Issue #208  10/20/2014
Photographer Ray Metzker Passes Away in Philadelphia

By Keith F. Davis
Senior Photography Curator, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO

Ray Metzker (photo by Ruth Thorne-Thomsen)
Ray Metzker (photo by Ruth Thorne-Thomsen)

The great American photographer, Ray K. Metzker, died on October 9, 2014, at a care facility in his long-time home of Philadelphia, after a lengthy illness. He was 83.

Born in Milwaukee, WI, in 1931, Metzker knew from his teenage years that he would be a photographer. Originally interested in photojournalism, he majored in art at Beloit College, and went on to the Institute of Design in Chicago for graduate studies. In his years at the I.D., from 1956 to 1959, Metzker was part of a now-legendary creative circle. Under the guidance of professors Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, Metzker was one of a vital group of students that included Kenneth Josephson, Joseph Sterling, Charles Swedlund, and Joseph Jachna.

After receiving his graduate degree, Metzker made a self-funded creative sojourn to Europe in 1960-61. He began teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1962, continuing there until his retirement in 1983. Over the years, he had visiting professorships at the University of New Mexico, the Rhode Island School of Design, and elsewhere.

He received major recognition in his lifetime. He received two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1967 and 1979, and an NEA Fellowship in 1974. His first solo exhibition, of his famed "Composites," was presented at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967. Other important retrospective exhibitions were mounted by the International Center for Photography (1978); the Houston Museum of Fine Arts (1984, with subsequent travel); the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2000, with subsequent travel); the Musee de l Elysee, Lausanne, Switzerland (2008, with subsequent travel); and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (2011, with subsequent travel).

Metzker was included in many important group exhibitions, and his prints have been collected by leading museums around the world. Originally shown at Light Gallery in New York, he has been represented since the early 1980s by the Laurence Miller Gallery. Metzker's work has been featured in at least eight monographs, and is included in innumerable other volumes on the art of photography.

The key facets of Metzker's work include: early Chicago (1956-59); Europe (1960-61); early Philadelphia (1962-63); double-image "couplets" and the multi-image "Composites" (1964-69); "Pictus Interruptus" (1977-80); later Chicago and Philadelphia cityscapes (1981-84); landscapes (1985-95); and his late work in Philadelphia (1996-2009).

Metzker worked in black and white, and with analogue materials, all his life. He dearly loved the language of the process: the way film renders the infinite gradations of daylight, and the pristine beauty of a finely crafted black-and-white print. Best known for his urban work, and his pioneering "Composites" of the 1960s, Metzker also made a large group of landscape photographs and quietly explored the creative possibilities of photograms, collage and even sculpture. He had an astonishingly rich and restless visual imagination and the courage to change subjects or styles according to purely personal need. A shining model of a total dedication to a life of art, he will be deeply missed. He is survived by his wife, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen.

(Editor's note: We would like to thank Keith Davis for this moving tribute. All are welcome to join Ray Metzker's wife, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen, for a Memorial in celebration of Ray Metzker’s life at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Saturday, October 25th, in the Van Pelt Auditorium at 4:30 p.m. Free parking will be available at the museum starting at 4 p.m. There will be a reception afterwards in the museum at the Great Staircase.)

With more than 650 prints, acquired over a period of nearly three decades, The Nelson-Atkins Collection has the largest institutional holding of Heath's photographs in the U.S. The exhibition, Multitude, Solitude: The Photographs of Dave Heath, opens at the museum on Nov. 19, 2016.