Sheila Metzner recalls her first commission from a major New York magazine that catapulted her career.
It was in the early ’80s when she received a call from Lloyd Ziff, the creative art director at Vanity Fair, the magazine recently resurrected by Condé Nast. He had seen Metzner’s name on a list of photographers the previous creative art director, Bea Feitler, wanted to work with. But the 44-year-old Feitler had passed away before acting on her wish list.
“Lloyd called and said, ‘Can I see your portfolio?’” Metzner says. “But I never had a portfolio because for years I had been making photos on my own and a lot of them were on my pool table. So I told him he would have to come to my apartment, which he did.”
Ziff saw the photos and said he would call when something came up. Soon he was on the phone asking her to photograph legendary French actress Jeanne Moreau for the revamped magazine’s second issue. “But I didn’t have a studio. I had to photograph her in my apartment,” the photographer says.
That Vanity Fair assignment caught the attention of Condé Nast’s legendary editorial director Alexander Liberman, who asked her to work with Vogue and later other of the group’s magazines. “I got to Vogue and editors were asking, ‘Where did she come from?’ I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know how to light because I always used natural light. I had to learn about production, fashion and the names that went with it. I was introduced to people like Karl Lagerfeld, but I didn’t know anybody. I was so naïve.”
Metzner hadn’t been rubbing shoulders with fashion designers or famous models because for nearly 10 years she and her husband, creative director and graphic designer Jeffrey Metzner, were in New York raising their five children and his two children from a previous marriage while working on their careers.
But Sheila, a former ad agency art director at Doyle Dane Bernbach, took inspiration from 19th-century British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who raised five children during the Victorian era and worked as a photographer. Metzner wanted to do the same thing and independently studied photography, developing negatives and printing photos at night when her family was asleep.
For decades, the 84-year-old Metzner, a charismatic and curious woman with long curly white hair, was known for the artistic qualities infused in her well-composed photographs.
These photographs are on display until Feb. 18 at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. The exhibition, called “Sheila Metzner: From Life,” has 40 works that include a combination of her well-known fashion photographs for Fendi, Balenciaga and Ralph Lauren as well as portraits of model and actress Brooke Shields in 1985, model Tina Chow in 1987 and fellow photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in 1984. There are also several eye-catching landscapes that were included in her book “Inherit the Earth.”
Paul Martineau, the Getty Center curator of photographs who organized the exhibition, has known Metzner for three decades and included two of her works in his 2018 book “Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion.” “I felt it was a long enough time since her work had been seen, so it would be new to a lot of people who could look on it with a fresh eye,” the curator says.
Metzner hasn’t had a solo museum exhibition in the U.S. since 1991, when the International Center for Photography in Brooklyn organized a show. But there have been plenty of gallery exhibitions and shared shows of her work, including a retrospective of American photography from the ’70s and ’80s, which was organized three years ago by the Helmut Newton Foundation in Berlin.
In addition to the Getty exhibition, the Paul Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., has organized its own exhibition called “Sheila Metzner: Objects of Desire,” which runs through Jan. 5. “This is a different curation from the Getty show,” says Fetterman, a long-time collector and dealer of artistic photographs. “For my exhibition, I was attracted more to her still lifes of things like the Brooklyn Bridge. I think they are just pure beauty, craft and incredible mastery of light.”
Metzner burst onto the fashion photography scene in the early ’80s and held her ground there for decades. Many of her photos were reproduced with the Fresson printing method — a carbon printing process done with pigments, which are archival, rather than dyes, which are fugitive, lending a moody quality and textural richness to images.
Metzner discovered this method after being mesmerized by an Edward Steichen photo done in that carbon printing style. She was looking for something similar.
One day Marvin Heiferman of Castelli Graphics called her to his New York City gallery to show her a photo by French photographer Bernard Plossu, whose image used that method. When Heiferman was diverted by someone stealing a framed photo from his gallery and ran out, Metzner saw a Rolodex with the address for the company that had done Plossu’s rich photographic print. It was Atelier Fresson outside of Paris.
Metzner wrote the Fresson workshop a six-page letter inquiring about becoming a client. They wrote back with a price list and said they would work with her, but her communications had to be written in French, which she did.
When her first two still life prints were done, she traveled to outside of Paris to view them. “When I first saw the photographs, I cried,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Mr. Fresson, I am going to work with you for a long time.’ It has been over 40 years now.”
After being noticed by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer in 1978 for a photograph included in the Museum of Modern Art group show “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960,” she later had a show at the Daniel Wolf gallery in New York displaying some of her Fresson printed photographs. Those photos caught the eye of many influential people, which led to the Vanity Fair assignment.
Metzner’s years at Vogue saw her photographing Brooke Shields, Uma Thurman, Paloma Picasso, Kim Basinger, Isabella Rossellini, Molly Ringwald and many more.
Her career as a commercial photographer happened after she talked to Liberman about increasing her rate. He told her her best bet was to shoot advertising photos. “That’s when I wrote a letter to Ralph Lauren. We had a meeting, and I brought him my Fresson prints. We soon started working together,” she says.
Over the years her commercial clients have included Valentino, Elizabeth Arden, Perry Ellis, Shiseido, Fendi, Saks Fifth Avenue, Levi’s, Club Monaco and Neiman Marcus.
Among all those commercial assignments, one of her favorite shoots was for the Fendi fragrance campaign done in Rome. “There were mood boards that came from Karl Lagerfeld. It was about Mannerist paintings. He called it ‘The Passion of Rome and The Colors of Rome,’” the photographer says. “Then Elizabeth Arden, who was making the fragrance, sent these Pygmalion drawings. So, we were looking for locations with antiquated walls.”
She and her crew had gotten a permit to shoot in the gardens outside a museum, but the guard inside the gate maintained the permits were for the exterior of the gates, which was a parking lot.
“We left and went to the home of Alda Fendi [one of the five sisters whose father started Fendi]. We opened the door and right there, in the foyer, was the statue used in the famous Fendi photo of the girl kissing a statue.”
But Metzner didn’t confine herself to fashion. In the early ’90s, she started photographing landscapes around the world after she met the editor of American Way, the American Airlines magazine. The editor gave Metzner two tickets and $2,000 to fly to any American Airlines destination to take photos. Metzner photographed icebergs in Alaska and traveled to Easter Island, Egypt, Costa Rica, Venezuela and Utah.
It was just one more facet of the photographer’s long and successful career. “It has been a tremendous journey,” she says. “It is hard to explain how really, really marvelous it has been.”