Monday, 7 January 2013

Metzker’s Composites

Chicago © Ray Metzker

Between 1964 and 1968, Ray Metzker made a group of extraordinary composited images. Each one is a grid of several dozen exposures of the same or similar scenes arranged in rows of overlapping frames. These works are complex and compel me to want to deconstruct them systematically- to understand how they were made, precisely, and to get at that peculiar order, that particular and meaningful sense of rhythm that is Metzker's, and that he expressed through the medium of these methodologies.

In 1959, while a graduate student at the Chicago Institute of Design, he made Chicago, a piece that foreshadows his Composites. In this image, people come and go on an underground stairwell lit by sunlight from above. One assumes that this grid, composed of twenty-five exposures, it is to be read like a book- from left to right, top to bottom. But the "last" two frames, closely observed, contradict that expectation. A woman and a girl with a balloon descend the stairs in each, but in reversed chronological order. Either they were walking backwards up the stairs, or, Metzker shot the last frame prior to the second to last one. In this work, as in his work to come, conventions have not been observed and one's expectations are continually disturbed.

In Composites: Comings and Goings, ca. 1966, the complexity increases. There is in this image a rapturous impossibility of knowing- because the exposures overlap, and by varying degrees- which person, or reflection, or shadow, belongs to which frame, or moment- which dislocated arm or hat or piece of dress belongs to which individual. Moment-specificity, the very thing that photography supposedly excels at "capturing," is blurred. The continuity of our idea of time- what we have come to expect from it, indeed to need from it- that it progresses linearly, steadily and infallibly from moment to chronologically distinct moment- is broken.

Composites: Comings and Goings, ca. 1966 © Ray Metzker

In Composites: Scaff Nut, Philadelphia, ca. 1966, Metzker's use of a scaffold serves to disguise the overlap between frames, more seamlessly blurring one moment into the next and causing dozens of them to seem as one. The scaffold fragments the composition into hundreds of geometrical units that relate to each other formally according to a sense of order that is complex. In this and other of Metzker works, I wonder whether it is order or chaos that I am looking at. Indeed, order looks a lot like chaos the deeper one looks. The effect is particularly acute because these are photographs, derived from fact it would seem, and analog, at that. Does the order that we detect come from Metzker, or does it come from chance? The ambiguity keeps me looking.

As the scaffold itself is fragmented and problematized in this image, so too, it seems, are the structures of time and identity, language and subjectivity. Is it chaos or order at the root of each of these? Chance or design? It is a strength of the work that it raises the question without suggesting the answer. Whatever we might think we know about that man with the hat, based on his appearance or facial expression or body language, our assumptions are challenged by the fact that his right half is a woman and his left leg is a scaffold. This creature appears simultaneously to walk towards me hesitantly and away from me with confidence. To whom do we attribute posture, gesture or appearance, when the physical boundaries and chronological relationships between people and things are unclear?

Metzker's insistent looking is everywhere in evidence, and this in turn compels me to look insistently. There is much to see in these prints, but as much or more has been withheld. The shadows, in particular, suggest details without revealing them fully. The feeling I get is that if I could only see the face in the shadow, or distinguish with certainty an object from a reflection, I would understand everything and everything would become clear. The withholding of information feels like an absence, a lack, and an obstruction. But if the images gave away more, they would only deceive that much more. These images deceive less and are more honest because they do not offer complete narratives or suggest at truths. Rather, and to their credit, they frustrate them.

Chris Engman (Foam Magazine #24/Talent)

The exhibition, The Photographs of Ray. K. Metzker and the Institute of Design, is on view at The Getty Center in Los Angeles through February 24, 2013.


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