The First Female Art Director
Sheila Metzner is an American photographer whose portfolio spans a variety of subject matters from fashion and advertising to portraiture, from landscape and still life. Born in 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, Metzner attended he Pratt Institute in New York for Visual Communications. Following her studies, she was hired by the Doyle Dane Bernbach advertising agency as its first female art director. She was also taking photographs throughout her directorship, although most of her photographs in the first 10 years were focused on private subjects, mainly her family. These photographs were inspired by 19th century English photographers such as Julia Margaret, and remained unpublished as part of her early works.
The First Female Photographer to Collaborate with Vogue
In 1978, one of her early photographs was included in the groundbreaking exhibition “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960” which was held in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and was instrumental in launching her career as a fine art photographer. From then on, she became the first female photographer to collaborate with Vogue, as well as shooting assignments for numerous other magazines including W Magazine, and shot campaigns for the likes of Valentino, Elizabeth Ardne, Fendi, Perry Ellis, Saks 5th Avenue and Shiseido. Apart from her fashion portfolio, Metzner has also photographed celebrity portraits throughout her career including Uma Thurman, David Lynch, Milla Jovovich and Tilda Swinton.
A Unique Signature Style
Despite working in a variety of genres, Sheila Metzner has a unique, recognizable signature style. Deeply personal, her images are distinguishable with their sensuality and grace. There is almost always a soft focus, combined with saturated deep colors that give the images their painterly aura. Metzner draws influences from 19th and 20th century Pictorialist photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Man Ray. She believed that it was the
“responsibility of the artist to absorb artworks of the past no matter how we receive them and to transmit them to the future.”
The Fresson Method
Besides the soft, romantic style of Metzner’s images, it is also the printing method that she uses that lends her images their fragile quality. The Fresson method is considered to be one of the most archival and stable among any form of color printing today. Founded by Theodore Henri Fresson in 1899, the technique was initially used for monochromatic prints and was later used to produce the first color carbon prints. Fresson printing prioritizes the overall mood and character of the work, as can be seen in Metzner’s images, and is believed to be the most painterly of the printing processes. The slow nature of the Fresson technique further compliments Metzner’s dreamy and often ethereal photographs, as it takes around six hours for each print to be completed. Metzner said that:
“art was a call to the recognition of surface and beauty as a transforming power’”
The Fresson technique surely transformed her photographs into fantastical, dreamy scenes.
One of Sheila Metzner’s most well known photographs is titled Joko. Passion and dated 1987. The photograph shows a model in a red gown and ruby and diamond earrings, with her head leaning back. In the center of the composition, a protea sits in an antique vase, between the model and a painting. The model seems to be mirroring the figure in the painting, yet the face of the figure is masked with the leaf. Metzner’s photograph gives the feeling of being trapped in the fantasy world she has created. The soft edges and moody, rich colors give the image a glow, almost as if it is a scene from a daydream. The model has here eyes closed with her head leaning backwards in perhaps a moment of revelry which once again highlights the elegant sensuality recurrent in Metzner’s photographs. The art critic Carol Squiers commented on the uniqueness of Metzner’s fashion work saying;
“At a time when fashion photography was caught between sterility and snapshot, Metzner created a sumptuous vision that stimulated the entire field.”
Indeed, as can be seen in this photograph, the portrait of Joko is like a carefully curated tableaux where fashion and art is perfectly intertwined.
Balancing Her Commercial and Personal Lives
Throughout her illustrious career which still continues, Sheila Metzner has always balanced her commercial and personal lives. Her photographs are distinctly recognizable with their softness and depth are frequently referenced today. Whether a portrait or a still life, landscape or fashion, Sheila Metzner creates worlds of beauty frequently that allude to classic paintings. Apart from her impressive fashion work, her fine arts photographs are included in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The J. Paul Getty Museum, The International Center of Photography, The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Chrysler Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago, as well as many personal collections. She has published five monographs of which Objects of Desire won the American Society of Magazine Photographers Ansel Adams Award for Book Photography; Sheila Metzner’s Color; Inherit the Earth, a collection of landscapes, Form and Fashion, a collection of images culled from twenty years of her work in fine-art and fashion, and Sheila Metzner: From Life in 2017.