Looking through the lens: Local photographer to present personal archive in new exhibit

Gary Saretzky, local photographer and archivist from Lawrenceville, takes a look around Route 1 Diner, studying the patrons and taking in the action of the breakfast rush. 

“I had a friend who used to photograph in a diner,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what he did, talk to people and take their picture.”

Saretzky has been a photographer since 1972, but his interest was sparked at a young age when he received a Brownie camera at age 7. 

“I took some bad pictures with it,” he said, laughing. “At first, I only thought of photography as capturing something you couldn’t take home with you.” 

Photography soon became a passion of Saretzky’s after he took a photography class with William Barksdale, professor and coordinator of photography at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), in 1972. His mother was also a photographer, so he was familiar with darkrooms. 

A photo Saretzky took in 1974 of David McAlpin, Jr. — Princeton University Class of ’50 — led him to begin a professional career in photography.

The following year, McAlpin, Sr. — who endowed a professorship in the history of photography at Princeton and provided funding for the Department of Photography in the Princeton Art Museum — invited Saretzky to photograph his Class of 1920 reunion in 1975, jumpstarting his photography career.

Saretzky’s latest photography exhibit, “Gary Saretzky Retrospective — 1972 to the Present” opened on Nov. 28, and will run through Thursday, Jan. 10 at MCC’s James Kerney Campus Gallery. It will showcase some of the decades-long work of Saretzky, from black and white landscape photography to colorful portraits of blues musicians. An artist talk will also take place in the gallery on Dec. 5. 

“His collection reflects various schools of photography through the decades and their inevitable influence on all photographers who are students and teachers of photographic history,” gallery director and curator Michael Chovan-Dalton said in a press release. “Saretzky’s work is the culmination of a lifetime of archiving and a profound desire to preserve the joys and sorrows of living.”

In addition to photography, Saretzky’s other passion is history — and preserving it. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1968 with a major in history. 

Unsure of what to do with the major, he sought out advice from Gerald Ham of the Wisconsin Historical Society, who suggested he get his Master’s degree to become an archivist. 

As an archivist, Saretzky organizes government records, newspaper photos and other documents to make them available to historians, Saretzky said, adding that he is “always collecting things,” such as old books. 

In his archiving career, Saretzky worked for Educational Testing Service (ETS) for 25 years and has been Monmouth County’s archivist since 1994. 

As a history buff, Saretzky taught photography and history of photography at MCCC and The College of New Jersey from 1977 to 2012.

In his own work, Saretzky said that his photography style has changed over time. 

“In the 1970s, I did a lot of self portraits without actually being in them,” he said. “I was shooting in a way I was seeking myself; who was I?”

As time went on, Saretzky’s photography shifted from mirrors to windows, and he began shooting photos for a different purpose. 

“Early on, I was shooting photos for myself; when I started shooting blues musicians, that’s more so for them,” he said.

Saretzky’s current exhibit will feature 42 pieces, chosen by himself and Chovan-Dalton. 

“[Chovan-Dalton] came to my house and we looked through boxes and came up with a mix of older and newer work,” Saretzky said. We spent a few hours looking, it’s representative of the range of work I’ve done since the 1970s.” 

For Saretzky, the best photos are the ones that are unanticipated. In his photo “Bird, Siena, 1979,” Saretzky happened to capture a bird flying overhead in an otherwise empty sky, something he didn’t plan. 

“It’s almost like it’s from God, it’s nothing I created, I was just alert enough to make something out of something that just happened,” he said. 

Saretzky said that there are special moments all the time, but one must take time out from “doing” and spend more time “being” to truly appreciate and be receptive to those moments. 

While Saretzky has been practicing photography for over 40 years, he said he never gets tired of it, calling it “endlessly fascinating and entertaining.”

“I enjoy everything I do, I’m lucky that way,” he said. “Everyday I find something I enjoy, they’re all interconnected and a part of me.” 

“Gary Saretzky Retrospective – 1972 to the Present” will show at MCCC’s James Kerney Campus Gallery until Thursday, Jan. 10. A reception and artist talk will take place on Dec. 5. The gallery is located at 137 North Broad Street in Trenton. More information can be found at www.mccc.edu/JKCgallery.