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Sheila Metzner 

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Immortal Images

Sheila Metzner exhibits her early photos in Petaluma

By Maja Wood

LIKE MOST parents, Sheila Metzner took many pictures of her seven children. One day she was snapping photos of the kids, the next day Warren Beatty was calling her at home, asking to have his picture taken.

Then the editors of Vanity Fair and Vogue, as well as companies such as Chanel, Victoria's Secret, and Ralph Lauren started throwing photo assignments and contracts at her. And let's not forget all those museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which began adding her prints to their collections.

"Life can be surprising and amazing," Metzner muses, speaking on her cell phone from Utah, where she's on assignment for Condé Nast Traveler.

Metzner launched her career 23 years ago with a New York gallery show that, not surprisingly, included many pictures of her favorite models--her children. Since then, she's become an internationally known photographer, a contemporary master of the art form with a unique style and a dazzling diversity of subjects.

Now, after nearly a quarter of a century, those early photos will be exhibited for the first time since that premiere showing. Many of the prints are the only ones available outside of Metzner's personal collection, but they'll soon be on exhibit in downtown Petaluma.

The exhibit opens with a talk by Metzner on Saturday, May 5, at the Barry Singer Gallery, a gallery known among photography aficionados for its collection of work by the likes of George Rodger and Lloyd Ullberg. The gallery has now moved to larger quarters in a street-level location just around the corner from the former site.

"I wanted to inaugurate the new space with a blockbuster exhibit," owner Barry Singer says. "I wanted a strong show, something that would make a big impact. And this is it."

Metzner, 62, is also excited about the new exhibit, explaining that the photographs hold many memories for her.

"Back then, when I was taking those shots, I was hoping that someday I could work as a photographer, but I never dreamed all this would happen," she explains.

Building a career, plus raising five children of her own, plus helping with two children from her husband's previous marriage, left Metzner with barely any time to sleep.

"I learned that I could shoot even if I wasn't fully awake and even if the kids were pulling my hair," Metzner says. "So, during the day, I'd take photographs with the kids. And then around 9:30 at night, when they were asleep, I'd take a shower and get dressed up in high heels and lipstick so that I wouldn't feel like it was the end of the day. And then I would go in the darkroom and make the prints until about 3 or 4 in the morning."

Many of the shoots included outings to nearby areas of upstate New York. "The kids were young, and I wasn't able to travel," she recalls. "So I would take them somewhere close to home to do a shoot, somewhere that was somehow symbolic of an exotic place, such as Egypt, and we'd pretend to be there."

Metzner was very particular about her photographs, and at the end of nine years she had 22 prints that she felt were worthy of being shown. She went to a gallery and spread her 22 photos on the floor, and the owner agreed to do a show on the spot.

During that show, a picture of Metzner's stepdaughter, titled Evyan, Kinderhook Creek, caught the eye of John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art. Szarkowski included it in his famous and controversial exhibit "Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960." There, it was noticed by powerful New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer, who devoted an entire page to Metzner's picture. (This print is included in the upcoming exhibit at the Barry Singer Gallery.)

On the heels of that success, Metzner was given a solo show, which garnered a half-page review in the Sunday New York Times Magazine section. All those raves caught the attention of a Vanity Fair editor, who called Metzner and hired her to do a photo shoot of French actress Jeanne Moreau. The editors of Vogue noticed that photograph and signed Metzner on to an exclusive contract for the next eight years.

"The whole progression was just shocking," Metzner says. "Things just started coming together."

For example, early in her success she was interviewed by the New York Daily News and was asked her future plans. "I said I wanted to photograph the Chrysler Building and some vases and Warren Beatty," she says. "A few weeks later, I was at home and my daughter answered the phone and yelled out, 'Mom, Warren Beatty wants to talk with you.'

"I got on the phone and, sure enough, it was him, and he said, 'So, I hear you want to take my picture.' " Metzner recalls. "Just like that. Things just became simple."

In addition to her celebrity shots, fashion photography, and other commercial work, Metzner has always maintained a parallel career in fine art photography. Several of her more recent works, as well as the early prints, will be on exhibit at the Barry Singer Gallery. Among these are landscapes, photos of New York buildings, and some Fresson color photographs of flowers.

Invented in 1895, the Fresson method uses a carbon printing process utilizing pigments instead of dyes, which not only renders the color photos archival, but also leaves the colors looking very rich and textured. The process is a family secret that was passed down from the inventor, and now his grandson and great-grandson are the only ones who know how to do it. Metzner is one of only about 11 photographers worldwide with whom the Fresson family has chosen to work.

Many of Metzner's fine art and commercial photos can be seen in her fourth book, Form and Fashion (Arena; $60), which was released last month. Her landscape photographs can be found in Inherit the Earth (Bulfinch; $75), which came out in October.

Metzner says that one of the main perks of her job is that she is given assignments around the globe, and that's when she takes the landscape photos for herself.

Two of her photographs in Inherit the Earth are of the pyramids in Egypt. But this time, it's the real Egypt.

Sheila Metzner gives a talk on her work on Saturday, May 5, at 5 p.m. A reception follows from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit of her photographs continues through June 23 at the Barry Singer Gallery, 7 Western Ave., Petaluma. For details, call 707/781-3200.

From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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