Alexis Gerard has been taking photos in the San Francisco Bay area for over 30 years. He has an amazing ability to capture the interplay of light and shadow. His photos have a sense of complexity, yet are easily accessible. They are sometimes humorous, sometimes banal, but almost always reveal something interesting beyond their literal content. For a more in-depth view of his work, check out his Suburban Bliss website, and Flickr.
I asked him eight questions about his work and his current projects.
Can you tell us about the projects you are working on these days?
I usually have several irons in the fire, because I prefer to rotate rather than to focus on a single one for a long time. I continue to document the mid-Peninsula area where I’ve lived for over 30 years – that’s an area half way between San Francisco and San Jose that is fast changing due to the explosion of the tech sector, and the resulting pressures in the economy, the demography, the infrastructure and the culture, that project is on my “Suburban Bliss” website. I’m also a fascinated by islands, and have been traveling to and photographing a number of them – the Hebrides, Easter Island, Malta, Crete, Corsica. And I’m always captivated by the interplay of light and shadow, on which I have an ongoing series of abstract-leaning photos and short videos.
Your photographs are beautiful and complex. At the same time, in some way they strike me as being easy to look at—the play of colour and light seems to combine with the subject matter in ways that allow us access. That’s just my take on your work. Do you have that feeling about it?
I deeply appreciate your saying this, it’s very kind of you. Also, you’re describing something I deliberately strive for, and constantly work at improving. I value beauty and I’m not satisfied with an image unless it achieves it on some level. As for complexity and accessibility; to me a really good image is one you can look at over a period of time and keep finding more and more to appreciate. But a really great image should do more than that, it should also have immediate appeal. I want the viewer to get some pleasure from my images at first glance and then, if they’re willing to invest time and attention, to get a lot more.
How did you develop your unique sense of vision?
You know the old saying “throw enough mud against the wall and some of it is bound to stick”? Well, 2017 is the 40th year since I bought my first camera (an Olympus OM-2) and started photographing. That said, I think what shaped my “eye” most was my decision to have a camera with me at all times possible. A high-school friend of mine told me an anecdote about Cartier-Bresson: My friend’s parents were artistic, and knew Henri Cartier-Brersson socially. Once, when my friend was still a kid, the great photographer came to their place for afternoon tea. As my friend told it, he never stopped holding his Leica with both hands, poised like a tiger to grab an image if one came about. Without going to such extremes, having a camera with you constantly is what I’d recommend to anyone who wants to develop their eye and style. You take a lot more pictures that way, therefore you learn faster because you’re making so many mistakes you can learn from! And because you’re always alert for images, rather than thinking about what interests you, you actually find out by doing. This is why I’m excited about cameras in phones; I’m hoping they’ll help many people become great photographers.
What subject matter attracts you, and why?
A scene or an object attracts my attention when it intimates something to me that goes beyond its outward appearance. I know this may sound pretentious, but it’s a sense that what I’m looking at reveals something about the functioning of the universe that goes beyond our everyday understanding. It can’t be expressed in words, but a successful image has a chance to convey it. So, my images can appear to be all over the map if someone goes by their literal subject matter (what they’re “of”), but when one focuses on what they’re trying to convey (what they’re “about”) they have a unity. At least I hope so! That’s kind of serious, so I should add I also photograph things because I find them funny or humorous.
What’s your state of mind when you’re taking good photos? Do you think there’s any connection between your mood or mindset and the results you get?
Yes, there’s definitely a connection. The kinds of images I hope for require being in an open and receptive state. You can’t have preconceptions about what you will photograph and be looking for specific things – if you do you’ll miss everything else. So, you go somewhere that’s related to a project you’re working on (or not). You allow your awareness to be diffuse, rather than focused on anything in particular, and you find out there and then what to photograph. Another way to put it is that you don’t go out to photograph, you go out to enjoy being in a place and time and, if you’re alert, the images come to you. Then, since you have a camera with you, you record them.
Do you like the region or city you live in? Do you like your home? Do these affect your photography?
I’m originally from Switzerland, but I’ve been living in the San Francisco Bay Area for over 30 years. It’s a great area for any photographer because of the region’s unending variety of scenery, and the magnificent light of Northern California. There’s also a wide range of environments from dense urban to suburban to small town. So yes, as a photographer I feel very privileged to live here.
Has your approach to your work changed in recent months or years? If so, how and why?
Pretty early on I decided the SLR thing of carrying around a lot of lenses wasn’t for me, because I don’t like to carry stuff, and more importantly, it gets in the way of spontaneity. I want to always have with me the best camera available that’s small enough to fit in a pocket or a belt holster, so I can take photos quickly and without drawing attention to myself. There were some wonderful film cameras along those lines, like the Contax T, whose image quality was just as good as the SLRs. However, in the digital world the smaller cameras have smaller sensors than those in bulkier cameras, and that impacts their performance. So, in the early years I had to adjust my choices of subject matter to accommodate cameras that had lower definition and narrower dynamic range (I believe you can make a good photo with absolutely any camera, but only if you work within, and make use of, its limitations). Fortunately, since Panasonic came out with the LX line, there have been better and better “pocket” digital alternatives like Sony’s RX 100 series and the Ricoh GR. That’s enabled me to do things that earlier models couldn’t support, like landscapes or interiors where detail is important, and low light.
One final question: Can you tell me briefly about a couple of photographers I may not be familiar with yet but you would recommend checking out?
Some of the lesser-known photographers whose work has had a strong impact on me are Clarence John Laughlin, Max Yavno, Paul Outerbridge, Jean-Christophe Pigozzi, and Charles Gatewood. I’d also like to mention two painters: Robert Bechtle, and John Register.