Untitled Ray K. Metzker Photograph

Description (Brief)
Silver print of an untitled Ray K. Metzker photograph
In the collection of the National Museum of American History there are twelve photographic works by the American photographer Ray K. Metzker (1931). These pieces by Metzker were acquired by the Smithsonian in 1970 after they were on display in the “Persistence of Vision” exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Metzker’s photographs range from depictions of urban street scenes to abstraction, and vary in size from 8x10 inch prints to 30x32 inch assembled pieces of over one hundred individual photographs.
After working as an assistant for various portrait and commercial photography studios, Metzker enrolled as a student at the Illinois Institute of Design in 1956. Founded by former Bauhaus instructor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1937, the Illinois Institute of Design’s faculty included influential photographers such as Harry Callahan (see catalog numbers PG69.40.01-10), Aaron Siskind (see catalog numbers PG69.114.01-10), and Frederick Sommer. Metzker has often cited these instructors as having a great impact on his artistic outlook and passion for photography. In a 1983 conversation with curator Anne Tucker, Metzker said, “their experience and dedication is something you had to respect, and they communicated to me how really beautiful and of what great meaning a photograph or photography could be. They made photography a noble endeavor.” While at the Illinois Institute of Design, Metzker became fascinated with the urban environment of Chicago, which became the subject matter for most of his early photographs. After graduation, Metzker’s experimental methods were noticed by curators and included in exhibitions such as the “Persistence of Vision,” where he was included with fellow graduates such as photographer John Wood.
Metzker’s work utilizes the technical components of the medium of photography to create new and unique imagery. Instead of using the camera to create a traditional single frame photograph, Metzker has been known to use an entire roll of film to create one composite image. This is seen in his photograph Untitled Composite Print (Signs, Trucks, etc.), PG69.205.1. In this example, Metzker photographs a series of actions instead of a singular event. Metzker offers the viewer information about a specific location over a span of time while simultaneously abstracting the image by overlapping the individual film frames. Another demonstration of this time-based aspect of Metzker’s work is Untitled (Four Frames and a Film Strip) PG69.205.4, where various pedestrians are seen passing through the same environment throughout the day. Created in 1964, this photograph breaks the traditional rectangular format entirely with multiple frames printed on top of each other and the orientation of the print skewed to create a diagonal composition.
Metzker constantly tries to invent new ways to investigate the formal aspects of photography. This has led him to experiment with multiple camera formats and a variety of different printing methods. He has been known to spend extensive time in the darkroom, experimenting with processes that may never lead to a complete finished project. Even when Metzker depicts more conventional subject matter, such as a figure or cityscape, he eliminates information in the photograph to focus on light and shadow, line and form. An example of this is his 1963 photograph Untitled (Stripe on Pavement) PG69.205.2. Metzker photographs a segment of a city crosswalk, but through perspective and composition, creates an image that more closely resembles an abstract gestural mark than a typical city scene.
Metzker is an important figure to study in regards to evaluating the influence that Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Illinois Institute of Design had on the genre of American street photography in the 1960s. The Bauhaus tradition of experimentation can be seen throughout much of Metzker’s work. For Metzker, photography is a process that involves multiple steps before the final image is created.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Object Type
date made
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
overall: 10 in x 8 in; 25.4 cm x 20.32 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Ray Metzker Collection
Photo History Collection
See more items in
Culture and the Arts: Photographic History
Ray Metzker Collection
Photo History Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center

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