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Photo of the Week #177

Ray K Metzker

Black and white image of a sailor carrying a knapsack, illuminated by strong slanting light abasing a dark background—with a classical revival column is faintly seen in the darkness behind him.

Philadelphia, 1963 
8 x 10 inches
Signed on verso
Printed 1982


January 22, 2022
A sailor, dressed in white with shore bag over his shoulder, walks through the deeply shadowed heart of Philadelphia. He is a carefree and observant visitor, studying the people and spaces of the city. In turn, he is observed by the greatest visual poet of Philadelphia: Ray Metzker. It is the simplest of incidents: two individual pedestrians, both in a state of attentive reverie, crossing paths on this day in 1963.

The bold minimalism of the scene is striking. The sailor is 'drawn' with a few high-contrast calligraphic strokes: his hat, the side of the face, the full bag extending out at an angle, and the unexpected geometry of torso and legs. The whole figure is there, but its form and economy are surprising. And, of course, the "world" through which the sailor walks is largely a mystery: a dark gray sidewalk and an even darker background, with classical columns providing a hint of a central or ceremonial space. The reductive elegance of the scene suggests nothing so much as a fashion runway, or an avant-garde theater or dance performance. The figure of the sailor is at once simple and laden with human and metaphoric potential. Diminutive, graceful, and solitary, it is a shorthand symbol of presence, agency, and invention.

Ray Metzker walked these streets for decades, savoring the way light and shadow caressed buildings, sidewalks, and his fellow citizens. He revered this play of light and dark as both elemental and transforming. Direct light made structures glow, with every detail precisely revealed; deep shadows became purely graphic forms, suggesting intimacy, mystery, and mortality. For all their “formal” appeal, Metzker’s pictures are deeply emotional and personal: an expression of his own state of mind through the sensuous gray-scale of his beloved monochrome medium. 

As Metzker so memorably said: "I experiment with forms and probe for experience. Form cannot live without experience nor can experience communicate without form. There is the magic of forms and the mystery of our lives. Where they come together is where I have a photograph that is vital."

Endlessly mysterious and vital, Ray Metzker’s work is one of the greatest achievements in modern photography.

Keith F. Davis
Photographic historian and curator