Life and art for Gary Saretzky have always been about keeping his mind open to the possibilities. Direction falls less on a rigid line than it does on wondering what’s over here, off to the side.
His story of how he got to be a photographer and photo archivist started in a way familiar to a lot of people. He wanted to be one thing, and then he found himself through something else entirely. Along the path of his career, he found himself all over again; and now at 72, he is still willing to keep looking.
He’s less self-conscious and less self-indulgent in his own photography than he was in his 20s. That approach to expression was a common thread in the 1960s, though—people trying new things, often for the sake of them just being new, to express the inner self.
“I was using photography to find myself,” Saretzky said. “A lot of it was very intense; I was trying to express who I was.”
Age, as it tends to do, shifted his vantage point.
“As I got older, I started looking outward more,” he said.
One of his outward interests is blues music, which led him to taking shots of musicians and shows.
“I like photographing them because it’s not about me,” he said. “It’s about them.”
It’s also about some particular technical challenges—musicians don’t sit still; lighting conditions can be extreme and varied. But he enjoys the challenge and it keeps him motivated to shoot.
If there’s one constant about Gary Saretzky, it’s that he likes to stay motivated and he likes to keep moving through his development as a photographer. He doesn’t look back on a career and vocation as a complete set of works, but rather as the parts of his continuing journey that have already happened. Which for him means a lot still lies ahead.
Still, there’s a particular kind of modesty that spills out of Saretzky like a pool of light bathing a tree; a lack of self-impressed consciousness, more likely to bring an honest answer than a practiced one.
An example: Asked how he got to where he is right now, Saretzky answered, “Sometimes one thing led to another.”
The ladder of Saretzky’s story has a few more rungs than his answer might imply. In the beginning, he was a history buff with a photographer mother in Newton, Masachussetts, and he figured he’d grow up to be a history teacher. He studied history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, getting his bachelor’s and master’s there in 1968 and 1969, respectively.
But before he closed out his undergraduate degree, Saretzky realized he didn’t want to be in the academic world after all. He asked a professor a question that would frame the next 50 years of his life: What else can one do with a history degree?
“He said, ‘How about archiving?’” Saretzky said.
A photoarchivist, for those who might not know, is essentially a librarian of photos. The student program at UW wasn’t the biggest draw for the people attending school there, which explains how he got a student job in the archives in 1968.
“They said ‘We don’t have enough students for the program, so we’ll give you a part-time job and teach you there,’” Saretzky said.
When college ended, Saretzky moved to Lawrenceville to become the archivist at ETS. He did that job for 25 years, before he got downsized and became the archivist for Monmouth County. That was in 1994, and he’s still there.
Along the way, though, Saretzky got into photography for himself, starting in 1972. For the rest of the decade he studied with William Barksdale, Peter Bunnell, Frederick Sommer, and Eva Rubenstein. Barksdale was his teacher at Mercer County Community College and, like his teacher, Saretzky grew more inspired by the work of Minor White as his career unfolded.
White, Saretzky said, was about total control of his images, right down to “the little details;” the ribs of light and dark in prairie clouds, the subtle shifting of grays in his otherworldly, often abstract pieces of landscapes.
Saretzky started his own photography studio in 1975 and became an adjunct professor of photography at MCCC in 1977. In 1979 he became an educational consultant for Thomas Edison State College (now TESU).
‘It’s funny. If I don’t have a camera with me I don’t see anything. When I do have my camera I start to see things.’
In the 1970s, Bunnell “really opened my eyes to different traditions,” Saretzky said. He became a more serious student of the history of photography. Then in 1977, Barksdale took a sabbatical and asked Saretzky to teach the photo history class. For the next 35 years, Saretzky taught the subject, as an adjunct under the tutelage of the late (and increasingly rediscovered) Louis Draper.
Draper’s work mid-century was powerful, but somewhat ignored, focusing as it did on black urban street life. Most of his images feature people in the streets, usually the roughest and most crumbling kind, expressing a quiet, resigned dignity.
Draper’s approach drew Saretzky, and the two became close friends. When Draper died in 2002, Saretzky “became his archivist” and started putting samples of Draper’s work together to exhibit. Saretzky described Draper as “a pack rat” when it came to images. Thousands and thousands of them, which meant spending a year putting together a proper retrospective.
“I had to leave out some of the more ephemeral stuff,” Saretzky said.
The effort paid off, and these days Draper’s work chronicling the gritty side of the urban landscape amid the post-war boom are becoming much more important to the art scene. In 2013 the New York Times even titled its look at Draper’s work “Plucked from Obscurity,” a reference to the work itself and the man who created it.
Draper’s latest exhibit, made possible largely through the efforts of Saretzky, is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Art until next year.
In 1994, Saretzky became the coordinator of the Public History Internship Program at Rutgers University. The program, he said, has placed about 800 students into internships at museums, historical societies and other similar organizations. He left that gig in 2016.
Since 2003, Saretzky has been a lecturer on the history of photography and photographers at the New Jersey Council for Humanities.
Which brings up the question, what makes a photograph worth preserving forever? Saretzky’s answer, unsurprisingly, is a blend of the un-self-interested and the ethereal.
“There’s the exceptional and there’s the typical,” he said. “We tend to focus on the exceptional, but it’s also important to keep the typical.”
By this he means it’s important to have photographic records of people in their everyday worlds, akin to what Draper was doing by documenting the real worlds people live in. Consider how many photos of yourself you’ve looked back on, that were taken at some unremarkable moment on an unremarkable day 10 or 20 or 40 years ago. They’re now a time capsule, a capture of a world that doesn’t exist anymore—at the time typical, and now an actual piece of history.
Saretzky often lectures on 19th century photography, rife with portraits of people no one knows. For decades, Saretzky said, people just chucked those old pictures out because no one saw them as important. Today, though, those photos are an increasing rarity increasingly sought by collectors and those, like Saretzky, who see the importance of recording life as it is, while it passes.
So then what does Gary Saretzky, historian and archivist, think of the contemporary reality that everyone with a phone is a photographer? Well, the short answer is that it’s too soon for him to really make up his mind about what it all means. Saretzky himself has about 45,000 digital images, but deciding which ones should stay and which should not takes a long time.
“I need 10 years,” he said. “I need the perspective of time.”
But his real issue with the glut of digital content created by everyday people these days is that the images are not made with any real intent.
“I just don’t see any thought behind them,” he said.
His own photography world is one born of formal structure, crafted in a time when taking photography seriously meant using a large-format camera with one frame at a time to shoot. Thought had to go into every image made, else you were wasting a lot of time, effort, and money.
And that’s the answer right there to what makes a photo worth saving for Gary Saretzky. It should mean something. It should be given thought to what it is to be recorded.
The ironic part is, finding images that mean something require flushing your mind, Saretzky said. Taking a page from Minor White, he said “You have to make your mind blank” and open it to see what the possibilities are.
“It’s funny,” he said. “If I don’t have a camera with me I don’t see anything. When I do have my camera I start to see things.”