning to photography in the early 1970s, she transformed her youthful admiration of Robert Kennedy into strong documentary work, in black-and-white, of poverty in Kansas. Influenced by Dorothea Lange, Evans locates the depressiveness and dignity of her subjects, be they a shadowed blind girl leaning against a window frame, or parents with children in hardscrabble surroundings, but her effects are never forced, as an easy naturalism guides her lens.

This ease carries through expressively in Evans's other portraits of varied farmhands and Kansas folk, but by the late 1970s and early 1980s, the artist found her true métier, shifting stylistically to prairie images. She began with waist-high views of prairie grasses that suggest the all-over abstraction of Jackson Pollock, and quickly moved on to the aerial photography that would define her mature work. These shots of ground and sky, of bison on game preserves, of field meeting forest, are grand in scope and spirit, many of them in subtly toned color, and many recently printed in Chromogenic or inkjet versions that impart breathtaking new definition and power.

Shooting from the sky affords Evans the sort of God's-eye view that can be, in lesser hands, a grandiose effect, but the care with which she sights her subjects makes for genuine drama instead. The looping oxbow of the Solomon River in Kansas is a vision of fertility, while the terraced plowings, cattle feedlots, the parcels of farmland intersected by razor-lined highways are absorbing studies of habitation and development amidst the land's organic sweep.

These majestic photographs stand as mythic images of Big Sky country, but Evans is no less interested in the prairie wildlife that hugs the ground. Her stunning inkjets from the early 2000s--fish or bull snakes in specimen jars, or drawers full of tagged eastern meadowlarks or northern cardinals--are symphonies of yellow and red, fascinating in all their forensic detail. Indeed, by the 1990s, Evans's confident handling of any subject matter yielded more personal work, especially the details of the small town of Maxfield Green, north of Wichita, KS, where she produced proud portraits of residents, whether holding a prized calf or twin babies, along with austere black-and-white field studies and sun-saturated color imagery.

By 2003, her aerial shots of suburban sprawl, or her large-format depictions of Indiana's industrial processes resulted in stunning shots, especially of acid rinsing, roughing mills and slag processing that glow with hellish power. A 2008 commission to photograph the effects of climate change in Greenland brought Evans full circle, in a way, as the melting ice of the fjords and the monolithic beauty of calving icebergs gave her fresh material for new near-abstractions. They combine the straightforward sense of wonder of her greatest photographs with a clear call for environmental awareness. This Evans retrospective is long overdue, and this catalogue, with its insightful essays and first-rate printing, certainly gives the artist her due.

Similarly yet in an utterly different vein, "The Photographs of Ray K. Metzker" codifies the work of another Midwesterner, born in Milwaukee a decade ahead of Terry Evans, in 1931. Ray Metzker was very much a child of the Great Depression, growing up in frugal circumstances. After a stint in the army toward the end of the Korean War, he found his way into Chicago's fabled Institute of Design, where he studied under Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan.

Metzker embraced the urban perspectives and formal rigor of Callahan's and Siskind's teaching, and his work from the mid-1950s is rich with the experimental energies of the Institute, including the multiple exposures and doubled-frame composite photos that would become Metzker staples. Chicago, of course, with its Loop, was a fertile field for the blend of street photography and formalism that Metzker made his own, and the examples in this catalogue are very fine: the frame-filling, bulbous design of '50s sedans glimpsed through a right-angled intersection of railings, or the sight of commuters aboard the El train, framed through the open windows of the train's riveted grids.

Distinctively, Metzker's photos from his emergent period of the mid-'50s through the mid-'60s, which took him from Chicago to Philadelphia, as well as to Europe, are marked by a predilection for high-contrast black-and-white composition. A solitary woman crossing a sunlit space in Barcelona is heading into utter blackness, her shadow at 90 degrees. A similar image from Marseilles captures raking light through buildings, with stark geometries of shadow, window, wall, drainpipe and parked car, activated by a solitary passerby.

These quadrants of dark and light are Metzker signatures, and for a lesser talent this high-contrast effect would be very limiting. Metzker, though, finds infinite ways to vary it, especially in his Philadelphia images, in which everything from the fluorescent tubes of parking garages to the glint of sun on the edge of art deco architecture become the offset to expressionistic darkness. A great black bulk of old row homes looms, tomblike, with a few parked cars at the bottom of the frame to establish place. But there are also faces and figures, in silhouetted profile or isolated by shafts of shadow, or in groups, crowding our vision. And there are the urban jumbles of signage, street lamps and stoops; while the double-frame technique, in which an image of, say, an ornate railing is twinned with itself, take on the quality of an M. C. Escher topographic twist.

The richness of Metzker's Philadelphia work of the 1960s extends to his images of nearby Atlantic City, and the play of sun and shadow on the beached bathers and strollers of that boardwalk empire. For Metzker it's another formalist playground, as he captures the splay of limbs on blankets or kids outrunning waves, in a binary exploration of light and dark. Metzker's black/white Atlantic City is an objectified netherworld, viewed without a trace of sentiment, and we see it in a new way.

By the 1980s, when Metzker takes his camera back to Italy and France, the dichotomy shifts almost entirely, to brightly pastoral, silvery close-ups of foliage--connecting him, unexpectedly, if briefly, to the prairie grass imagery of Terry Evans. For connecting a new generation of viewers to the brilliant output of these two masters, we owe the Nelson-Atkins Museum a chorus of thanks.


Léon Herschtritt's half-century of superb photo-journalism and intimate portraiture is reason enough to seek out his newest volume, a retrospective hardbound portfolio simply titled "Léon Herschtritt Photographies" and published in a limited edition of 300 (information: http://www.leonherschtritt.com ; galerieherschtritt@free.fr ). Priced at only 45 euros, this richly printed catalogue chronicles a career that began in Paris (his native city) and has taken him everywhere, beginning with Algeria in the late 1950s, where his images of children and adults observing the chaos of the post-war era are strong, empathetic examples of pure witnessing.

Likewise, his shots of Israel, Africa, Berlin and Paris in the '60s and '70s document poverty, political turmoil, the passion of lovers on the street--all chiaroscuro classics of black-and-white artistry. And his delicate nudes and portraits of the famous from the same era--de Gaulle, Sartre, Deneuve, Ionesco, Gainsbourg and Pound--are close-cropped studies in the power of personality and sheer Eurocentric gravitas. A first-rate retrospective from a formidable photographer.

Catalogue Twenty-One from Hans P. Kraus Jr.'s Sun Pictures (962 Park Ave., New York, NY; http://www.sunpictures.com ) features some of the earliest and most emblematic works of William Henry Fox Talbot, including the 1839 drawing negative of "Maidenhair Fern," and the famous 1840 "Footman at Carriage Door," shot only weeks after Talbot discovered the calotype negative process. These founding photographs and others are finely reproduced and extensively annotated in this catalogue, including numerous atmospheric shots of abbeys, courtyards, barouches and other signs of a distant time.

From Parisian gallerist Adnan Sezer (226 Rue Saint-Denis, 75002 Paris; email: adnan@adnpatrimoine.fr ; phone: +33(0) 6 27 52 78 26), a catalogue of 58 vintage prints begins with late-19th century images by the likes of Alphonse Bertillon and Jean Baptiste Frenet, along with intriguing photos from unidentified photographers of the day (such as a daguerreotype of an ornately dressed woman lolling drunkenly on the floor, supported by a dining room chair). There are also stereoscopic images of Victor Hugo, shots of statuary by Vallentin, floral studies by Charles Aubrey, images from Persia by Antoine Sevrugin, architectural studies of India by Lagrange and others. From the 20th century, Sezer offers fine distortion portraits by Andre Kertesz, war photos by Jiri Jenicek and superb images by Robert Doisneau of people huddled together in the Paris Metro during a WWII air raid.

Finally, a series of moodily toned vintage prints by John Albok (1894-1962), a Hungarian-born emigrant to New York in the 1930s, are collected in a recent catalogue from the Barry Singer Gallery (7 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA; http://www.singergallery.com ). Albok did not exhibit or sell very much during his life, but these dozen black-and-white prints reveal a fine eye for the urban realities of the Great Depression, with its pushcarts, pencil-sellers, shoe shiners, as well as the fireworks over the 1939 World's Fair in New York.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)