When Ray K. Metzker Left Academia

There are so many nuggets in this interview that one is loathe to feature only one or two. This is from a small publication that Alan Cohen and his Columbia College students produced in 1983–Metzker’s final year of teaching.

Dennis Pratt: Do you see a relationship between music and your examinations and experimentations with photography?

Ray Metzker: I have always paid a great deal of attention to music, and I guess I see it as a very good analogy… particularly because of the freedom to work with the form and not necessarily the subject… but in my work subject matter has a definite role; there is a sense of content connected to the specific subject matter that is in front of the camera. If I am dealing with images from the city, then the size of the city is very important to me. When you look at the multiples, you are aware of patterning and so forth, but there is still identifiable subject matter; frequently there are people there; there is rhythm to those people.The form in that situation allows me to take certain liberties with subject matter that many other photographers are not concerned with.

When you make a portrait frequently you are concerned about a specific person. But rather than nail it down to a specific—who is this special person?—I am trying to create figures in which you can project. You don’t have to know who it is; you can begin to think about the predicament or the situation because it is a general description of any person or any place. When working on the streets, you realize that by looking at people, their clothing, their posture, their movement that they stand for more. The figures in my photographs stand for more than one individual. The pictures catch something of our attitudes, our frame of mind, our worries, the kind of world we live in. There is such a strong feeling of life out there. It is a constant flow and it is always changing. It is complicated. The street is so rich—it pulses with life—and that is ultimately what I am concerned with—life. I build on what is going on. But I have a much greater tolerance for the photograph if it is built around illusion and, to make it less specific, illusions of space.

Leonard Sneider: Your new work, City Whispers, is a return to the city streets—a return to earlier subject matter. Are there personal risks and/or career risks in returning?

RM: People feel that going back means not going forward and that if you aren’t going forward, you aren’t growing. We often equate growth with forwardness. I have found that a lot of people are very uncomfortable about going back to a period and there are risks in doing that. But I felt that, over the years, something had ripened and compelled me to go back—compelled me to go full circle.

DP: Has praise and criticism of your work, over the course of your career, centered on the same issue(s)?

RM: Yes, in that my work is cited for its graphic qualities. Sometimes that is annoying, because it seems to imply that I handle the material nicely and it catches the eye but that there isn’t, after all, anything to think about. But there are concerns that exceed the graphic—time is a major concern. Others include space—empty space—living space. Within the photograph, my primary concern is that battle between the blacks and a glowing white—not just white. If an image is to have any value, it is because it begins to touch on something we know. But we don’t use words properly or we can’t identify that “something” clearly with the words. If you do say it with a word, it is not an experience—it is not very exciting.

DP: What role did your military experience play in your artistic career?

RM: I think the military simply was a catalyst in motivation. When I was in the military I saw so many people just marking time, living without purpose, and I just couldn’t settle for that so once I got out I made tracks in the opposite direction—as energetically as I could. I was more determined to have a life where building was important.

DP: I would like to ask you about teaching photography. Does teaching require a sense of mission?

RM: I think that it has to do with the idea of spirit and you have to work very hard to communicate that. For most people and most students, they probably come to the field because they think of it as a career, but I think that it is much more than that, particularly in the creative arts. The whole thing depends on the spirit. Spirit is at the core of one’s being and, I think, what one demands for that experience. We all go to the well; the big question for all is how deep do you drink of it? That is what you really have to get to. It is not merely relaying information or showing techniques or processes.

I think one of the requirements for teaching is the ability to give. Some of the “punk” teaching that we are seeing around is coming from people who want an immediate return, who want immediate gratification. The one-to-one response frequently can turn out to be very superficial. When you feel totally comfortable on that one-to-one level, probably not a great deal is happening. If there is more than you can really digest at the moment, then you are stimulated and you can go on thinking about it after the class is over. As in most things, when you want something good to happen, you have got to lay a foundation; you have to make a major investment for something good to come around.

DP: Is there self-doubt for the teacher about whether the process is really working?

RM: For sure. The end of every day is filled with self-doubt. At the end of the day I’m exhausted. I know I have been trying to communicate, to give, but I don’t get any response or certainly not very much at the end of that day. So I am left to wonder what did happen. But I find that I get very good response later on—years later. I know that from my own experience. I had a number of teachers as an undergraduate who left me a little dazed—one in particular. I found him to be fascinating and I thought he was bright, but I guess I couldn’t recognize his value until I had been out of school and into the military.

DP: You have been teaching for quite a long time now. Are you looking forward to your newfound freedom?

RM: Yes, I am. I think I will keep working. But I will be freer to follow the course of the work. When I am teaching, I have interruptions. I am not really free to go in hot pursuit of something.

DP: What are the forces that sustain your work?

RM: Oh, Dennis, my dream is to have a Rolls Royce and a chauffeur.

DP: What sense, what feeling, what “pinned” you to the spirit you have talked about before that might sustain your work?

RM: We all have a potential and it very much the aim of education to speak of realizing a potential. So that is one factor. I think it is related to the importance of knowledge and, for me, knowledge and truth are very strong factors in this activity. That is, we are constituted out of what we know. The question is what do we know and how do we know it, how do we come to know? As a teacher, this is what I am for, this is what I am about. Many times it is nothing but just a lot of opinions. Knowledge questions what is this really about. That is why there is that emphasis on ideas. We begin from insecurities and we all try to counter that. Some people have very simple devices which, in the end, really only make them obnoxious. You can take this insecurity as a challenge and begin to examine who you are and what your needs are and, in a sense, work out a growth. To talk about the idea of growing is definitely to admit your imperfections. When one is young, one is upset by and can’t accept the hardness of the world. When one is young one has the idea that the world could be better than it is. Yet people really don’t do anything to change it or to change their attitudes—their ongoing misery. I have the idea that by realizing our potential, by using our intelligence, we work out alternatives. I think that is the very basis of an artist’s belief. The artist is disconcerted by the world he or she finds himself in, and seeks alternatives. There is a revolutionary spirit there that I think belongs in the arts. I think that when one sets these criteria or enunciates these principles, after a while they do determine the work. The work is going to be different because of these thoughts, because of these structures, these guidelines that one is formulating. What happens is the results of our beliefs. I see this through work. I believe in something, but it is the act that begins to say whether there is any substance to that belief. If you don’t have some idea of what you want to accomplish, what belongs and what doesn’t belong, you will just end up with a mess, mere chaos.

DP: since your work is more conceptual than descriptive, have you been influenced more by painters or other artists than by photographers?

RM: Well, my work is related to ideas. It is more than just a simple rubbing, what I call the “silver Xerox.” So yes, because painters have a greater history of self-examination than do photographers—and there is more in their thinking that stimulates me. For photography, well, to me there is not that excitement in just the moment. And that is not what strong imagery is about. I am concerned with the idea of many moments. For me, there isn’t a precise moment to extract from all of the others. One moment is as interesting as the next. Ideas that unite many moments express our view, our dilemma. We know we are after something, and yet we don’t know what it really is. It is very difficult to name it and somehow we have to find it, so we go looking. You can’t find unless you go looking.

LS: Did you have this sense earlier in your life, this willingness to look?

RM: No, no! I had the feeling, but it was dormant through most of college until maybe my junior or senior year. Then something began to turn for me.

In the second semester of my freshman year, I was given the responsibility for the college’s PR work. I thought, at the time, it was one of the most exciting things I could possibly be doing. For a semester I went on probation because of my misplaced interests. But after maybe two years, I began to see it as very repetitive. I was always going to the same place, making the same photograph, because that is what was wanted. I became aware of very strong limitations. I was just a commercial photographer. I realized the job was going nowhere and I wondered why I should be doing it when what I wanted was to be in the art department. I wanted to be growing. So I quit the job. I had a nice income, but I had the sense that there was so much more potential in the art department. I could see it in the lives of the professors—there was more going on, three was more challenge than what I was doing. There was vitality there, and it seemed that what they were doing was more important. Call it “mission” or “a cause.” I felt that they were deeply motivated, that they were, in three words, expected to contribute. The idea that people in education were expected to do something is what I found very fascinating about the art department. They were so involved and seemed to be getting so much out of what they were doing—a sense of satisfaction.

DP: I have never been in a class in my life where anyone has actually suggested that a member of that class could do something significant. You suggested, if we were willing, that we could actually influence modern American photography. You implied that we have the potential, if we allowed it to happen, if we don’t give up. Do you really believe what you told us?

RM: Yes, but I don’t think that I would have simply limited it to photography. Once upon a time—as a graduate student—I asked Frank Lloyd Wright a question. I went to hear him at the University of Chicago. Throughout the lecture he showed drawings for this and drawings for that—mostly unbuilt projects. He would tell a story about why it didn’t go through. It seemed to me that we were looking at dreams, few of which had been realized. So, when I had the chance, after the lecture, to go backstage and feed questions to him, I caught his eye and I asked him just that question: “How is it that you never give up?” And he just said, “You never give up hope.” And ideally that is what a school should say, except that too many schools are filled with people who now just want a nice life.

DP: Your work to me seems to be kind of a very private book…

RM: …Private the way it reads, a lot of people find it inaccessible. But I am not sure. You have to qualify whether you are talking about photographers or whether you are talking about the art community in general. I think my approach is considered different. You said you thought it was—you used the word—conceptual. And so, a lot of people who want to look at my photographs may find that it departs from the usual photographic way of seeing things. In the arts you expect to come up with all varieties of form and all kinds of constructs. I said earlier I am willing to explore ideas. To explore means that you are willing to go off on your own—to see what is possible. You can’t explore while standing there in the middle of the crowd.

You do what you think is important. You don’t make that decision in isolation. You familiarize yourself with the traditions. So you recognize that there are certain activities that draw fewer people; it doesn’t mean that is a lesser activity or of lesser value. As the maker, if you are going to find satisfaction, you cannot be upset by having people look at it and say, “I can’t deal with it.” So it’s obscure—that’s the gamble. As my interests narrow, I have to accept the fact that the audience may also narrow. I am not a household name. I don’t see that as being the prime goal. There is a danger in having that as your goal.

You must realize that you are working with certain ideas and that you represent a certain sensibility. But not everybody is going to enjoy it or think it important. The artist has to accept that. The only way that you can find a sense of peace is for you to say “I hope to connect with a number of people.” There has to be communication. Your validity cannot be based on whether every museum owns a piece of your work. There are a lot of parts that have to fit together and it takes time to fit them. In the beginning there seem to be an infinite number of options which cause much uncertainty. It takes years of leaning on the work before you recognize what are the really important themes and strong directions. It may take fifteen to twenty years to get the pace and the balance that leads to mature work.