“Many people can claim that their photographs are a diary of their life. But few have had a life like Metzner’s.” So writes critic Hunter Drohojowska-Philp in her introduction to Sheila Metzner’s new book, From Life, published by Rizzoli. Based on its pages and this fall’s exhibition of Metzner’s work at Staley-Wise Gallery, on view until January 20, we’d be hard pressed to argue. Metzner was an art director-turned-photographer when she captured John Szarkowski’s attention with a small portfolio of 22 images. He bought a print for MoMA’s permanent collection and included her in a major exhibition of postwar photographs in 1978. She went on to become the first woman photographer to work regularly for Vogue. She has traveled the world making both personal and assignment work, and has shown her photographs in galleries and museums.
Metzner was in her mid-30s when she left her advertising career to focus on her family and on photography, splitting her time between a home on New York’s Upper West Side and a country house, and printing photographs after her children went to bed. Inspired by 19th century painters and early 20th century Pictorialist photographers, she started out photographing her husband, the art director Jeffrey Metzner, and their children, and making still lifes, landscapes and cityscapes during a period of time when she led a “fairy-tale existence cut off from the world at large,” she writes in the book. Wanting to print in color but dissatisfied with the available technology, she convinced the exclusive French printer Atelier Fresson to work with her, and the Fresson prints have helped define her painterly color work. “For me, it was a miracle,” she writes of the printing technique. Legendary art director Alexander Liberman brought Metzner in to Vogue (and fashion photography) while he was Editorial Director of Condé Nast Publications. Then, she began pursuing advertising work in the 1980s after she discovered a beautiful studio space she wanted to rent. She writes: “I went to Alexander Liberman. I told him I needed a studio and that I wasn’t making enough money….And then I wrote a letter to Ralph Lauren.” The advertising assignments that followed paid for the dream studio.
Both the book and exhibition mix Metzner’s personal and commissioned work—a young Kim Basinger in Africa, Uma Thurman in Paris, Metzner’s husband lounging at home—to convey a sense of her romantic vision, which has remained largely consistent across the decades since she began photographing in the late 1960s. How did Metzner manage such a charmed life? “I don’t know,” she writes, but, refreshingly, she admits: “I never did any of this alone. I need help, and all my assistants were far more gifted than I ever was.”—Conor Risch
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