A woman reaches her face up toward a marble statue to press her lips to his in a cold kiss. The blush of her cheeks, and the softness of the fur that adorns her, heightens the contrast with the pale, rigid stone. Sheila Metzner photographed this scene for Fendi in 1986, titling it The Passion of Rome, but it doesn’t have the feeling or sensation of an advertisement; rather, through Metzner’s unique eye, the delicate image looks like a painterly reverie, as if viewing the scene through a gossamer lens.
A new show at La Galerie Rouge, “Sheila Metzner: Objets de désir” brings Metzner’s work to Paris, marking her first solo exhibition in France. The gallery’s walls are illuminated by the golden luster of her soft, romantic images, the prints evoking a feel that is somewhere between painting and watercolor as the colors bleed together in a way that is unusual for photography. The images range from classical forms, like her Odalisque, to experimental, like her solarized homage to Man Ray in Elaine, Man Ray.
Having studied at Pratt, Metzner got her start as an art director working for an advertising agency. While working, she became enamored with photography, and began taking pictures as a side vocation; when curator John Szarkowski chose one of her images to include in a 1978 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, she pursued photography full-time.
Many of her photographs have a spontaneous feeling to them, as though Metzner stumbled upon these scenes, but in fact, they are meticulously planned. She describes how she would sketch out storyboards to capture photographs she envisioned, in the same way that a filmmaker plans their shots. “When I started, my interest was photography, a hundred percent,” she says. “My husband always thought I should be a DP for other filmmakers—and I said I just had no interest in translating another person’s vision.” But she was interested in filmmaking by herself. An avowed student of film, she cites Akira Kurosawa as a great inspiration. And Metzner brought filmmaking techniques, alongside storyboarding, into her photographic work.
“My first assignment was shooting couture in Paris for American Vogue, and we had to shoot at night because clients were looking at the clothing during the day,” she says. She hired a cinematographer to work with her, Peter Sova, who taught her how to use HMI lighting, a film technique to create daylight. “Most photographers work with Tungsten,” she says. “But I worked from the beginning of my lighting experience with cinema light. I don’t use strobe, I don’t use flash; you’re not seeing the subject in the same way.”
Soon, Metzner was photographing regularly for Vogue, under famed editorial director Alexander Liberman. “That was a time that just no longer exists,” says Metzner of Liberman’s support, creatively and financially. “His inspiration was always to go further, to follow your inspiration. He was extremely encouraging, and affirming.” Liberman helped her get her first studio; it was the kind of support that today, photographers no longer find at magazines. With slashed budgets comes slashed time; shoots that previously took days or weeks are expected to start and finish in a day. “Filmmakers, directors, even TV shows now have tremendous budgets, and extraordinary amounts of time to do their work,” she says. “It seems that that’s where the money’s going [now]—and not to magazines.”
But the commercial work that she did gave her a path to the work she wanted to do. “It was my ticket to my own work. If I was working in Dubai, I would say to my assistant, ‘Let’s go shoot in Egypt,’” she says, utilizing the opportunity to travel and photograph worlds beyond fashion. “There’s a huge body of work that nobody’s ever seen,” she adds. Some of that work includes travels across Africa, photographing local tribes in addition to the landscapes. “It’s extraordinary,” she says. “Those people, like the Samburu and the Maasai, they are like living gods, so connected with nature.”
The work on view in “Objets de désir” focuses on portraits that sometimes seem more akin to still-life’s; precisely curated tableaus. In Joko, Passion, a water lily grows out of an antique vase, sitting between a painting and a woman leaning her head back in quiet rapture. The muted effect of the print makes it hard to date at first glance; it almost seems an anachronism. It’s Metzner’s homage to Man Ray in Elaine, Man Ray that feels the most distinct from the rest of the work on view. The solarized image, that of a woman’s body in a skin tight dress, takes a form like liquid silver. The image was taken on assignment from Vogue France commemorating Man Ray’s life and work, but Metzner didn’t need convincing to create an homage: “I was always inspired by Man Ray because he was truly an artist as well as a photographer—and a really interesting person,” she says, “And the people that he photographed were as interesting as he was.”
It’s hard to pinpoint which element of Metzner’s work is the most alluring—the romance, the delicate grain of the prints, the symbolism of the styles—but it is her unique, ethereal light that is perhaps the most captivating element. Under that golden glow, it is as if these scenes are moments from the past trapped in amber, perfectly crystalized; a fantasy world that once was, but no longer exists. Thankfully Metzner was there to capture it.
Exhibition: “Sheila Metzner: Objets de desir”, La Galerie Rouge, Paris, until October 16, 2022