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Photographs of Gary Metz

February 24 – May 14, 2016

Exhibition Opening Reception:
Wednesday, February 24, 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Black and white landscape photograph of A frame houses with snow and mountains in background
From the series Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint by Gary Metz
“…our perceptions of the world will ultimately tell us more about our perception than they will tell us of the world. Likewise, any photograph tells us more of photography than the subject represented and a body of work by an individual will inform us more of the photographer per se than of photography.” - Gary Metz


In the 1970’s, the late photographer and educator Gary Metz generated a significant body of work that was very much in the spirit of the times. Metz’s Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint challenged the first 100 years of landscape photography, which had placed a major emphasis on depicting nature as sublime, heroic, and unspoiled. Unlike previous photographers who glorified nature, Metz and his contemporaries wrenched photography out of the national parks and replaced the scenic with the vernacular of the everyday American landscape. A number of Metz’s colleagues received wide recognition for their similar investigations culminating in the seminal 1975 exhibition, The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House. Gary Metz never received the same level of acknowledgement. Now, 40 years later, his Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint is as powerful and relevant as ever, resonating with current interest in ecology and the quotidian. Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint is a long overdue exhibition of our former teacher’s photographs. We hope that you enjoy the intelligence, formal rigor, and humor found in each of these images.

Stephan Apicella-Hitchcock & Joseph Lawton, Exhibition Curators
Professors, Fordham University Fordham University’s Ildiko Butler Gallery

Gary Metz and the Spirit of Inquiry

Essay by Edward W. Earle, Curator, Collections
International Center of Photography, New York

Gary Metz was always interested in exploring many directions in photography. Two parallel roads that ultimately converge are “thinking pictorially,” and “picturing rhetorically.” His photographic work and his writing all lead to a study of what might be called the phenomenology of photography.

He brought literature from many disciplines to bear on photographic expression from perceptual psychology, through the many variants of critical theory. He argues that any photograph is rooted in two points of view: that mediated by the camera/print technology and through cultural/aesthetic position of the photographer.

As he stated in an essay from 1977: “…our perceptions of the world will ultimately tell us more about our perception than they will tell us of the world. Likewise, any photograph tells us more of photography than the subject represented and a body of work by an individual will inform us more of the photographer per se than of photography.” (1)

These nested notions are very much a part of Metz’s working methodology and his expansive humor. The very title of this exhibition, Quaking Aspen, refers to the tree found throughout Colorado and the mountain states. The tree is so named because its leaves tremble in the slightest breeze. The Latin word for the Quaking Aspen tree is Populus tremuloides. A more literal translation from that Latin phrase to English takes us to people, not trees – “shaking people” or a “quaking populations.” This Latin translation also takes us closer to Metz’s exploration of the changing nature of human habitation and its imposition on the terrain. “Quaking Aspen” becomes a playful warning in Metz’s “lyric complaint.”
Black and white landscape photograph of a little pine tree with snow on the branches in a neighborhood
From the series Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint by Gary Metz

The altitude of Aspen, Colorado, is 7,890 feet. The median price for a home, about 35 years after Gary Metz’s photographs, is about $4.5 million. In the 1970s, when Metz arrived in Colorado, the town of Aspen still had its counterculture elements. Just a few years before, Hunter S. Thompson, the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), ran successfully for sheriff of the county. Starting in 1974, Aspen’s police department used Saab automobiles for patrol cars. John Denver was a resident and the transformation of the old mining town into a fiefdom for the rich was in its early stages. Metz’s exploration of Aspen turned away from the red brick downtown and the mountains become only a backdrop for his rigorous horizontally framed images. Instead of focusing on Populus tremuloides (the Aspen tree), he isolates the artifacts of the Populus, of the people, in spaces devoid of human beings. His framing of interstitial spaces purposely does not describe a single habitation but patterns of fabrication on the domestic landscape that further emphasizes the complexity of everyday life. Metz’s careful framing and reduction of seemingly random elements into elegant monochrome creates a field of precision upon which to layer new meaning. While the photographs do not depict people, Metz does allow for one species to invade his frame: Canis lupus familiaris. In this case an unleashed dog is far from the wild animals that inhabit the mountains visible in the distance. The dog is the oldest domesticated animal, well named as Canis familiaris. Its presence is a further emphasis of the tension between freedom and domesticity in this ever-changing township.

Gary Metz’s pictorial rhetoric often uses a central object as a foil for that which surrounds it. He also employs that same intense mountain light that fills a valley for glorious picture postcards to reveal gleaming plastic and other manufactured objects in almost surreal settings. This body of work is very much a part of the “new topographics” movement in photography, well-articulated in an exhibition by that name at the George Eastman House in 1974. (2) This iconoclastic group of photographers moved from the grand landscapes of 19th and 20th century tradition and from the cityscapes of Alfred Stieglitz or Berenice Abbott to small anonymous towns, warehousing, and growing housing developments that were imposed on the physical terrain – particularly in the West. However, while many of his contemporary compatriots took a step back to provide a long, cool, encompassing view, Metz tended to move into the space to confront the disparate and ill-formed nature of the built environment to further activate the edges of his frame and raise new questions for his audience.

In many ways, the late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of photographic enlightenment. It was a time when museums, alternative spaces and educational institutions embraced photography and created venues for presentation and exploration. Gary Metz’s work matured during this period, not only his picture making as seen in Quaking Aspen, but also his thinking about photography. In 1970, he was among the first group of students at Nathan Lyons’ MFA program at the Visual Studies Workshop (VSW) in Rochester, NY. Lyons encouraged students not to merely accept received notions about photographic practice but to explore the fundamental nature of the medium in order to create something new – radical in the sense of returning to the root. This led Metz to write papers with obtuse titles like “What are Some Conditions that Affect the Production of a Picture?” and “Perception and Discovery.” Within the hybrid environment of art practice and academic exploration that the VSW exemplified, participants were encouraged not to simply study the “medium” but to explore the “field” of photography. That term suggested a much larger territory for cultivation. It is within that realm that Metz dedicated his life as a picture maker, teacher, and interlocutor. Metz was less concerned about gallery representation for his work or the publication of many papers than he was in the continuing spirit of inquiry. The classroom was the most immediate theater for this purpose. Incomplete projects like Quaking Aspen: A Lyric Complaint awaited a new form of inquiry from colleagues and friends to bring it to a public sphere such as this exhibition. It is a welcome notation in the growing history of photography and an important acknowledgement of Gary Metz’s dedication to the field and not just a singular art form.

(1) Gary Metz, “The Landscape as a Photograph,” The Great West: Real/Ideal, Department of Fine Arts, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1977, p. 120.
(2) William Jenkins, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape, International
Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester NY, 1975.

Fordham University Logo This exhibition is generously supported by Fordham University Art Collections & funded in part by a Fordham University Faculty Challenge Grant. For more information please visit

Black and white landscape photograph of mountains neighborhood and wooden arch frame Black and white landscape photograph of tree with house structure
From the series Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint
by Gary Metz
From the series Quaking Aspen: a Lyric Complaint
by Gary Metz

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