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Spotting beauty in the shadows

Even in the seemingly most mundane of the visual world, such as building shadows, American photographer Ray Metzker could create stark, abstract images and present a rich new view.

Five decades of his work, as well as work from former instructors and peers from the Institute of  Design in Chicago where he went to graduate school, have been compiled into a show in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Virginia Heckert curated the gallery with the assistance of Arpad Kovacs at the Getty Museum in collaboration with Keith Davis at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

With a career spanning half a century, it’s difficult to say that there is one theme to his work, Heckert said, but he has been consistent about capturing reality and the formal qualities that make it art.

“It’s that balance between real world and abstraction,” Heckert said.

Born in 1931 in Milwaukee, Metzker started his photography career at the Institute of Design in Chicago, where he studied from 1956 to 1959. The institute, also known as the New Bauhaus, was modeled after the Bauhaus design school in Germany and later merged with the Illinois Institute of Technology.

During that time Meztker completed a thesis on the street photography taken in the Chicago business district called the Loop for his thesis titled “My Camera and I in the Loop.”

After getting his degree, he bounced around Europe for nearly two years, continuing to take striking street shots. He then returned to the states and began teaching at the Philadelphia College of Art.

Metzker soon strayed from his single shots of the everyday and worked on his most famous series of composites. As seen in Image 5, each print would be created by a single roll of film. Metzker also experimented with double frames by juxtaposing two photos in a single print.

The show breaks his body of work into the different phases of his life, starting with his thesis work and ending with street photography taken in Philadelphia up until 2009.

“If you look through the various periods, each one is innovative, probing the medium in ways it can describe the real world and introduce elements of abstraction that exist in the real world, but become elevated to the next level,” Heckert said.

Metzker’s name is recognized in the photography world, Heckert said, but the breadth of his career hadn’t been visible until the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art displayed its collection of Metzker’s prints within the last few years.

“To see the whole breadth of his career, to see on the walls and how he’s consistently innovative and risk-taking, opened people’s eyes to the importance of Metzker’s work,” she said.

Sorting through his work, Heckert said she found a sense of existentialism. The subjects in the images seemed like symbols.

“It’s about more than just the individual depicted,” she said. “It’s the larger view of man.”

The exhibit will be up at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles until February 4.

- Lauren Russell, CNN