Looking for the Heroes: The Photography of Sheila Metzner
How do we come to construct our understanding of what fashion is?
Sure, it's cultural and social. It has to do with how we were raised, and where, and with what we were told about dress and appearance in the places and spaces we come from. It's also closely tied up with who we are as individuals, and the values and tastes we have, whether naturally or conditioned.
But it also has to do with the images we see that help us define fashion for ourselves. Somehow, in coming to our own sense of what fashion means, we pull ideas from the air and internalize them into a working relationship between ourselves and the clothes we wear, which we visit and revisit throughout our lives as we turn to those clothes for different things. In this sense then, in the sense that fashion images influence our most closely held ideas about fashion, fashion photography matters.
So, who should influence us? Whose work should we let in?
I say let in the artists who make us feel expansive. The ones who take us places and make us feel, even temporarily, that there is possibility in fashion. That slipping on a new dress can be a portal to a new identity or a new reality, if only for an evening. Don't we need more of that kind of magic in our lives? Fashion is powerful because with the right frame of mind, a dress can take you somewhere. But if I've learned anything, it's that the key isn't the dress, but the frame of mind.
Sheila Metzner is a photographer whose mind, and world, I adore being in. There's beauty and whimsy and wistfulness. There's magic.
Metzner began her work as a photographer by taking pictures of her young family in Upstate New York. Rooted in place by the demands of family life, she dreamed of far away lands. Describing the time, she says, "My earlier travel works are titled 'Antarctica' and 'Egypt.' But all of those pictures were photographed in Upstate New York, down by the creek, because I couldn't go anywhere, I had so many children! And so I had to invent the places I wished to go to." This quality of escapism, this intuitive understanding of the ability an image has to take you somewhere, stayed with Metzner years later when her work as a fashion photographer took her all over the world. Which leaves me wondering, when you really think about it, how different is a fashion photograph from a travel photograph?
"I don’t like to be seen as a fashion photographer, but I have always been interested in costume. The princes in the fairytales and all of that always wore really great clothes, as the princesses did."
- Sheila Metzner
"There’s something behind fashion, too. It’s interesting to make those decisions about which girl you’re going to put the clothes on or how she’s going to be or how she’s going to sit. I mean she’s representing something for a lot of young people out there. I think there’s a tremendous responsibility in photographing fashion in how you represent our life on earth. And there’s a lot of it I don’t like. And there’s a lot being done in the world today that I wish my kids didn’t have to see. Especially my grandchildren. All I have is my own sense of the ideals that my parents gave me and what good is and what evil is. And I’ve just always wanted to represent good, whatever that is."
- Sheila Metzner
"There’s a content in a great image that is extremely powerful, and can even be sacred. And I think that’s what I’m really interested in."
- Sheila Metzner