Gerard Exupery has been writing articles for 35mmc for a little over 6 months now. They are some of the least conventional articles that I publish, but almost universally seem to be appreciated by readers. He’s now in the process of putting together his second self-published book which he is going to crowdfund soon (sign up to register your interest here).
In the run-up to that – and in a bid to help him promote it – rather than just let him ramble on in the way he usually does, I thought it might be interesting to ask him a few questions about his background, his work, and why he does what he does:
H: Ok, so in case any of the 35mmc readers have been living under a rock and not spotted your previous articles, tell us a little bit about yourself? Who are you, where are you from, what do you do with your days?
G: Who am I? How existential of you to ask. That’s a question that a young adult can answer without thinking about it too much. As a youthful-looking and thinking, handsome 65-year-old man, it’s hard to know with certainty. I’ll give it a shot anyway.
I am the father of two adult sons. I never wanted kids and it turned out to be the single best thing I’ve done with my life so far. Like a lot of things that turned out to be an absolutely fantastic experience, I had to be dragged kicking and screaming there by a woman.
I’ve always wanted to take pictures from the moment my dad helped steady his Rolleiflex in my shakey little hands while I took my first picture. His death the following year greatly influenced why and what I see, and how I photograph it.
I lived in New York City for more than 20 years. My wife and I moved to Montclair NJ to raise the niblets. If you aren’t making at least a million a year you can’t afford to raise your kids in the city. Montclair is 11 miles from mid-town Manhattan so you could run it if you wanted to. Not me, but you could. Until I injured my back I was in the city 3-4 times a week.
I had been stuck in my apartment for almost 2 years before the COVID thing so being locked down was really not an issue. I’ve got 3 discs that are collapsed on one side. The first doctor took one look and asked me if I had been a bricklayer or was injured in a car accident. “No,” I said. “I just like to walk around and take pictures.”
I never had a problem until I got a little backache. Within a month it felt like I had a white-hot fireplace poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. The only thing that works on the pain is lying down. I can walk maybe around the block and stand for about 10 minutes before I start to cry. Then I have to lay flat for a full day. It has really screwed with my ability to make images.
So that’s me, mostly stuck at home. I usually get up between 4:30 and 5:00, have my coffee, and sit for a bit. Then I will write for about 90 minutes out on the front porch.
I’ll then write some more on the computer at my desk till about 9:00. Now that I am doing another book, I spend the rest of the day sorting through images. Pictures that I know I will use I finish in Photoshop immediately. I will scribble a few notes if the picture is worthy and write the story for the picture the following morning. It keeps me busy.
H: Ok, so let’s go back to the beginning a bit. You’ve talked about your photography and your Dad a bit before here on 35mmc. Was he a keen photographer then?
G: I know he had an interest but he died before he really had the chance to explore it. He was only 40 when he died. My memory of him kneeling behind me helping me take a picture is pretty much all I got. After he was gone, pictures took on a new significance in my life. Most likely because it was a way to hang onto the past, to hang onto my dad.
Life got pretty crappy after he was gone. Looking through the pictures that he had taken of my sister and me at the beach or a picnic was a reminder of a much happier time. They became a touchstone of sorts.
Pictures and the ability to make them from that point on was all I talked about. I pretty much haven’t stopped yet either.
H: For many, photography is a sort of therapy? I guess there is an element of that for you then?
G: I’ve been in and out of therapy since my early twenties. A good shrink can do wonders. Being as young as I was when my father died and my mother not being the warm and fuzzy type there were a lot of changes. I didn’t feel safe anymore.
I liked looking at other families photo albums because it was documentation of a life that I didn’t have. I have maybe 2 or 3 pictures of my father and me together and none of the time we were a whole family. Those family albums say so much about the group dynamic of Mom, Dad, and siblings. If someone has a family photo album that is kept perfectly and is all dolled up it’s speaking a different message than the family album which is just an old shoebox with a bunch of pictures in it. I knew even then that I was trying to fill an emptiness. So certainly there is that element of dealing with childhood grief.
It wasn’t until being out on my own, living in the city that I started to see a psychological connection to my work. Because it wasn’t until I hit the city that I lost my camera club aesthetic.
The last and most significant impact that therapy has had on my photography was just a few years ago. I had been depressed and wasn’t snapping out of it. I knew how the cycle went and I knew what to expect but this wasn’t that. There had been quite a few things in my life recently that all went tits up at the same time. I didn’t care about anything.
Enter a very close friend who is aware of the kind of behavior someone who has had depression their whole life is going to act out. She moved in for 3 days and got me into therapy with a very young therapist called Sarah.
Long story short: all I talked about was that the one thing in my life that I ever wanted to do and that I had a talent for I had avoided doing. From that point on, the only thing we talked about was photography. One day I showed her some prints I had made and we ended up talking about why it was that I didn’t put my work out into the world. That was obvious: “I didn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” Thanks, Groucho Marx.
When I was younger I thought that people who liked my work didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, I saw work from others and never thought my work was in the same league.
That shrink changed that. Now I’m quite comfortable with the idea that my pictures have a life out in the world. If I never took another picture I would be content with my photographic legacy.
H: But they did, why?
G: I don’t really know. Fear of success? Fear of failure? Fear in general. Hey, I was a kid, solitary and lonely. What did I know about snot? From the age of about 10, I was pretty much on my own and I had nobody in my corner. So of course I might be a bit “out there”. Photography was the only consistent thing that I’ve had in my life and I didn’t want to have that taken away from me too.
I once showed my pictures to an editor at Popular Photography. He was a real ass wipe. I guess he had a hangover or his wife dumped him or something. He proceeded to demolish every one of my pictures as pedestrian, nothing special at all. That stuck with me for a long time. It’s why when someone asks me what I think, even if I don’t think much of their endeavor, I never forget that experience and I find something encouraging to say. And if we are honest with ourselves, there is always something we can say that will encourage. It’s really easy to criticize negatively.
It was obvious to me that I had to do some living before I developed my eye. I had seen what fashion photography was like and commercial and even architectural and I realized that if I’m going to survive I’ve got to get past the idea that editors were going to be breaking down the door to publish my sophomore efforts. So I worked as an associate producer for corporate work and then I started my own company supplying crews and equipment to producers. I got to travel all over the world had some fun and when business was going down the crapper I was totally ambivalent about it.
During that time my two sons came along. They were the single most important event in my life to date. I thought I would be shit at being a father, but I figured if I just applied to them what I had needed and didn’t get, it would be alright. That was demonstrable love and encouragement in all endeavors. Both my sons turned out just the way I hoped they would be. I am so incredibly proud of them. In being a father I learned to heal myself. Even though my wife and I divorced, I love her deeply because of what she gave me and I am proud to call her a close friend.
That healing gave me a solid platform to reevaluate my life and most pivotal, my photography.
Because of Flickr, because people whose work I thought was fantastic kept saying the same about my work I began to think that maybe I had something.
They couldn’t all be idiots.
I’d gotten old. I began to think about what my legacy would be. I looked back upon my body of work which was bittersweet. These pictures deserved a life of their own.
H: So you come to terms with this thing you love to do, and then your back goes? Does this sound like a big chunk of sod’s law? How do you come to terms with that?
Sod’s Law? Must be a Brit thing. Do tell. (H: it’s like Murphy’s Law, but with more irony)
I was finally in a position where I could go out shooting as much as I liked and feel as one with it. I was more content than any other time in my life. It was glorious. If you’ve lived long enough you realize how ridiculous it is to think things will always be a certain way. And, you learn to see and appreciate the beauty in that.
The back thing was happening for quite some time before it got to the point where I couldn’t walk more than 100 yards or so and standing became painful. I would rest up for a few days and go out taking pictures again.
So my back gives me the big FU, what am I supposed to do? I can get weepy and feel sorry for myself like the best of them. Gnashing of teeth and beating of breast and cursing a God I only believe in when I am really scared or want something. I can do that and have. But the fact is it gets boring fast. If you are a solitary sort of guy as I am and there’s nobody around to feel sorry for you, it gets old even faster.
I know that shit happens and it’s nothing personal so I don’t take it that way. From 2010 through 2013 I had lost the vision in my right eye due to a work accident. I was hit in the eye by a bead of Pentane gas. My eye wasn’t having any of it and my retina was shredded. I had a couple of surgeries and had a new lens put in. Get this: They gave me a warranty card for the lens implant should something go wrong. That was when I got my vision back.
So the back thing…
I slept. It’s how I’ve dealt with depression. I am a class 1 sleeper too. I can go for days only waking up to pee and eat something and then it’s back to the land of nod. Eventually, though I couldn’t sleep anymore and I had to find something to do.
When I got tired of sleeping I sat down in front of the PC and opened up Lightroom. Something that I used to say to myself when I was younger was “I’ll get around to cataloging and organizing my pictures when I’m an old man.” I used to finish a roll of film and drop it into the pocket of my Army jacket and when there were 5 or so in there I would put them in the to be developed pile. After processing the negs 6 months later it went into sleeves and into a book, me having every intention of making a contact sheet someday.
So, being stuck at home unable to get into any mischief I decided it was time to start working on my legacy. I purchased a decent film scanner and I began to weed out the 43,000 digital images I had accumulated.
So the good thing that came out of this shitstorm is that it gave me the time to concentrate on what I have done so far and even begin to write about it. The writing came out of nowhere and as a result of captioning my pictures. The stories just got longer and longer. So today I am in a place that allows me to say that if I couldn’t do anything anymore other than edit my work and write about photography, that would be quite alright with me.
H: Ok, so we decided to do this interview because I like you and wanted to help you promote your forthcoming book, so maybe we should talk a bit about the content of your books. Let’s start with the pictures. We have an insight into why you take pictures, but why the pictures you take? Why the street images? And what draws you to the subject matter?
G: My work has been classified as not the prettiest. I have a sister-in-law who asked if I could take some pictures of her kids but she added that she didn’t want me to make them look “too strange”. I like a picture with negative space, something going on in the corner over there but you are drawn to the subject who also knows something strange is going on. I could probably explain that better. Dark and slightly off can have beauty to it. I don’t like bright sunshine. I would rather it be dark with a soft rain coming down.
I was pretty much left to my own devices while growing up, I just pursued the things that interested me. Those things were history, science, art, dance, film. I would get so bored in my classes at school that I would say screw it and just go to the library and read about whatever I wanted to. “Gerard is a smart boy if he would only just apply himself.” I heard quite a bit. For some reason, nobody ever questioned whether or not I might have had ADD.
I was a voracious reader. And I think those things showed me what and how to look at the world. And of course, I read everything I could on all the photographers that I liked like Duane Michals, Josef Koudelka, Diane Arbus, Lisette Model, Jay Miesel, Peter Fortuna. I looked at a lot of pictures. And indeed, that had a significant influence on what I thought the right image should be too.
But there was something else. I had always thought about my photography in terms of doing projects. Doing projects requires some planning, some forethought, and consistency. Skills that I somewhat lacked in. It would be great to say that I had decided to do this or that and the other thing, but in reality, the pictures that I take are taken because of a feeling in the moment. It’s not that I am documenting a world; I am documenting my world. And I knew that as long as I carried my camera with me, I would use it, and so that’s exactly what I did. Every single day of my life, I had a camera with me. People who knew me became so used to it, and no one thought it strange that I took pictures at my mother’s funeral.
Why Street? Because when you live in New York, you spend an awful lot of time on the street. A lot of that time, It’s where the people are.
The thing that makes me push that shutter button is a physical sensation. I see something that catches my eye, and I raise the viewfinder, and I look. And when things move into some magical position, I get a little twinge in my gut, or something happens, and I press the button. I’ve talked a lot about flow. One must be willing to go along with the prevailing winds. When one is in sync with their environment, it becomes quite apparent what deserves an image.
H: So what about the words then. Is it your pictures that inspire you to write, or something more?
G: I’m not exactly sure where the stories come from. It is the pictures that start a brainstorming session going. I’ll remember the time or event and what particular dragon I was trying to slay at the time and take it from there. Very often I’ll tie the old picture into something new in my life. Other times I just write it as it happened. Apparently, I’ve met a lot of characters. I got a comment about my little essays maybe being fiction. I don’t think I’m good enough to write fiction. I just lived my life saying “Why not? What’s the worst that can happen?” I just remembered to take my camera with me and say yes.
The real mystery for me is I never wrote anything before a couple of years ago. It just happened and I refuse to take a class or read any books about how to do it because I just know it will get screwed up. Most of the time I have no idea what it is I am going to write about at all. I just sit on my porch for 90 minutes every morning randomly writing in a journal.
Sometimes an idea will pop into my head and I’m off. Usually, when I’m done if I wait a few days and re-read the piece I wonder who the hell wrote that thing. It is that much of a mystery to me.
H: Ok, before we finish, I’ve gotta ask this question: What advice would you give to the aspiring street photographer?
G: It would be pretty sad if I had been doing street photography for 40 years and didn’t have opinions about it.
1. Don’t just look at photography. Look at all the other things like painting, sculpture, dance, film. Learn to sketch. That forced me to really look at what was in front of me in detail. It will inform your decision making when contemplating a picture. And hey, if it doesn’t it will make you more interesting at parties.
2. One camera and one lens. Everyday. Everything else you think you need is bullshit. You begin to think about what you are lugging around after 10 hours of roaming. Besides, all that other crap you have with you turns into a distraction.
3. You don’t need a longer lens because you’re not going to be doing the coward shot. Any lens from 20mm to 50mm makes for good street photography because you have to get closer. Street photography is not standing across the street and covertly shooting images of guys sleeping on the sidewalk or unsuspecting people. Street photography is about relationships and being here and now with your subject.
4. Get closer.
5. Do it alone. It’s hard to pay attention when you have somebody else with you who needs to go to the bathroom or insists on talking.
6. If roaming let someone know where you think you are going. Bring your cell phone. Most importantly pay attention to your surroundings and always have an out. I have found people, in general, to be generous and understanding. I have also found that some people are bat shit crazy and dangerous. The more you put yourself out there, the more you make yourself vulnerable the better your pictures and the better your street smarts. If you start getting a weird feeling about what’s unfolding pay attention to that feeling.
7. Get closer… Even closer than that.
8. Get interested in people, smile a lot, say hello. Learn to make up stories about them. If you don’t like people, you’re not going to be good at this. Try landscapes.
9. Learn to listen more and talk less.
10. Sometimes you just feel like pushing the button. Have at it.
11. Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing. If you can’t explain why you do the pictures you do, that’s only temporary. And besides, that’s nobody’s business but your own.
12. Try not to get too wrapped up in the BS that surrounds photography. The lust for gear, the battle of comments prevalent on a few photo web sites. Your pictures aren’t your gear. Your pictures are always the story first.
Watch what happens when your ego starts trying to tell you what to do.
13. I’m not sure if I mentioned this but GET CLOSER to your subjects.
I’ve been blessed with living in or near NYC my entire life and I think most people would agree that living in or near a city is conducive to street photography. In reality, you can do it anywhere because street photography isn’t just one thing. IMHO it is an attitude and a feeling. It’s being compelled to document your world and the desire you have to transmit it “out there.” It’s about being curious and you have to do it. Nothing ventured is nothing ventured.
That should do it I think.
H: Cool – so this forthcoming book of yours tell us a little bit about it
G: As I mentioned before a lot of things in my life that were life-changing incredible experiences I had to be dragged to by a woman. For that, I am truly grateful. I didn’t have any real male influence on my life so I didn’t gravitate to football and jock activities. I did play high school soccer (football) for a year but I had much more fun getting to know the girls. They smelled so much nicer than the guys, you know? The strongest, hardest working, and dedicated people in my life have always seemed to be women and of course, I would take pictures of them.
The book is entitled “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” and will feature images of NYC women from 1975 through 2020, that I have crossed paths with.
H: And you’re going to crowdfund it? How can people find out more or register their interest?
In order for me to get the book into the sweet spot of around 35$US retail, it’s necessary for me to order a lot of books. The more I order the less expensive it becomes to print so I have to crowdfund the printing. The goal is to get as many books (my pictures) out into the world. If I had to sell the books for $100.00US it wouldn’t be accessible to a lot of people. This book will be hardcovered and have 100 pages of photographs and short stories. The printing is on premium photo paper and printed by a photographic printer and not an offset printer. The quality is excellent. Really excellent. For that, you have to spend a bit more money.
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 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.