Something I think about quite a lot are the photographers that have shaped how we think, talk, and go about making photographs. I have been wanting to start a series that looks at certain "themes" and step back to look at the early influences of those ideas and themes and what they can teach us about the picture making experience, composition, printing. While they might not have agreed with being known as "masters of photography" their influence will last long into the future.
I was in the middle of writing such a post tonight when I leaned that photography lost one of those modern masters today. Ray Metzker has passed away at the age of 83. His current show of unique gelatin-silver photographs, constructions, and works on paper—unique as in the only one in existence—is appropriately titled One and Only, and runs through October 25th at the Lawrence Miller Gallery in New York.
Metzker's work is an example of how a photographic vision can continue to grow throughout the life of the artist as ideas are explored and expanded upon over a full career of genuine creativity. The tonal, structural, and temporal constructions in his earlier photographs and experimentations influenced his later straight photographs with the same sense of complexity and structural ambiguity. His book, LANDSCAPES, is one of my personal favorites, and influences in the way that it deals with light and the liveliness of trees.
He came into photography during the fervent time of the 1960s, when the medium was still struggling to be "accepted" as a legitimate art form, and coming away from the "West Coast/East Coast/European" influences that began in the 1930s. In a way, his early photographs could only have been made at that time between the 1960s and 1970s. The techniques and spontaneity and delayed feedback allowed the photographers to create pictures in a much more freely than it is now possible.
I doubt that the same kinds of photographs would be made with today—it is too easy to look at the back of the camera to see if you got it. It doesn't allow for as much discovery if you are always worried about "getting it". Additionally I doubt they would be recognized and valued in the same way if they were made today with todays digital technology and editing tools; the analogue techniques for creating those kinds of composites and multiple exposures were so much more difficult to do well, the digital equivalent might now just be seen as gimmicky and ineffective.
In any case, the thing that drives masters of any medium is that they all set out to create work that is interesting to them personally, which is really what we respond to as viewers and why they will be remembered as great artists.