‘City Whispers’ by Ray K. Metzker

Ray K. Metzker was one of the most innovative and vigorously experimental American photographers of the twentieth century. He studied at Chicago’s Institute of Design, which was dubbed the ‘New Bauhaus’ after it opened under the direction of European émigré Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Under the tutelage of Modernist photographers Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, Metzker embraced the school’s avant-garde values of experimentation and formal invention.

With the formal precision of European Modernism he had learnt while at the Institute of Design, Metzker produced graphic and stylised imagery. Throughout his career Metzker photographed exclusively in black and white, utilising assertive high contrast and bold use of form and line. Increasingly experimental in his approach, in the 1960s Metzker began working on his Composite series in which he treated the entire roll of film as a single concept.

In the early 1980s, Metzker retired from full time teaching in Philadelphia, and began part time teaching in Chicago and dividing his time between the two cities, returning to photograph life unfolding on the streets around him. Evolving from Metzker’s life lived in two American metropolises, his series City Whispers forms a complex mediation on modern urban living. In his photographs, Metzker utilised sunlight and shadow to transform passing pedestrians and the urban spaces that surrounded them. The looming and ominous shadows within the compositions present a metaphor for the isolation and alienation of life in a modern city.

81 DA-2, 1981, a key image from City Whispers, is exemplary of Metzker’s unique and dynamic approach to street photography. Taken in Philadelphia in 1981, the photograph depicts four lone figures at a bus stop, thrown into silhouette by a shaft of light. The glass enclosure that surrounds them is illuminated by a perfect square of bright sunlight, as the surrounding buildings are engulfed in darkness. The complex urban scene is distilled down to its essential formal elements, producing an image of graphic and elegant beauty. Metzker here utilised the complexities of light, shadow and architectural form found at street level in the city to construct a compositionally intricate image.

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