Sheila Metzner’s unique photographic style has positioned her as a contemporary master in the worlds of fine art, fashion, portraiture, still life, and landscape photography.
Looking at Metzner’s photographs is a captivating experience. Innocent, sensual, and sexual, each photo, regardless of subject, exhibits and elicits deep emotion. It is nearly impossible to just glance at Metzner’s photos; they beg to be studied.
She says, “photography in its most basic form is magic…This image, caught in my trap, my box of darkness, can live (The word “camera” in Italian is defined as “room”). The child in the image will not age as the living child will. The image is eternal, immortal.
Sheila was born in Brooklyn. While attending the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, she was awarded the Mayor Robert F. Wagner scholarship to the college of her choice. She chose Pratt Institute, where she majored in Visual Communications. Her fondness for painting and sculpture also led her to study with abstract artists Jack Tworkov and James Brooks.
After graduating in 1961, Sheila worked as an assistant to Lou Dorfsman at CBS Network Advertising. Five years later, she was hired by the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency as its first female art director, and in 1968 she met and married art director Jeffrey Metzner. After the birth of her first son Raven, she was riding in a taxi with her friend and mentor, Aaron Rose, discussing whether or not to give up her career in advertising. “He said, ‘You should be a photographer. You live like an artist. You have a good eye; you’ll be good at it.'”
Metzner started taking pictures, amassing them slowly over the next 13 years while raising five children; Raven, Bega, Ruby, Stella, and Louie. Jeffrey’s two daughters from a previous marriage, Evyan, and Alison, were also a regular part of the family. “When they were really small, I’d be with them during the day photographing and printing at night. At eight or nine in the evening, when they were all asleep, I’d take a shower to wake up and put on high heels and lipstick, which I wore then, to give me the feeling of being ready to work.” She continues, “I brought my children into my work. When I couldn’t travel because of them, I would find a place in Upstate New York and call it Antarctica or Egypt. I created microcosms.”
Nine years later, Metzner had accumulated a box of 22 pictures. One of them, a black-and-white photograph of Jeffrey’s daughter Evyan, entitled “Evyan, Kinderhook Creek,” caught the eye of John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, and he included it in his famous and controversial exhibition, Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960. The New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer gave the picture a full page in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section, and it became the dark horse hit of the exhibition. Later that year, Metzner’s first solo show at the Daniel Wolf Gallery in New York drew record crowds, and Gene Thornton reviewed it in a half page in the Sunday New York Times. Metzner was now ready to work in color, but not just any color. As with her subjects, of which she said, “If I photograph a rose, I want it to be the iconic rose. The kind of rose Beauty brought to her father from the Beast’s garden,” she aspired to an essential kind of color. “I wanted something that would last. I was looking for Fresson even though I didn’t know he existed.”
The Fresson family works outside of Paris, and their time-consuming “proces de charbon” printing method is a family secret, invented in 1895. Up to seven pigments are used in a print, resulting in the only true archival color print. Metzner is one of the few photographers with whom they work, and Fresson prints are the perfect complement to her style. They have a finish which Metzner describes as “a glaze on fine porcelain. The moment I saw the neutral gray,” she adds, “I knew it was perfect.”
In 1980 Metzner showed her Fresson color prints at her second solo exhibition at the Daniel Wolf Gallery. This show led to commissioned editorial work for such magazines as Vanity Fair, Vogue, and Rolling Stone. She had an exclusive contract with Vogue for the next eight years. Metzner considers her Vanity Fair portrait of actress Jeanne Moreau a turning point in her career because “it gave me a chance to show my work to a broader audience. I wasn’t just producing photographs for the art world.” Critic Carol Squiers wrote of Sheila’s foray into fashion photography, “At a time when fashion photography was caught between sterility and the snapshot, Metzner created a sumptuous vision that stimulated the entire field.”
Metzner started doing commercial photography around this time. Her first client was Valentino, followed by Elizabeth Arden, Perry Ellis, Shiseido, Saks Fifth Avenue, Paloma Picasso, Victoria’s Secret, Levi’s, Ralph Lauren, Revlon, and the fragrances for Shiseido and Fendi (with the Fendi campaign winning a Fragrance Foundation Recognition Award). Her clients have also included Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman. Her work has appeared on CD covers and international book jackets, and she also began doing extensive travel and landscape photography. For years, Metzner was under contract with Conde-Nast and was featured in American, British, and German Vogue as well as Vanity Fair, the Traveler, and House and Garden.
Not content to stay in one area, Metzner has worked on special assignment for films, including Wild at Heart, Black Rain, Jennifer 8, and Bugsy. She has done special photography for John Huston, Ridley Scott, Jessica Lange, Warren Beatty, Uma Thurman, Isabella Rosselini, John Malkovich, Willem Dafoe, and many others. She has also directed television commercials and produced and directed her own short film on the artist Man Ray.
Metzner has published four monographs: Objects of Desire, which won the American Society of Magazine Photographers Ansel Adams Award for Book Photography; Color; Inherit the Earth, a collection of landscapes shot during her travels; and most recently, Form and Fashion, a collection of images culled from forty years worth of her work in fine-art and fashion. In addition to her own books, her work is featured in countless other books on photography. Sheila was awarded the International Center of Photography Infinity Award and the 1987 Best Print Advertising Campaign Award from the Fragrance Foundation. She gave the William A. Reedy memorial lecture on photography in Rochester in 1990, which was televised by satellite throughout the world.
Metzner’s first American museum exhibition, “Sheila Metzner; 1991: A Retrospective”, was held at the International Center of Photography. She was inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame in 1997. Metzner’s fine art photographs are featured in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The International Center of Photography, The J. Paul Getty Museum, The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Chrysler Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, Agfa and Polaroid Corporations, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Norton as well as many personal collections. She now exhibits with galleries nationally; Staley Wise in New York, Fahey/Klein in Los Angeles, Peter Fetterman in Santa Monica and internationally The Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin, and LA Galerie Rouge in Paris.
Says Metzner, ” I was told by many people when I began that photography was dead and that I was really foolish to involve myself in it. But photography continues to evolve and has made my life a most extraordinary one.