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.

Golden Silver Nuggets, from Lee Friedlander

…and from Richard Benson. Given the relative paucity of Friedlander’s statements, this is gold, Jerry, gold.

PhotoLectureFriedlander

Re: J. & J.

Nourishment from Debra Brehmer.

Several people from yesterday’s Achievement Award event at MOWA asked if I’d post the acceptance speech I gave for Shimon and Lindemann’s award. It wasn’t really a speech, just a Top Ten list of what I’ve learned from being their friend and gallery dealer. It was actually a Top Seventeen.

images

“What does it really mean to ‘achieve?’ With a nod to David Letterman’s top ten lists, here are my top 17 important life lessons I’ve been fortunate to absorb through my friendship and business relationship with J. Shimon and J. Lindemann.

1. I’ve learned from them firsthand that persistence and faith in your ideas and vision are the essential ingredients in an art career. They have had a 30 year career of steady, continuous work. It took 25 of those years for the market, museums, and collectors to fully respond.

2. Organization and professionalism, ‘taking care,’ paying attention to details, loving the details… in every aspect of any undertaking these have profound repercussions. It is not just good business practice. This care and focus that one applies to every task, from the large and conceptual to the cleaning the glass for the frames, shows up in multiple sparkling ways and sets the right tone for any serious endeavor. It means something. It shows you care. It is a strangely undervalued and concealed aspect of love.

3. Kindness can and should be at the core of our existence, often expressed in the simplest of means, which is the sincere use of ‘thank you.’ Of course you must really mean it, but it goes a long way. And I’ve also learned that toughness, exactitude, and high standards can indeed coexist with kindness.

4. They taught me to value the people in our lives, warts and all. To make them part of your family. To extend love to them. It will enrich their lives and your own.

5. They have taught me what living your life in the art world really means, at its most essential core: it means you have chosen to stay connected, to stay thoughtful and reflective, and that you will take on the large challenge of processing what you see and experience in life… slowing down your contact with where you are and what you are. Making art is a way of noticing and noting, of getting more out of life, via awareness.

6. They taught me to never undervalue the ‘familiar.’ I complain about how many times I’ve driven up Oakland Avenue to Pick ‘n Save over the past 20 years. It’s so easy not to value that, to be completely blind to the amount of content, information and weirdness in those seven blocks. The familiar becomes mundane only when we allow ourselves to become numb.

7. Stay connected to the handmade, the quiet time. Focus and process, sit at your desk and draw a picture or write about your day. And listen to music or make music.

8. Be sure to balance your life by getting out of the art world and into nature. Grow things. Connect with the earth. Feel and appreciate a sunny day on the farm. Applaud when it rains just enough. Celebrate when the apple tree blossoms.

9. J. and J. have reinforced my already instinctive desire to be aware of history. Take a long glance backward to fully understand where we are now. Be sure never to feel like we are somehow more special than what came before. Look at history to remind ourselves that we are part of a continuum. And that the history of humanity is actually very short. One Million Years is 3 Seconds: that was the title of a show they did at the Wristen at Lawrence University in 2008. It was about “four older Wisconsin men who avoided the homogeneity of American consumer culture.” We truly cannot understand anything about our current lives if we don’t think about history.

10. To value the ‘elders.’ This relates to number 9. With the fire and impetuousness of youth, we move fast, all the time. People who are old and settled, who have found certain comforts in where they are and how they have lived, are like engrossing novels. Find good friends from other generations, both younger and older.

11. Never trade old friends for what seems like new more powerful ones.

12. Know, as securely as possible, that the work you do, if done with earnest intention and thought, is its own reward, regardless of public recognition or sales.

13. Believe in the value of being human and try not to fear the pain.

14. Send handwritten postcards to friends and acquaintances, and not just for birthdays and holidays. Enrich your snail mail life while we still have this antiquated system of hand delivery. Marvel over it. It is so retrograde and so the opposite of how we do things today. Allow your own handwriting to be an intimate ‘hello.’

15. And related to Number 14, remember the notion of a ‘parlor,’ a place to sit, sip a drink, and converse with friends. A parlor, as defined in the dictionary is: a room for the reception and entertainment of visitors to one’s home; In Latin it is called a locutorium. ‘Locu’ meaning to talk. ‘Torium’ is a place. The civility of an unrushed conversation is a beautiful thing. I’ve had many with J. and J.

16. And almost last, and perhaps the most profound J. and J. inspiration of all is that wherever you are, is the place you are. Don’t waste your time wishing you were somewhere else or the conditions were somehow different. Accept the good and bad of the place and love it like an ugly puppy.

17. And last, the most simple but most important and difficult thing to remember: we won’t have each other forever. Not even in a photograph.”

Also from Ms. Brehmer: http://portraitsocietygallery.com/2015/05/24/wis-con-sin/

Q. o’ th’ D.: William Gass

tumblr_mty67451Zz1qzh8wko1_400

“So to the wretched writer I should like to say that there’s one body only whose request for your caresses is not vulgar, is not unchaste, untoward, or impolite: the body of your work itself; for you must remember that your attentions will not merely celebrate a beauty but create one; that yours is love that brings its own birth with it, just as Plato has declared, and that you should therefore give up the blue things of this world in favor of the words which say them: blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear…chant and pray, since the day may begin badly, in a soggy light that moistens the soul before consciousness has cracked so every thought is damp as an anxious forehead, desire won’t spark, and the morning prick is limp…consequently speak and praise, for the fall of the spirit, descending like a diver toward the floor of the ocean, is marked by increasing darkness, green giving way to navy, then a hair-wide range of hues which come to rest, among snowing fish and plants as pale as paper, in a sightless night; and our lines are long when under water, loose and weedy, turning back upon themselves like the legs of a dying spider; we grow slack of feature in our melancholy, and the blue which marks the change is heavy, thick as ooze…so shout and celebrate before the shade conceals the window: blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese…while there is time and you are able, because when the blue has left the edges of its objects as if the world were bleached of it, when the wide blue eye has shut down for the season, when there’s nothing left but language…watered twilight, sour sea…don’t find yourself choir’d out of choir and chorus…sing and say…despite the belly ache and loneliness, new bumped fat and flaking skin and drunkenness and helpless rage, despite dumps, mopes, Mondays, sheets like dirty plates, tomorrow falling toward you like a tower, lie in wait for that miraculous moment when in your mouth teeth turn into dragons and you do against the odds what Demosthenes did by the Aegean: shape pebbles into syllables and make stones sound; thus cautioned and encouraged, commanded, warned, persist…even though the mattress where you mourn’s been tipped and those corners where the nickels roll slide open like a slot to swallow them, clocks slow, and there’s been perhaps a pouring rain, or factory smoke, an aging wind and winter air, and everything is gray.” –On Being Blue

It’s The Big 85 For Ornette!

11056898_10152729290531546_9163505174233231139_n

Cecil comes to the party and he’s all “Y’know, I’m still a year older than thou.”

Check out how thought-through Ornette Coleman’s music really is:

Aaron Siskind’s Own Distillations

images-2

“When you make a picture by yourself… and you look at it, just looking at it is one thing and then when you show it in class for other people to see, it’s something else. Sometimes, the pleasure from the picture disappears completely, the meaning of the picture, the value of the picture. Then when you take that same group of pictures and you put it up in a public place, it is something else again. The picture is being given a trial at various stages; it is being tested. You see it differently; you see it on the wall; you see it more in relation to other pictures, or you think about it in that way. So that there are various conditions under which you see it. In the book it is different, too. So all these conditions will arouse different kinds of thought, different kinds of feeling. Hell, what else do you want from a picture.”

images-3

“We don’t know what photography is. Photography is what people make it. All it is is just a matter of definition and a definition is merely a matter of convenience. Any statement of what photography is always comes after the photography has been done, it doesn’t come before. So the definition to a large extent is determined by the practice, and I think it is too early to say you can do this, you can do that, and you can’t do the other thing.People are trying to protect their little area and it is a lot of nonsense. Sometimes the motivations are clean and clear and other times they are not. You use whatever you can or you use whatever people around you are using, so that they can understand what you are doing. Nobody make photography by themselves; it is all made in groups. People are influenced by each other. All of these statements about what is right and what is wrong about photography is a wrong way to approach it. Then again, it is what is meaningful, what is beautiful, what is exciting, what is esoteric, what realizes certain ideas you have—ideas of forms and so forth. Those are the things that matter. And in the end what matters is the pleasure you get out of it. Not fun-pleasure, but deep-pleasure.After all, art is not necessary; it is an ornament.It is something else, something that flows out of the civilized parts of our nature. You can live without it, but you live much better with it.”

images

 

Wisconsin’s Artists Of The Year

…are the photography collaborators Julie Lindemann and John Shimon. Check them out.

https://blogs.lawrence.edu/news/2014/12/lawrence-professors-lindemann-shimon-named-wisconsins-2014-artists-of-the-year.html

th

http://www.shimonlindemann.com