Books: "Sheila Metzner: From Life"

By David Schonauer   Friday October 20, 2017

Sheila Metzner  came out of the world of fashion and advertising.

But commerce, she once said, was never a concern of hers. “The idea of commerce grew as the years went by,” she said in a 2015 interview with Upstate Diary. “Originally, I was hired by Vogue as an artist, [and] finally the man who hired me fired me as that artist — Alexander Liberman — his final words were, 'My dear, you're a great artist, but Vogue doesn't need art.’”

But the world did, and Metzner went on to earn herself a place among the top photographers in the business during the 1980s, by bringing her art to portrait, fashion, and still-life photography. Now that work is on view in a new book, Sheila Metzner: From Life, and an exhibition at New York’s Staley-Wise Gallery.

“Sheila Metzner’s photographs are unmistakable; totally original and unique,” notes the gallery. “[S]he creates an atmosphere of extreme elegance, and at the same time they are sensual and romantic. Objects, whether an Art Deco vase or metal sculpture, are imbued with character and beauty. Also memorable is her use of color – rich, deep and sumptuous. Every photograph tells a story of personal involvement and deeply felt emotion.”

The new book, from Rizzoli, brings together more than 300 of Metzner’s photographs in an oversized (11.5 inches x 14.5 inches) volume, accompanied by  the photographer’s behind-the-scenes stories about the work.

Born in Brooklyn, Metzner attended Pratt Institute and got her first job in advertising for CBS.  She then became the first female art director for the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency. She married art director Jeffrey Metzner in 1968 and decided to embark on a new career as she raised five children.

“I called my advertising agency, and they asked if I was coming back,” Metzner told Update Diary. “‘No,’ I said, and that was the end of that. When I told my husband Jeffrey that I quit my job, he said, ‘Great.’”

She didn’t know at first that she would become a photographer, however. “I did have a camera, but I wasn't yet a photographer,” Metzner said. “A great photographer, Aaron Rose, said, 'You have a good eye, you live like an artist, and you’ll be good at it.' I started with the kids, just photographing my family, and then I included friends. It took about nine years before I had 22 photographs for my first exhibition, 'Friends and Family.'”

The book includes many of Metzner's intimate family portraits from her home in Woodstock, New York, along with fashion editorials, nudes, and landscapes.

A turning point in Metzner’s career came in 1979 when she started having her photographs printed in France at Fresson Atelier, using a century-old technique that gave the images a romantic tonality and exquisite texture that harkened back to the work of early 20th-century Pictorialists. The look became Metzner's signature. Arts writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp notes in the book’s introduction that Metzner was one of the emerging artists whose work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s landmark 1980 exhibition “Mirrors and Windows,”  in which famed curator John Szarkowski explored the notion that photographers “were looking outward or looking inward, or sometimes both.”

Photo dealer Daniel Wolf featured Metzner’s Fresson pictures in 1980 in a solo show at his gallery and her career took off. “The response was so positive that she was courted by art directors for magazines and fashion and perfume companies and soon wound up with a contract at Vogue,” Drohojowska-Philp writes.

After that, he notes, it was all a matter of balancing art and work. Which, as we now know, she did uncompromisingly.


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