Pinball machines; depending on your age, you might know all about them. Once, considered so evil that New York City banned them. Wasted youths (juvenile delinquents) spent days and nights hanging out in pinball palaces. They were so ubiquitous, “The Who” even made them a central part of their rock opera, “Tommy.” These were video games before there were video games. You pulled the knob, the ball flew, and then dropped down to the bottom. Along the way, you tried to control its movements by using the left or right side flippers, or you rocked the whole thing carefully. If you rocked it a little too hard, the game would stop and “TILT” would light up on the scoreboard. Game over.
Of the few memories I have of my father, him showing me how to play pinball at Grand Central Station is one of my favorites. It was the early 60s, and we had just seen his mother off on her train journey to Chicago. Thinking back on it, the whole experience of Grand Central was like something out of a 40s movie. Men in hats, ladies were wearing gloves, the black porters moving luggage here and there, and conductors yelling, “All Aboard.”
Yeah, I have quite the memory of that place and those pinball machines. It is my curse to remember times in my life with such clarity and detail. Even as a child, I noticed everything. I absorbed those memories onto the movie film; that was my memory.
And of course, this is one of the reasons why I needed to take pictures. It was only a few years later that my father would be dead and me with my handful of memories of the “good times” trying just so hard to keep him and them alive. One of my favorite memories of my Dad was him crouched down behind me, helping to steady his Rolleiflex in my hands. It was my first time taking a picture. It was of a ship under the then under construction Verrazano Bridge. The same bridge that he watched being built from his hospital room his last time there.
It literally took me decades to understand why I must document my world. Must? Had to! The times when I turned from photography and my undeclared mission to document everything was the saddest of my life. Profoundly.
So while I probably have a good grasp on why I make pictures, for a long time, I hated them. Especially these old ones. While many people over the years said that I should “do something” with my pictures, I couldn’t tell them that dealing with them was so painful.
A few years ago, during a particularly dark time, I had the great good fortune to meet Sarah. She was a young psychologist who was able to pick from the background noise of sadness that my greatest struggle was coming to terms with my pictures. She changed my life.
But these old pictures. These ones of Brooklyn in the 1970s when I was a student, so young and naive can fill me with joy, then depress the hell out of me. This memory of mine remembers almost all of the details surrounding each and every one of them. Who I was with, where we had come from, and where we went after. The reaction of my subjects when I either asked them or didn’t care about taking their picture. I remember my relationships and the state they were in. Every hurtful word or decision I made and over time, the realization that I had no idea how to behave in them.
The images remind me that I am much closer to the end, then I am to the beginning. It scares the hell out of me sometimes. Because I think I didn’t do enough or try as hard as I should have. Shouldn’t I have a lot more pictures than this… and romances… and friends… and untainted good memories?
Maybe I should, but there is nothing to be done about that now. Which in my older age, I have learned to accept with great aplomb. I’ve even learned to be stoic about so many of the things that used to torture me.
Right now, we are all supposed to be locked down. This pandemic is nothing like anything else I have ever lived through. And I lived through disco. The reason we are supposed to avoid each other and stay indoors is that there is a genuine possibility of being made dead by the disease “out there.” Not the dead you thought about as a kid. Not how you would be remembered by your kids and not the death of those who have gone before you. Your death.
What is the legacy I will leave behind?
Yeah, I was shit at relationships and money and responsibilities, but I did make some damn good pictures. When I’m gone, only they will survive, I hope. Any sadness I know about them will be gone, and they will stand on their own without me being their helicopter parent of regrets.
I might very well never be able to do any more street work. Why? Because for the past 2 years, I have been stuck in one place because of my back. Not making new pictures was an outside possibility. A wheelchair is not conducive to making my kind of images. And now being in a high-risk group for infection, which is only a matter of when. So the dirt nap becomes a lot more real. That doesn’t scare me. But what has, is the thought of not coming to terms with these old things.
So, I look at all of these images. They span more than 40 years and are my life. A lot of the people I got to meet, the ones I made angry, and the ones I made love me are mostly all here. Also, my failed relationships, fear, and greed represented for your viewing and my contemplation. Of course, you don’t know what I know. That will eventually be gone. They will still be good pictures. I have come to terms with that, I think.
So yeah, pinball. Me and Richey Kaufman going to the Auction (a place with over 100 pinball machines) so he could beat me every damn time. He was my best friend, if I ever had one. We did everything together. First girlfriends, driving, divorce, and The War. There were a lot of things to think about for a young man in the late 60s. Rich was good at everything that I wasn’t. He was the first guy I could honestly tell you that I loved. I fucked that friendship up too. But, most of my memories of Rich Kaufman and pinball are very lovely. I even have the pictures to prove it.
Help Me Print “Women Hold Up Half The Sky” my Second Book.
My book ‘Subway New York City ‘1975-1985’ is available on Etsy.
Gerard Exupery Website
Gerard Exupery has been a New York City Street Photographer for 40 years, He attended the School of Visual Arts and studied with Lisette Model at The New School. He has also worked as an oil rig roustabout, a photographer’s assistant, custom printer, motorcycle mechanic, audio engineer, video engineer, producer, and Mr. Mom. Exupery also drove a New York City taxi which he considers his post-graduate work.
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27 thoughts on “Why I might hate these old negatives – By Gerard Exupery”
Well said. Thoughtful, honest, reflective. I was born in the late 50’s and have had a camera of one kind or another in my hand since the age of 12. This last year and especially now with the lockdown I have been scanning the stacks of old negs and slides. It has been an emotional roller coaster. Joy, sadness, guilt, shame, consternation, the sense of loss, the passing of time and my place in it have me praising them virtue of photography and at the same time condemning it. Now in my 60’s like Leonard Cohen said, I ache in the places where I used to play, I still have a sense that I have so much more to do, the wisdom of age, the arrogance of youth, oh well, you buy the ticket and take the ride. I appreciate this post, thank you for writing it Gerard.
Thank you for your very kind comment. You know exactly what I was writing about. It is so bittersweet because when we are young and searching we don’t know how beautiful we truly are. These old images make us take responsibility again. They tell us that the only thing left to us is to face the inevitable with grace.
This is the best thing I’ve read in some time. Funny, profound and refreshingly honest.
Very kind of you to say. Thank you. I only began to write a few years ago and only because I would be asked how or why of particular images. It turned out that I like writing about the images as much as I do making them. I appreciate your encouragement.
Well said indeed. I envy the strength of your memory. I have a terrible memory, and sometimes wonder if that’s why I take pictures. As an aid. But really, I think it’s because I love the world and need to hold on to some of it as it passes. That your photographs will remain after your memories have gone is part of the ephemerality of life, a wonder for future generations. Much like Disco I suppose. Thank you.
I had a girlfriend. She lived on 5th Avenue, Private school, you know the type. She insisted that we see “Saturday Night Fever” which we did. And another 13 times after that over a period of 3 months. Never quite figured that one out. But yeah, I survived Disco. But it changed me forever.
Gerard, a painfully honest and moving post, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read on 35mmc. Would have been nice to see some more pictures as part of the post, but I’ve looked your work up and seen some great images. Thanks.
Sir, I believe you have given me the vapors. Thank you.
Thank you Gerard
Thank you for a marvelous post, one that explains the why of documentary photography better than most. By any chance (if I may ask) are you related to Antoine de St-Exupery?
Thank you. The why of my photography has only been made clear as I have achieved a certain wisdom/age and have been able to look back while attempting to keep the wincing under control.
I love this piece. This was one of the best I’ve read in awhile. Makes me curious about this photographic journey and way life makes us want to leave a mark- a lasting and meaningful piece of us.
Thank you. I am glad that you liked it. Perhaps the reason we need to leave a mark is not for fear of being forgotten but the fear of having never been known. I’m just trying to be the person my cats think I am.
The only thing worse than looking back on life that had been “shit at relationships and money and responsibilities, but [which] did make some damn good pictures” is a life that had been “shit at relationships and money and responsibilities” but didn’t bother to take any pictures at all…or even keep a diary. (ask me how I know).
But thanks. Great piece of writing.
Thank you. Good point you make. It is sobering to look over at a box of negatives and realize that in the space of a few minutes it can have you laughing your ass off or crying like you haven’t in 20 years.
Thank you Gerard. Very much enjoyed the read and photos. I too have spent recent time scanning negs and slides with much yet to do. So many memories both sweet and sour. We are all in this together. Stay safe.
Thank you, Steve. I am generally an optimist. Many times I have had the most rotten luck/poor judgment and yet ended up with some interesting images from it. It would be difficult to reach the last quarter of our lives having documented it relentlessly and not end up with images that do not haunt us at worst or are bittersweet at best.
It doesn’t always feel as good as we hoped but somehow it feels right.
Most of us run in the silly race of being Garry Winogrand, or some other renowned photographer. In those times by the way photography was an elitist practise just for some few people. Just a few had the time, eye and camera to do it even if not being such a expensive task. Now serious photographers with a camera are mocked by those with a cellphone and there are more photographers than mushrooms in the fields; most of them in the aim of winning the silly race. Experience has been devaluated to nearly nothing.
But the fish, that fish looks deeply
Thank you for commenting. You were making an excellent point and then that last line… Did you intend to end your comment like that? Obviously your comment was well thought out… but that last line has me a little confused.
I mean that’s a great photograph: the fish looks at us perhaps defiant, the guy back left looks at the fish perhaps thinking yes that’s a fish, the little girl looks at the one with glasses as if wondering what’s about the fish to take a pic, and the one with glasses looks at you saying hey that’s what I fished. Meanwhile the sea is at the back smoothly
Now I understand. Also, I forgot that picture from the Coney Island pier was attached to the article. That is one of those images that in spite of myself turned out to be exactly what I wanted. Thanks for the comment.
Fantastic Article & Images.
Thank you for sharing!
Thank you for posting this Gerard. Sometimes one doesn’t even have to go back that far. Just looking at some images made several years ago, thinking about where we were at that point, who we were with even though they may not have been in the image. Captured images act as a time stamp in our lives.
Love your pics.
Thanks so so much for this article Gerard. It’s the best thing I’ve read on this site in a long time. While I may not be anywhere near you in age, I definitely feel some of the same sentiments as yourself as I head into middle age & think of missed opportunities, untold regrets & harsh lessons life has taught me. Add to that mental illnesses I’ve had for most of my life. And yet, one of the only things keeping me around is my love & slight obsession with film photography.
The world may never go back to being the same again after this pandemic is over, but I hope we’ll still be able to get out & shoot things still. It’s all I have left really…
Photos mostly need to have stories accompany them; they shouldn’t stand mute, as so many do. As a kid, I liked sitting in my uncle’s living room looking at the projected slides of his vacation as he narrated. And his were not the most interesting of accounts. Photography without narrative is only half the story.
Wonderful storytelling and photography. I particularly like what seems to be empathy on your part for the subjects of your pictures.
I suspect there are more stories similar to yours from folks of that time. Yep, I’m one, and was even held up at gun point in the late ‘70s. Also, am considering a photo book that coincides with the same time period of your subway tome, 1978-1985. Pictures taken in New Orleans, New York City and Pittsburgh. Maybe.
At 67 and the new 2020 year, I believed there was more time for photography. COVID-19 has changed that. Good luck to us all.