Sheila Metzner

Sheila Metzner portrait by Herb Ritts via Widewalls

Feature image: Sheila Metzner portrait by Herb Ritts via Widewalls

Spotlight on Sheila Metzner

“Photography… in its most basic form is magic… This image, caught in my trap, my box of darkness, can live. It is eternal, immortal.”

- Sheila Metzner

The fashion of the 1980s was defined by bold patterns, bright colors, and dramatic silhouettes. The art and fashion of the decade were infused with a sense of playfulness and dreamlike escapism. Sheila Metzner emerged as a prominent photographer in the 80s, renowned for her unique style that blended classical elegance with avant-garde perspectives. Metzner made a lasting impression on 20th-century photography when she became the first woman to have her work regularly featured in Vogue Magazine. Her distinctive portfolio is inspired by pictorialism and modernism and utilizes the tedious Fresson process.

Sheila Metzner as seen by Herb Ritts, 1990
Sheila Metzner, as seen by  Herb Ritts , 1990

Sheila Metzneer was born in Brooklyn in 1939. She graduated from the Pratt Institute with a major in visual communication in 1960. From there, she launched a career as an art director. She married fellow art director Jeffrey Metzner in 1968, leaving her job to become the matriarch of a large blended family of eight children. After leaving her job to raise her children, she took up photography. She taught herself the ins and outs of working behind the camera, developing negatives, and making prints. After nearly a decade of practice, her prints were shown at the Daniel Wolf Gallery in New York. Commissions for editorial work surrounded Metzner in the early 80s, leading to a contract with Vogue from 1981-1989. Her commercial clients included Valentino, Shiseido, Ralph Laure, Oscar de la Renta, and Elizabeth Arden.

Sheila Metzner, Joko. Passion, 1987, Fresson Photograph
Sheila Metzner, Joko. Passion, 1987, Fresson Photograph via Holen Luntz Gallert

Because she had spent 13 years pursuing photography as a hobby while raising a family, Metzner was unknown to the art world when editorial director Alexander Liberman called to ask her to work for Vogue. She had taken it upon herself to learn the art of production, lighting, fashion, and the names that went with it. Metzner was inspired by 19th-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who raised five children and forged a successful career in spite of restrictive gender norms. Metzner developed negatives and printed photos in her home studio while her family slept at night. Her career trajectory is especially notable for her ability to balance raising a family with her artistic pursuits, providing a brilliant example of coexisting creativity and motherhood.

Metzner’s work shows an interest in period techniques and styles, demonstrating her versatility and talent. In her own words, she explains that it is the artist’s responsibility “to absorb the artworks of the past–no matter how we receive them–and to transmit them to the future.”

Shiela Metzner, Camidoglio, 1986 for Fendi fragrance via WWD
Shiela Metzner, Camidoglio, 1986 for Fendi fragrance via WWD

Pictorialism

Pictorialism is an aesthetic movement that dominated photography in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. It represented a set of principles about photography’s role as an art form. The main goal of pictorialism was to elevate photography to the status of high art by emphasizing artistic expression and manipulation of photographs. In light of this goal, pictorialist photographers sought to create images that resembled paintings, emphasizing the beauty of a photo’s subject matter, tonality, and composition rather than its documentation of reality. Photographers utilize soft focus, elaborate composition, and unique printing techniques to capture an atmospheric aesthetic. Pictorialist photographers often manipulated their work through retouching, toning, and multiple exposures to enhance the mood of their photos. Pictorialism laid the groundwork for later movements, such as modernism and photojournalism, eventually falling out of favor with the rise of documentary-style photography.

Like pictorialist artists of the past, Sheila Metzner sought to be taken seriously as an artist—her career is an emphatic claim that photography is a legitimate art form. The dreamy, romantic aura of her editorial photographs emulates the appearance of oil paintings. Her subjects are idealized yet realistic. Curator Anne Hoy posits that Metzner’s work is not an exploitation or commodification of women but a “celebration of the eternal feminine.”

White Anthuriums. Gray Vase, 1980, Sheila Metzner. Pigment print. Getty Museum. © Sheila Metzner via Getty.edu
White Anthuriums. Gray Vase, 1980, Sheila Metzner. Pigment print. Getty Museum. © Sheila Metzner
Robert Mapplethorpe, 1984, Sheila Metzner. Pigment print. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Sheila Metzner via Getty.edu
Robert Mapplethorpe, 1984, Sheila Metzner. Pigment print. Gift of The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation to the J. Paul Getty Trust and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Sheila Metzner

Modernism

In photography, the modernist movement celebrated the camera as a mechanical tool. It rejected the painterly quality of pictorialism and encouraged straightforward images of modern life. Modernist photography is characterized by clean lines, sharp focus, and repetition of form. Rather than attempting to mimic a painting, modernist photographs embrace the medium’s inherent characteristics, capturing a moment as it appears.

Metzner embraced modernist photography and family photographs in her still life. Like most parents, she loved to take photos of her children. Her intimate family photographs have even been displayed in her exhibitions as examples of her ties to modernism. In an article for Wallpaper.com, Metzner states, “I was deeply embedded in the world of fashion, but it wasn’t any more or less than my daughter Bega or my husband Jeffrey. All I’m saying is that I’m interested in life and my exhibition is called ‘From Life.’ It’s not called ‘From Fashion.’”

Sheild Metzner, Marie Sophie, 1986 via Artsy
Sheild Metzner, Marie Sophie, 1986 via Artsy

Fresson Quadrichromy Process

Fresson Quadrichromy is a four-color printing method that was perfected at the end of the 19th century by agronomist Theodore-Henri Fresson. Fresson invented a new photographic paper called charbon-satin that uses pigment rather than dye. The Fresson Method consists of exposing and developing an image from a single negative using dichromate gelatin and four different pigments (cyan, yellow, magenta, and black). The resulting product is stunning in its soft tonalities. Fresson prints are also exceptionally stable and resistant to fading. The method is fascinating because the results often depend on chance, as the materials are influenced by many factors, such as temperature and humidity. Fresson prints are easily recognizable for their moody, textured quality and blended, painterly feel.

The Fresson family has passed down this technique and kept the process a secret. Metzner began to have her photos printed by Fresson in 1979, making her one of only 11 artists with whom the family has deemed worthy to work. One example of Metzner’s Fresson pieces is Painted Gladiola (1980), which resembles a pointillist painting with its specks of color.

Sheila Metzner, Fashion Uma Patou Dress, 1986 © Sheila Metzner
Sheila Metzner, Fashion Uma Patou Dress, 1986 © Sheila Metzner via Musée Magazine

“Sheila Metzner: From Life” was displayed at the Getty Center in early 2024, bringing her work to a new generation of fashion and art lovers. This gallery is the quintessential example of Metzer’s style—skillfully perched at the intersection of three distinct schools of photographic technique. Metzner’s work is unique and striking, demonstrating her commitment to her craft throughout her life— both as a mother and as an artist.


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