Award-Winning Photographer Sheila Metzner Authors From Life
City life can be tough for a fledgling artist: “No trees, no gardens, no anything,” photographer Sheila Metzner, now 78, remarks on her childhood and the commencement of her photographic career in her native Brooklyn. But she also had an escape route—her precocious imagination and the worlds inside the pages of books. The same conditions that might have stifled others instead became fuel for Metzner’s creative fire. “Living in Brooklyn was really a limited experience, and terrifying too,” she tells me. “I think that having so little at the beginning, everything I saw came more from reading than from experiencing.”
For Metzner—whose retrospective-in-a-book, Sheila Metzner: From Life, is out now via Rizzoli— reading was living, because it was all she could do. Digging through encyclopedias of faraway countries and thumbing through novels and magazines about uncharted territories allowed her to develop her own idiosyncratic mind and eye, which in turn saw her limitations become opportunities.
It all culminates in Sheila Metzner: From Life, which she calls “a representation of forty years of taking pictures. The tip of an iceberg that rises above and sits on the bottom of a sea of images.” Once confined to the city, the artist is now free. Once a reader of books, she is now an author, responsible for a voluminous outpouring of publications, including the monograph Objects of Desire, which won the Ansel Adams Award for Book Photography.
Her work has been enshrined in great institutions far and wide, including The MET, MOMA, The International Center of Photography, and The Getty Museum. The places she once could only imagine from her bedroom are now her playground, but when she arrives, the real thing does not supersede the imagined version she has kept with her—instead, the real is conscripted to augment the imagined. “You’re creating a myth, except the one thing that photography has is that you’re transforming life itself,” she says. “It’s not a painting, it’s not a poem—it’s from life.”
Photographers increasingly wield an incredible amount of power when it comes to shaping what we know about the world. This is something to be mindful of in an era where we are swarmed by media sculpted to align us to some cause. But Metzner’s subjectivity produces beauty, not propaganda. She uses the power of photography to enrich herself and the imaginations of her viewers, and she is cognizant of the power she wields. “It’s your vision that you’re applying,” she says. “Transforming life and seeing life through this lens is a larger experience than anyone can imagine.”
Written by Corey Fuller