New Jersey photographer Gary 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. For the last few years, though, most of his photographs have been of his family and blues musicians.
Both are part of “Gary Saretzky Photography Retrospective,” at the James Kerney Campus Gallery of Mercer County Community College, 137 North Broad Street, Trenton.
The show is on view 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.
The interest in listening to and capturing blues performers has blossomed into a passion for Saretzky, who has a long history with MCCC’s photography department and was active with the Trenton Artists Workshop Association, even coordinating the organization’s 1990 Trenton and Soviet Union artists exchange.
Saretzky 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 1,000 of these images at the University of Mississippi’s Blues Archives. “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.”
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.
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. He later got a BA in photography from Thomas Edison State University in 1986.
In 1969 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, Duane Michals, as well as Charles Harbutt, former Magnum Photos president and professor at the Parsons School of Design. He also studied at Princeton with Peter C. Bunnell, longtime professor of the history of photography and modern art at Princeton University, now retired, and Frederick Sommer.
Other significant photographic influences include Henri Cartier-Bresson, Minor White, Andre Kertesz, Josef Koudelka, and Harry Callahan.
“In selecting photographs to exhibit, my primary concern is quality, not subject matter,” Saretzky writes in his artist’s statement. “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 free-lance 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.
His wife, Kathy, has been managing the library at Slackwood Elementary School in Lawrence Township for more than 20 years. The couple has two grown sons, a daughter, and two grandchildren.
Saretzky continues to lecture regularly under the auspices 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.
He 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.
“To me, these things — teaching, lecturing, archiving, making pictures — are all connected,” Saretzky says.
“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. Through Thursday, January 10, 2019. Free public reception and artist talk, Wednesday, December 5, 5 to 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
This article was originally published in the December 2018 Trenton Downtowner.