Ray K. Metzker's natty retrospective at the Getty Center is ideally suited to hang in Richard Meier's museum on a hill. The austere aesthetic that has guided the photographer over the past 60 years—a strictly bounded and refined geometric modernism—is shared by the architect. Both favor a stark monochrome palette, with no ornament to speak of, and have adhered to this cool rationalism throughout their long lives (Mr. Metzker is 81; Mr. Meier is 78) when gaudier alternatives were more popular.
Mr. Metzker is not nearly as celebrated as Mr. Meier but should be more so. His series of "Composites," first assembled in the mid-1960s, are among the glories of postwar American art. Eleven examples occupy the central room of the Getty's photo galleries. Constructed from black-and-white film strips, the prints arranged in seamless grids, these elegant pieces demonstrated for other artists—much as did the works of Bernd and Hilla Becher in Germany at about the same time—that photographs could project the same wrought force on a wall as a sculptural relief.
This retrospective takes us to a time leading to and from the "Composites." Organized jointly by Keith Davis of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., and the Getty's own Virginia Heckert and Arpad Kovacs, it traces a strong through-line in Mr. Metzker's career. From his first maturity in the late 1950s, when he attended the Institute of Design in Chicago and photographed isolated figures walking through the gloom of the Loop, to his recent "Autowackies" (studies in reflected distortion: light bouncing off the curves of car bodies and windshields), he has explored the formal oddities the world has put in front of his imagination.
The bravura of Mr. Metzker's work depends on his postproduction in the darkroom, not on preproduction stagings. He is old school in that regard, willing to let chance and instinct dictate when he raises his camera to his eye. At the same time, whether standing in an empty Los Angeles plaza or observing the grass and leaves in an Italian garden or olive grove, he does not want us to forget he is making photographs. His prints are distillations of reality, personal fictions that test the extremes of the gray scale.
The Photography of Ray K. Metzker and the Institute Of Design
Through Feb. 24
From his Institute of Design years, he learned that the interstices between things could be as important a pictorial element as things themselves. In a 1958 photograph of a cardboard scrap on a Chicago street, he lowered his camera to ground level and let the white of the sky between two sets of tall buildings serve as a frame for the distant figure of a woman.
There is a healthy selection here from his little-known European sojourn, years (1960-61) that contain, he believes, "the seeds of everything I have done in street photography." In an example from 1960 of an older woman and child in Madrid, he boosted the contrast in the printing to such a degree that the reflected sunlight on a wall is turned vacantly white, the stone seeming to dematerialize.
But it was in Philadelphia, where he moved in 1962 and where he still lives, that his experiments with silhouetting and multiple images began to click. Shadows often have a slashing menace in Mr. Metzker's work, which has affinities with film noir.
In a famously theatrical image from 1963, a sailor in his whites appears against an ominous black background. With his coat thrown over his arm and glancing at us, the crowd, he's like a matador strolling out to meet his fate.
In the late 1960s Mr. Metzker often visited Atlantic City and photographed beach and boardwalk denizens, later printing them in paired portraits, a series he called "Couplets." In other experiments, such as his "Pictus Interruptus" series from the late 1970s, he pushed the grain and blur in his photographs to the edge of legibility. A more lyrical quality also can be seen in his post-1980s work. Dancing lines, arabesques of shade, divide his frames.
Mr. Metzker has always been an architectural photographer, viewing people in relation to the spaces they pass through. The "Composites" is the fullest realization of this impulse. Here, he constructed photographs that were like buildings themselves, the strips of prints stacked like floors or corridors.
Almost any kind of subject, from the female nude to windows to commuters going in and out doors at a bus terminal, became material for these pieces. In "Composites: Atlantic City" from 1966 he alternated a light-toned strip of photographs (depicting a pair of phone booths against the sky) with a dark-tone strip (depicting people emerging from an underpass beneath the boardwalk.) The total of 19 layers of photographs has a unique rhythm, not entirely uniform, that was unlike anything else then being done in photography.
At a time when artists of all kinds wanted to move beyond the static image and had turned to minimalist serialism, Mr. Metzker solved the problem with singular panache. He seldom had to resort to gargantuan scale either. The "Composites" may pack more energy, suavity and pizazz into each square inch than any works their size.
A number of the works here were also in "Unknown Territory," Anne Wilkes Tucker's midcareer retrospective of Mr. Metzker's work that traveled the U.S. in 1985-86. But one reason for his relative obscurity may be that the dark, bass tones in his dense and intricate pictures fail to register precisely on the page. As Mr. Davis argues in his fine catalog essay, "The Composites" can be "meaningfully experienced only as actual objects; reproductions inevitably flatten and simplify their protosculptural dimensionality."
For historical context, the Getty has included a number of works by other photographers who were either instructors or students at the Institute of Design, including László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes, Joseph Jachna, Kenneth Josephson, Nathan Lerner and Henry Holmes Smith. Separate rooms are set aside for Mr. Metzker's teachers, Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, decisive influences as well as his close friends.
Context of this sort might be welcome in a group show about the Chicago School, but these pictures here tend to diminish Mr. Metzker's claims on our attention. It's not as if his oeuvre in more luxuriant profusion couldn't command this space without aid from others.
The only knock on this retrospective then, which can be seen here until Feb. 24 before moving late in 2013 to the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, is that there are not more "Composites." He has done almost 100. Eleven is too few. They deserve a retrospective of their own.
Mr. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.
A version of this article appeared January 8, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Distillations of Reality.