Sheila Metzner, Photographer & Artist
5.23.15 Columbia County, NY
"Commerce was never a concern of mine. The idea of commerce grew as the years went by. Originally, I was hired by Vogue as an artist, finally the man who hired me fired me as that artist — Alexander Liberman. His final words were, 'My dear, you're a great artist, but Vogue doesn't need art'.”
Photos by Kate Orne
Interview by Mark Connolly
MC: So Sheila, you started out as an art director. Tell me how you got into photography.
SM: When Raven was born I decided that I had to be with him. And so I called my advertising agency, and they asked if I was coming back. "No,” I said, and that was the end of that. When I told my husband Jeffrey that I quit my job, he said, “Great.”
MC: So he was supportive?
SM: Totally. I didn't know then that I was going to be a photographer. I did have a camera, but I wasn't yet a photographer. A great photographer, Aaron Rose said, "You have a good eye, you live like an artist, and you’ll be good at it." I started with the kids, just photographing my family, and then I included friends. It took about nine years before I had 22 photographs for my first exhibition, “Friends and Family.”
MC: Wow! In one of your books you say, "A hobby became my life." Can you talk about that a bit more?
SM: Jeffrey would call it a hobby. My accountant said, "Sheila, this is not a hobby." It just became what I did, became my life, really. I photographed in the day and then I would print at night. I learned to print, like cooking, from books. You've probably read this, too, when everybody was either watching television or asleep, I would take a shower and get dressed and put on lipstick and high heels and go into my dark room. I'd work until 2 or 3 in the morning almost every night printing, printing. I just did it for years. Aaron would look at my work every few months, and he always had very strong criticism. Then, after those 9 years, I brought him the 22 pictures and he didn't say anything. I knew that I was a photographer.
MC: Did you find having been an art director was useful in being a photographer?
SM: It was useful in that I knew what I didn't want to do. When I was an art director I’d work with iconic photographers such as Melvin Sokolsky, Richard Avedon, Bob Richardson and Bert Stern. They'd shoot beautiful photographs, but they were never what I pictured. But I never, ever thought of being a commercial photographer, never. I wanted to be an artist like Van Gogh.
I was a reclusive child. We lived in a really dangerous neighborhood in Brooklyn. [Laughs] But Brooklyn then wasn't what it is now.
Even as a child, I liked to draw and make costumes for plays. I had Crayola crayons and watercolors, and all I did was paint, draw and write. I knew I wanted to be an artist even then. My mother had a reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. That painting was very important to me when I was a child.
MC: And so you went to Art School?
SM: My parents didn't have money, but since I was Valedictorian in high school, I received a four-year scholarship to Pratt Institute.
MC: Let’s talk about your husband Jeffrey
SM: I was working at CBS Television, it was just like Mad Men, it really was. There were a lot of women writers and secretaries, but no female art directors.
Jeffrey came in for an interview. He was a really cute (and I was married) so I waited, sitting on a filing cabinet until he came out of his meeting and I asked to see his portfolio. He wanted to be a painter, but he became a great art director at 22, working at Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the ground breaking advertising agency at that time.
I asked my then husband to take my portfolio to DDB, and they said, "This guy's work is great!" and Jeffrey, who was present said, "It's not a guy, it's a girl." And they hired me. I actually might have been the first female art director that had been hired in the advertising business.
My office was two doors down from Jeffrey’s; we would have lunch together and talk about how bad our marriages were. Then one day Jeffrey asked me, "What are you looking for?" And I said, "I am looking for love." And he said, "Why don't you fall in love with me?" And I did. I took his hand; he just brought me into the future.
Jeffrey and I were married in 1968 in Woodstock. That was—probably the biggest moment in my life. A marriage that lasted for forty-four years. He had three children, and we had five more together, so there are eight.
It was the time of free love and lots of drugs. We didn’t want that, we just wanted a simple life as artists and family. We went to the country every weekend and just did things like watercolors and photography. Jeffrey did archery, Tai Chi and painted. Oh, and we rode horses, we all learned to ride!
MC: Where was this?
SM: We rented a mill in Woodstock. We never went to the festival in 1969. We were much too cool. The 1969 festival drew its inspiration from the Maverick festival and a local yearly happening called "Sound Out's." Where every Friday night Pan Copeland, who owned the corner bakery, invited local musicians to play at her farm, pretty good ones like Richie Havens, ones that are probably still known. Psychedelic images were projected on a screen and everybody would get high and listen to music on blankets in the grass.
MC: So why didn’t you stay there?
SM: After the Woodstock festival the town changed. All of a sudden it became what we had left behind in New York. So we looked for a farm. You could get farms for $35,000 at the time. One day we were on Taconic Parkway, it was such a beautiful area. We started to look that very day with a map. One Sunday NY Times had an ad for a mill, and Jeffrey said, "That's what we're looking for, not a farm.” So we went to see it and we fell in love with it immediately. Kinderhook Creek ran through it where we could swim, and it had a really charming little house.
MC: What did you do with the mill?
SM: Jeffrey painted and kept his collections there. The house was small, so the mill was where we would just hang out, where the kids played, and where we kept the Studebaker truck and my Thunderbird. Jeffrey mostly painted at night. After dinner, he would just disappear. He created these marvelous paintings over quite a few years.
Anyone who comes to the property, and that’s our only close friends and family, think it's the most beautiful place on earth. I now go there every Thursday and I come back Monday night. I have the studio there and all my archives.
Jeffrey and I had originally planned a restoration of the mill to give each of us a whole floor, so after he died I did that. But prior to the restoration, because his life was so interesting, he had so many books on art direction, typography, painting and his sacred things, we decided to document everything as it was— so there is a record for the grandchildren. It's really extraordinary.
Our gardens are a sanctuary. I love to cook for the family. One of my daughters, Ruby, and her husband have a farm, called Raven & Boar, where they raise pigs and do charcuterie. They looked for two years on the other side of the Hudson, and they ended up buying a place 15 minutes from my house!
MC: So play together, work together—a very happy family.
SM: Yes. A lot of reading, watching movies together, they love me and I love them. Their friends are my friends, and my friends are theirs. It's just— we're very, very close.
MC: How would you describe your work?
SM: Well, I am trying to do that right now for a book. Reading things I wrote and interviews. And I'm just wondering who this person was and trying to compare her to who she is now. Because I like that person, I liked who I was throughout my life. There was a strange sincerity to her and a real idealism, and a tremendous love for nature, for life on earth, for travel, and for family. And I'm trying to find that person, to see if she's still around—if that's who I am, if I'm a result of all the people I've been, 'cause I liked her.
MC: So all of that, all of those things you mentioned have all informed and been a very big part of your work, haven't they?
SM: Very much so, because I sought out people I was interested in. And I got to travel to almost every place I dreamed of. I mean, in the beginning, Egypt was a fantasy for me. 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. And eventually I pursued the clients that could get me to those places, and I got there. I got to travel most of the world.
MC: How did you go about the pursuit of the clients?
SM: I mostly wrote letters. I wrote to Henry Miller, who never responded. I wrote to Ralph Lauren about how much I appreciated what he did, and how much I would like to work with him—and now I've been working with Ralph for years.
MC: And for exhibitions?
SM: Daniel Wolf had a gallery on 57th Street, showing 19th century work. When I saw him at his Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition, I tapped him on the shoulder and said, "If you like her work, I think you'll like my work." "Well, bring it in", he said.
So I brought my 22 pictures and he lay laid them out on the floor of the gallery, and he said, "I'll give you a show." So I became his first living photographer to exhibit.
MC: That was a ballsy move!
SM: It just made sense to me; I did the same with the MoMA. You could then. I just went up to the Department of Photography with that portfolio and knocked on the door. John Szarkowski opened it. He looked at my 22 pictures and bought two. Then he did an exhibition 1978 called “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography since 1960.” Both of my photographs were exhibited at the end of his history of photography. And my picture of Jeffrey’s daughter Eyvan became a full page in the Sunday NYT.
As a result, Lloyd Ziff from Vanity Fair called and said he’d like to work with me. He asked me to photograph Jeanne Moreau. We picked out clothes at her hotel room, and then she came to my apartment on the Upper West Side. The Kids were home—and we did the pictures right there.
MC: What an amazing first commission!
SM: It really was great, and then—this is really true—Alexander Lieberman called me to Vogue, because he saw that picture in Vanity Fair. And all at once, I was working for Vogue on a regular basis.
MC: So you were a nine-year-overnight sensation?
SM: It was never my intention. I didn't know anything about the world of fashion, except I did love the Vogues of my childhood. But I never saw myself as a photographer of fashion - never, ever. I see the relationship of the work that I did for the magazines and for Ralph (Lauren) as the same as the photographs of my children or my husband. Or for Conde Nast Traveler, for that matter, the work I did with you.
MC: Let’s discuss art versus commerce.
SM: Commerce was never a concern of mine. The idea of commerce grew as the years went by. Originally, I was hired by Vogue as an artist, finally the man who hired me fired me as that artist — Alexander Liberman. His final words were, “My dear, you're a great artist, but Vogue doesn't need art.”
After a certain number of years, advertisers began to dominate the editorial. Commerce took over, except for the work that I did for you at Conde Nast Traveler.
MC: Locations have played a very important role in your work haven’t they, Sheila?
SM: Travel was key because I think the furthest I had gone by the time I was 19 was Newark, NJ and the Catskills.
As a child I used to read the one volume an encyclopedia salesman left behind. It was volume A to E—Africa, Egypt and Alaska! I really wanted to get to all of those places!
MC: Tell me about some of your favorite destinations
SM: Egypt, and I don't know why. I think that my mother had a statue of Nefertiti, and she really believed that she was reincarnated and that we'd come from Egypt. My mother had great style. I don't know where she got it, no one else in the family had it.
At one point I had been interviewed by a well know photography historian named Estelle Jussim, in Washington D.C. She told me about the Southwest, and gave me a couple of books. Then she sent me an article she wrote about a journey through the Four Corners.
At the time James Danziger was working at Traveler as an editor. I presented her story, and he sent me on that same journey.
That was a major, major opening in my view of life on earth. It was just extraordinary I went to places that Georgia O'Keeffe lived, I discovered the work of author Edward Abbey, noted for his advocacy on environmental issues, turquoise jewelry, and Native Americans.
I just read and studied…everything I learned I put into my work. I was always a student, always a seeker, and the whole world was opening itself up to me.
MC: What assignments stand out for you?
SM: Karl Lagerfeld and the Fendi family opened my eyes to Rome when I did their fragrance campaign. I went to their homes, saw how they lived, ate the food they ate, that was fascinating. I also did a shoot for Vogue in the Maison de Verre designed by Pierre Chareau.
MC: You are drawn to subjects with history, with a subtext, with something going on - whether it's obvious or not.
SM: Yes. Mystery or something with a question. But it can't be anything dark. It has to be something that opens up to light, to — something that reveals the craft.
For instance, when you and I traveled together I bought these pieces of Naga jewelry I’m wearing which really made me interested in the Naga culture, and of course, next thing I know I'm captivated.
MC: You clearly have the mind of a curator...
SM: I have trunks with kimonos from Kyoto and safari clothes that I never wore. I bought them 'cause I was going on safari. I've picked up things I never wear, but all these things were teaching me. And I think, "Well, I should sell them." It's just in trunks, or, "I should have a shop somewhere." But then if I sell the things, they'd be gone.
MC: We were talking earlier that you were looking back on your life and you liked the woman that you were. How about the woman you are now?
SM: I'm studying her deeply now. I'm doing yoga. Self-maintenance is required now [laughs]. I have 12 grandchildren, and lots of people that I want to be here for.
And I've been doing sculpture, which I find fascinating. I have 5 or 6 pieces now. I'm not doing that much photography, it's confusing to me at the moment, is it something I want to continue? I really have to find out what I have to do now. I don't know about travel...I think I want to go to the South Pacific.
MC: Why the South Pacific?
SM When I was on Easter Island there was an archaeologist / anthropologist who told me about the Marquesas Islands. And so I've been reading a lot about them and wondering... I'm afraid that the South Pacific won't be the South Pacific of my dreams. I don't know—the world—I don't know what's going on in the world now. So I kind of like my house and mill [Laughs].
MC: Your sanctuary...
SM: Yeah, and I'm so grateful. The Hudson River Valley, the people are so nice. Now there are marvelous restaurants, it's still small and intimate. There's humility in the area. It's not about wealth and fame. It's a wonderful place to be.
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