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|The Grand Perspective
by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
|Sheila Metzner has it all. A career in commercial art, a happy marriage, five children, a second career as a fine art photographer with a parallel track as a fashion photographer and still photographer on various films. Her shows in galleries and museums draw positive reviews. And three books of her photographs have been published. The most recent volume, Inherit the Earth from Bullfinch Press, is nearly as big in size as its subject, the monumental wonders of the world from the icebergs of Alaska to the pyramids of Egypt.
Metzner, now 61, spent 11 years traveling to remote regions and taking pictures that moved her, from the elephantine trunks of trees in the Costa Rican rain forest to the red rock arches of Moab, Utah. She brought the same grand perspective to each exotic locale, just as she did when she photographed her native New York, restoring lost glamour to the Brooklyn Bridge or Empire State Building.
Both bodies of work are on view in Los Angeles this month. The colored landscape prints from Inherit the Earth and her well-known pictures of flowers are at the Stephen Cohen Gallery while the black and white platinum prints of Manhattan are at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery. Both shows run through Jan. 6. In addition, a show called "Inherit the Earth" is at Tibet House in New York, Dec 14, 2000-Feb. 10, 2001.
"I've been a seeker ever since I was a small child," she says from her home in New York. "I have always been interested in life on the biggest scale. I want to know as much as I can about everything and somehow landscape really opened up the whole idea. I traveled a lot when I started to do fashion photography and seeing the world first hand drove me to document the fascinating places that were left on this earth."
Whether the subject is a waterfall, an orchid or a child, Metzner's photographs exude a sense of lavishness. In part, this is due to the use of the Fresson technique, a rare, turn-of-the-century carbon process that lends a soft, grainy patina to the colors in her photographs.
The Fresson family invented the technique in France in 1895, and its descendents remain the only practitioners. The surfaces and hues created through the process are romantic and unusual, resembling painting, and by using pigments instead of dyes, the prints do not fade with time.
After seeing a Fresson photograph in 1979, Metzner wrote a six-page letter to Michel Fresson, grandson of the inventor, pleading with him to print her work. By return post, she received a price list for the services. Next, she flew to Paris to see Fresson, who agreed to work with her on one condition. "He said he wouldn't work with me if I wouldn't send the instructions in French," she says. "So I did it."
The Fresson technique accentuates Metzner's prints of landscapes in which color is applied in a monochrome tint over an entire picture. In addition, the technique is especially effective on Metzner's celebrated flowers. In their elegant simplicity and glimmering use of light, her photographs of orchids and tulips are indebted to early 20th century photographers like Edward Steichen and Edward Weston.
The photographer temporarily abandoned the Fresson process for her recent Manhattan cityscapes, deciding the effects were too soft. "This is my New York and I felt it needed something harder and more glittering," she explains. She switched to the platinum printing favored in the early 20th century to take advantage of its deep blacks and hard whites.
Unlike many contemporary photographers who use digital technology, Metzner embraces the techniques and styles of the past. Yet, she says, "My work isn't retro."
As she conducted photo workshops around the country, she realized that students today scarcely study the history of photography. Looking back at her photographic background, Metzner points to her years of looking at original prints by Paul Strand at the Museum of Modern Art and reading everything she could find on the lives of pioneering photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Julia Margaret Cameron. She found the latter to be particularly inspiring because she maintained her role as a wife and mother as well as preeminent Victorian portraitist. "I thought, if Cameron could have five children and take pictures, I could too. It was inspiring."
Metzner was born Sheila Schwartz in Brooklyn. Her father was Romanian and had a fifth-grade education, her mother was born in the U.S. to Russian immigrants. They never had much money, but Metzner recalls their generosity of spirit.
"My mother was so poor that she couldn't afford an encyclopedia so the salesman gave her two volumes from a to e," she recalls. "But in those volumes were Africa, Antartica, Egypt. From the beginning, the strangeness of mankind was appealing to me, and I wanted to see it myself and document it myself. I always felt it was my duty to see these things and for other people to be inspired as I was inspired."
Her early interest in art led her to attend the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, where she won a scholarship to college and chose the Pratt Institute. Majoring in visual communications, she studied with abstract painters James Brooks and Jack Tworkov, but pursued a career as an art director. After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1961, she worked as an assistant to then-chief designer/art director Lou Dorfsman at CBS Network advertising, and five years later was hired as the first female art director at the advertising agency then known as Doyle Dane Bernbach.
In 1968, she married fellow DDB art director Jeffrey Metzner and soon was pregnant with their first son, Raven. After her son's birth, she considered giving up her career. But her mentor, the photographer Aaron Rose, suggested that she take up photography. Over the next 13 years, she learned to take and print pictures while raising her five children -- Bega, Ruby, Stella and Louie in addition to Raven -- as well as her husband's two daughters from a previous marriage, Evyan and Alison. Working in black and white, she photographed the children during the day and printed photos when they were asleep.
By 1978, she had a box of only of 22 pictures. Yet, her photograph of Evyan at Kinderhook Creek in upstate New York so impressed MoMA curator John Szarkowski that he bought it and included it in his exhibition, "Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960."
The photo was praised by Hilton Kramer, the powerful critic then at the New York Times, and a few months later, Metzner signed on for her first show at Manhattan's Daniel Wolf Gallery. In 1980, she had a second show there of her Fresson color prints and wound up with a contract at Vogue and clients such as designers Valentino and Fendi.
"At a time when fashion photography was caught between sterility and the snapshot," wrote photography critic Carol Squiers, "Metzner created a sumptuous, romantic vision that stimulated the entire field."
Commercial work provided her entrée into a new subject. A magazine assignment led her to photograph landscapes, beginning in the Southwest about 12 years ago. She was so awestruck by the grandeur that she bought land on the Colorado River, near Moab, Utah. She and her family continued to buy more land in the area and recently donated much of it to the Nature Conservancy, which also receives some of the profits from her book sales.
"You think things on that scale can not be destroyed but a developer comes in and it becomes something else," Metzner says. "It's not about landscape anymore."
Metzner is driven by the notion of preserving her experience of people and places while acknowledging the inevitability of change. "The subject is transformation, really. The landscapes are just symbols. In Alaska, ice becomes water, which is absorbed by clouds. In the Southwest, rocks become sand. These are gigantic forces at work on a tremendous scale over an incredible amount of time."
Her children are grown now, all involved in creative enterprises, though her youngest son, Louie, serves as her assistant on photographic expeditions. Her husband of 33 years designed the invitation to her opening at Tibet House in New York.
Metzner recalls that when she was getting recognition in the late '70s for the photographs of her children, a reporter from the Daily News asked what she would be doing next. "I want to photograph the Chrysler Building, vases and Warren Beatty," she said. A few weeks later, the phone rang, her daughter answered and called out, "Mom, Warren Beatty is on the phone. "He said, 'I hear you want to take my picture'."
She laughs at the memory and goes on to say, "It became simple that way, that I could have a life like that. It's been amazing. And anybody can. That is the bottom line of my work. It doesn't matter who you are, whether you are rich or poor, life is available."
HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is completing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe for Alfred Knopf. She writes regularly about art and design.