As a budding street photographer, I would spend hours poring through the photography books in the library of my small high school in Vermont. With snow piled high outside the windows, I would huddle over a stack of books –– many of them the obvious: works by Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, Frank. But I was particularly taken by an issue of Aperture with a selection of Ray Metzker’s photographs entitled “My Camera and I in the Loop.” Although reminiscent of the street photographs of his teacher, Harry Callahan, Metker’s images struck their own special note: stark shafts of light crisscrossing impenetrable shadows; self-absorbed figures dashing in and out of the light, caught in a kind of black and white chiaroscuro; isolated faces peering out of the darkness. Sometimes a subtle gesture –– the tilt of a sailer’s head as he passed into darkness –– added a slight emotional twist. It wasn’t just the formal mastery of these images that captivated me. They also suggested something about the isolation, the alienation, and the loneliness of the urban world.
Metzker has gone on to produce other remarkable bodies of work, from Sand Creatures to Terra Incognito to wonderfully complex and nuanced images of the natural world. He’s one of those photographers, like Lee Friedlander, whose eye never fails to delight. And although it’s been some 40 years since I first looked at that issue of Aperture, Metzker’s early Chicago images still linger in my memory.––Alex Webb
I remember exactly where I was when I first encountered the photography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. I was sitting in the tiny library in the old I.C.P., alone except for Lucia Siskind, the enthusiastic and one-of-a-kind librarian. Lucia had pulled from the shelves for me the Aperture monograph that Minor White had edited in 1974, two years after the photographer’s untimely death.
Originally a poet, I was instantly mesmerized by these rather odd and mysterious photographs. Seeming deceptively simple to the eye, the images caught in the heart and flapped about provoking a host of contradictory emotions –– wit and suffering, delight and melancholy, calm and impending doom. Paradoxes seemed strangely at home in Meatyard’s work: the transcendent and the transitory, the mundane and the uncanny; the nascent and the ruined. And I felt strangely at home, too, or at least in familiar terrain, the terrain of poetry.
So, it didn’t come as a complete surprise to learn that Meatyard had counted poets among his closest friends in Lexington, Kentucky, the university town where he lived with his family and worked as an optician. I remember being particularly struck by the following passage by the poet Guy Davenport, Meatyard’s good friend, that I’d read in that Aperture monograph some 15 years ago. Perhaps it takes a poet to illuminate another poet’s obsessions:
Light as it falls from the sun onto our random world defines everything perceptible to the eye by constant accident, relentlessly changing. A splendid spot of light on a fence is gone in a matter of seconds…I have watched Gene all of a day wandering around the ruined Whitehall photographing as diligently as if he were a newsreel cameraman in a battle. The old house was as quiet and still as eternity itself; to Gene it was as ephemeral in its shift of light and shade as a fitful moth.––GD
––Rebecca Norris Webb