It’s been 11 years since photographer Gary Saretzky had a retrospective encompassing 35 years of his work at the Rider University Art Gallery, which at one point had him thinking, “OK, I’m done now, that’s it.”
Happily, that was not it for the Lawrence resident, and now it’s time for another career-spanning collection of Saretzky’s work to go on view at Mercer County Community College’s James Kerney Campus (JKC) Gallery, 137 North Broad Street in Trenton.
The show opens Wednesday, November 28, and runs through Thursday, January 10, with a public opening and artist talk on Wednesday, December 5, starting at 5 p.m., with the talk at 6 p.m.
“I wondered to myself whether my career was over, but I kept working, and some of the newer stuff is included in the show, some street photography, as well as images of blues musicians I’ve taken at concerts and festivals in the area,” says the photographer, 72, who is also an archivist, educator, and photography historian.
When asked whether he is “seeing” differently in 2018, Saretzky laughs and says his eyesight certainly has changed over the decades.
“I can’t see as well, but of course, I still see well enough to make pictures,” he says.
But yes, Saretzky’s artistic vision has evolved. His life and times with camera in hand have taken him through transformations in culture, starting with the early 1970s, when Saretzky practiced photography as a kind of meditation, reflective of that era.
The early, somewhat transcendental body of work changed after his marriage to wife, Kathy, in 1980, when Saretzky became more socially involved and interested in photographing people, although he didn’t discontinue the other genres.
For the last few years, though, most of his photographs have been of his family and blues musicians.
The interest in listening to and capturing blues performers has blossomed into a passion for Saretzky. He has self-published two books of his photographs of blues musicians (available at www.saretzky.com), and, as a photographer, is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame.
Just in the last year or so, Saretzky has placed more than a thousand of these images at the University of Mississippi’s Blues Archives.
“It’s bittersweet trying to place things as I get older, take care of things while I still can,” he says. “I’m a collector, so it’s hard for me to let go, but I’m happy that all those pictures are there and will be taken care of.”
“I contacted them, asking whether they would be interested in having this work,” he adds. “So I sent them some samples of my blues photos, they were interested, and I sent about a thousand small prints last year.”
“I also wanted to give some larger prints, so I put some 16 x 20 matted prints in the trunk of my car, and my wife and I drove to the University of Mississippi,” Saretzky says.
Naturally, he took his camera and made pictures along the road trip, especially in Clarksdale, Mississippi, known for the Delta Blues Museum, the world’s first museum devoted to blues. Three images from Mississippi are in the show at the JKC Gallery.
“I’ve been interested in blues on and off for a long time, but for the last 15 years, I’ve really enjoyed going to hear live blues, and there’s so much of it around here, very wonderful musicians on both sides of the Delaware River,” he says. “There are enough places so that you could go and hear music every day of the week, and for free. The musicians like me doing it, sharing the pictures, etc.”
Take a look at Saretzky’s image of violinist Anne Harris from the Otis Taylor Band, captured at the Pennsylvania Blues Festival in July, 2012. Clad in vibrant colors, the lady seems to dazzle as she dances.
Another photo portrays bluesman Filthy Rich MacPherson at the Art of the Bike festival in Tinicum Park, Pennsylvania, in July, 2012. Look at the lower left hand corner of the shot for a person in silhouette, a nice detail that adds an extra dimension for the viewer.
Other examples of Saretzky’s work in the current retrospective reflect his interest in 19th century photography, indeed the very beginnings of the art form — “camera-less” photographs or photograms, pioneered in the 1830s by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).
“What you do is, for example, take a leaf, put it on a piece of photo paper, put it in the darkroom, and expose it to light,” Saretzky explains. “The light is stopped by the leaf, and the area the leaf doesn’t cover turns black. Where the light is blocked stays white. With a longer exposure, you can see inside the leaf.”
Saretzky’s black and white work in the show also includes “Assisi (3 men, girl) 1979,” a street scene in Italy where two men look to be arguing, while a girl stands to the side eating an ice cream cone, and another onlooker scratches his nose, defusing the tension. It’s a moment American photographer Elliott Erwitt would smile at.
Then there’s the shot taken at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City in 2010. The focal point of the image shows a CSPAN reporter, seated and interviewing a politico-type surrounded by a production team in various stances, as well as faces and figures emerging from the wall design.
Saretzky studied with Charles Harbutt (1935-2015), former Magnum Photos president and professor at the Parsons School of Design, and this particular photograph reflects the visual dissonance that Harbutt also liked to capture.
Both of Saretzky’s parents came from Eastern Europe, met in Germany, and fled the pre-World War II chaos and violence there, landing in Palestine. They escaped the Holocaust, but his mother lost most of her immediate and extended family, while his father’s family survived but were behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union.
The elder Saretzky came to the United States in 1939, settling in Newton, Massachusetts, and finding work as an electrical engineer; his mother stayed in Palestine until 1944, and Gary was born a couple of years later.
Saretzky’s father had taught his mother the basics of photography, and she supported herself for a while in Palestine doing portraits and taking pictures at children’s parties.
In the U.S. she continued to create personal work (portraits, abstracts, and landscapes), and did her own printing in the family darkroom, where young Gary was her “assistant.” He remembers receiving his first camera around age seven.
Unfortunately, his mother, who eventually turned from photography to ceramics and ink wash (Sumi-e) painting, died just a few years before he became more serious about photography.
Even with this family background, photography would not take hold of him until 1972, after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Saretzky majored in history there, earning his bachelor’s in 1968 and his master’s degree in American history, with a concentration in archival administration, in 1969. In 1986 he got a B.A. in photography from Thomas Edison State University.
Saretzky had little interest in photography in college, though there were a good deal of compelling visual arts events going on. “History was my first interest,” he says.
It was only when Saretzky asked one of his professors what exactly one might do with a degree in history, aside from teaching, that a career as an archivist was suggested. After one graduate school course in archival science at the University of Wisconsin, he got on-the-job training working part-time at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin while earning his master’s.
After graduation Saretzky took a job as the first archivist at Educational Testing Services (ETS) in Princeton, a position he held for almost 25 years.
In 1972 he also became captivated by photography when he took a class with William Barksdale at MCCC.
Saretzky continued to pursue photography classes and workshops from such famed photographers as Eva Rubenstein and Duane Michals, as well as Harbutt. He also studied with Peter C. Bunnell, longtime professor of the history of photography and modern art at Princeton University, now retired.
“The semester I spent studying with Peter opened my eyes to a broader spectrum of photographic possibilities,” Saretzky said in a 2007 interview with Harry Naar, gallery director and professor of fine arts at Rider University.
Frederick Sommer (1905–1999) was another one of Saretzky’s instructors when he audited Sommer’s class at Princeton University, and he notes Sommer’s influence in his artist’s statement for the current retrospective.
“In selecting photographs to exhibit, my primary concern is quality, not subject matter,” Saretzky writes.“As Frederick Sommer explained, ‘Good pictures have balanced weights, an equalized surface, and cohesion in structure.’ Consequently, in my photographic practice, one of the main challenges is to avoid distracting detail or tones that a sketch artist or painter would not include. Consequently, the best photographs for me are often a mysterious gift when time, space, and form all cohere in a fraction of a second.”
Motivated to share what he was learning from his mentors, Saretzky began to teach history of photography, and from 1977 to 2012 taught photography and the history of photography at MCCC, where Barksdale initially was his supervisor. He also taught at the College of New Jersey.
In addition to his teaching and freelance work in photography, Saretzky served as coordinator for history internship programs at Rutgers University from 1994 to 2016.
His main vocation, however, has been as archivist of Monmouth County, a position he has held since 1994. “I like to say, ‘I hope to live long enough to retire,’” he says with a chuckle.
His wife, Kathy, has been managing the library at Slackwood Elementary School in Lawrence Township for more than 20 years. Indeed, she has been there so long the school named the “Kathlinda Saretzky Library” after her.
The couple has two grown sons, a daughter, and two grandchildren. In November, 2017, granddaughter Emily was added to the family, and will no doubt be a fresh face and personality for her grandfather to photograph.
Saretzky continues to lecture regularly under the auspices of the Public Scholars Project of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, giving talks about the history of photography, preservation of photographs, his own blues photography, and other topics.
“I’m part of the council’s speaker’s bureau, and go out and speak about 19th-century photography in New Jersey, slide lectures about New Jersey photographers in the county where I am speaking or about New Jersey’s photographers during the Civil War Era,” he says. “I am personally interested in 19th-century photography, who the photographers in New Jersey were, who preceded me, and I like seeing their images and learning their back stories.”
Saretzky has also been compiling a biographical directory of the 19th-century photographers he has discovered from the Garden State, creating an extensive database that is broken down by city and county. One can spend hours browsing this resource, learning, for example, that “Bane & Grennell” were Daguerreotypists in Princeton, circa 1850.
“To me, these things — teaching, lecturing, archiving, making pictures — are all connected,” Saretzky says.
Aside from his teachers, other significant photographic influences include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Minor White, Andre Kertesz, Josef Koudelka, and Harry Callahan.
With all this background in photography and wisdom handed down from some of the luminaries in the field, one wonders what Saretzky thinks of the cell phone camera phenomenon. These days, anyone can be a photographer, and everyone takes pictures all the time, without much contemplation. “People do take a lot of pictures these days,” he says politely, perhaps the understatement of the year.
However, the activity of taking cell phone pictures might grow into a more serious pursuit of photography for some. And, if a prospective young shooter selects and saves their more interesting work, perhaps they will look back in a decade and really perceive something within it.
They will also be able to better see themselves, put their lives and ideas in perspective.
Which goes back to the question about whether Saretzky “sees” differently, now that he’s older.
“When you’re out (taking pictures) and you see what you see, at that time, you don’t know all the reasons why something attracts you,” he says. “But, when you look at work after a number of years, you understand more about where you were at that time. You think about your life then, and you have a better understanding of why you took that picture.”
Gary Saretzky Photography Retrospective, James Kerney Campus Gallery of Mercer County Community College, 137 North Broad Street, Trenton. Through Thursday, January 10. Free public reception and artist talk, Wednesday, December 5, 5-7 p.m. (talk at 6 p.m.) Gallery hours: Monday and Wednesday, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. www.mccc.edu/community_gallery_jkc.shtml
More on Gary Saretzky: www.saretzky.com