Thursday, September 20, 2012

Errol Sawyer, Photographer

Errol Sawyer, his son Victor, and I recently met and spent a few precious moments in the Quartier de l’Ouest of Montparnasse, south of the Gare Montparnasse. Precious for him because he was returning to the neighborhood where he rented a studio and pursued his photography career in the early 1970s. Precious for me because he was able to show me the location where he photographed Beauford Delaney, resulting in the most beautiful celluloid portrait of Beauford that I have ever seen!

Victor and Errol Sawyer
© Discover Paris

Father and son had come to Paris for a very brief visit so that Sawyer could deliver works to be displayed at Dorothy’s Gallery – American Center for the Arts and so that he could expose Victor to the wonders of the city. He described his trek to this part of the city as a pilgrimage of sorts, saying that he had not visited this neighborhood in at least 30 years. This was where he began his life in Paris in 1971, seeking work as a professional photographer in the fashion and beauty industry.

Sawyer rented the space on rue Guilleminot from a Romanian sculptor for “almost nothing.” He appreciated the studio because it faced the street, had a coal-burning stove, and benefited from beautiful ambient light. He installed a dark room in the loggia and honed his developing skills there. The building has long since disappeared – the entire neighborhood was rebuilt during the late 70s and early 80s.

Sawyer describes his life during his seven years in Paris (1971-78) as very romantic, admixed with rich relationships and serendipitous encounters, but also of material poverty. One of his remarkable encounters was his discovery of supermodel Christie Brinkley, whom he met at the neighborhood post office on rue Pernety. Sawyer often went there to use the phone because he did not have one at his studio. He was the first to professionally photograph Brinkley and introduced her to the Elite Model Management agency in Paris, which launched her career.

Though times were often hard (Sawyer recounted having survived for a three-week period on parsley, nuts, and water), he benefited tremendously from the generosity of the French and other Europeans and the favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the franc (roughly 3.40 Francs to the dollar). At one point, he was offered free room and board in an apartment on rue Pierre 1er de Serbie in the 16th arrondissement. Later, he was able to stay in an apartment on rue Perronet in Neuilly-sur-Seine. Food was much cheaper then that it is now – Sawyer remembers being served copious, three-course meals at Paris bistrots for less than 20 francs.

Errol Sawyer. Paris, France. 1970s
Photo courtesy of Errol Sawyer

Errol Sawyer (born August 8, 1943, Florida, USA) is the son of Robert Earl Sawyer (1923-1994), an African-American playwright, actor, director, and producer whose family emigrated from Nassau, Bahamas, to Miami, Florida. His mother, Mamie Lucille Donaldson (1928-2009), was an African American Cherokee Indian whose family lived in Bainbridge, Georgia. She was in charge of the Intensive Care Unit of the Bronx Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx, New York City, for twenty five years.

Sawyer grew up in New York City (Harlem and the Bronx), studied history and political science at NYU, and found his vocation as a photographer while traveling in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in 1968. He bought his first camera in 1966 and became a professional photographer in 1969. Sawyer never went to art school; rather, he read books to teach himself the skill. “Too much technique inhibits the process,” he says. “The way you see things is the most important, and that is simply a reflection of how you live your life.”

Living and working in Paris and London in the early 1970’s, Sawyer’s photos were published in Elle, Dépêche Mode and French Vogue. In 1978, he returned to New York and worked for American Vogue, Essence, New York Magazine and many other magazines. He moved back to Paris in 1984 and remained here until 1988. He subsequently traveled around Europe, returned to the U.S. in 1995, and then moved permanently to Amsterdam in 1999. There, he married Mathilde Fischer, an architect and former picture model, whom he had met in Paris in 1977. Their son Victor Leonard Sawyer was born in 2005.

Since 1984, Sawyer has devoted most of his time to the realization of documentary and fine art photography. From 2006 to 2010, he was a guest professor of photography at the Technical University Delft, Holland. In 2010 the Errol Sawyer Foundation was established in Amsterdam. Its first project (funded by the Sem Presser Foundation) was the publication of the photo book City Mosaic, a compilation of 64 black & white pictures taken primarily in New York, Paris, and Amsterdam.

Sawyer still takes photographs every day, capturing the essence of interesting persons and events that cross his path through “chance encounters in day-to-day intercourse with life.” He develops and prints his photos himself in his darkroom in Amsterdam. Though he occasionally creates color portraits, most of his work is done in black & white. According to him:

A picture is good when it leaves room for you to imagine…

A good picture results from a subconscious dance between being present and not being present. A photograph, or any image for that matter, should not only articulate a point in time and space but simultaneously provoke a re-evaluation of that particular point. It should stimulate our perception of what we take for granted about physical phenomena. That is why it is so important to leave a picture as it is.

In 1974, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (France’s national library) purchased thirty-six (36) black & white Silver Gelatin prints of Sawyer’s portfolio “Children of East End” (1970). The library also owns a color photograph called “Clochard” that was taken by Sawyer at Washington Square Park in New York in 1995. From his portfolio entitled “Paris,” the Musée Français de la Photographie in Bièvres acquired six black & white prints in 1991.

Sawyer’s work has also been purchased by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Public Library (Harlem, New York), and the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, Texas). Eric Franck, brother of the late photographer Martine Franck (widow of Henri Cartier-Bresson), recently donated six Sawyer prints from his “London Collection” to the Tate Modern (London, UK). Sawyer's solo exhibitions include shows at the 4th Street Gallery (New York, USA), the Royal Photographic Society (Bath, England), Le Musée Français de la Photographie (Bièvres, France), Foto Huset Gallery (Götenburg, Sweden), No Name Gallery (Basel, Switzerland), La Chambre Claire Gallery (Paris, France) and the Royal Gallery (Amsterdam, Holland).

The photo portrait of Beauford Delaney from Sawyer’s book City Mosaic (2010) is currently on display at the Obama’s America exposition at Dorothy’s Gallery and another work from the book is on reserve.

Sawyer’s portrait of Beauford Delaney at Dorothy’s Gallery
© Discover Paris!

Dorothy’s Gallery – American Center for the Arts
27, rue Keller
75011 Paris
Telephone: 01 43 57 08 51
Metro: Bastille (Lines 1, 5, and 8), Voltaire (Line 9)
Hours: Wednesday through Saturday from 1 PM to 7 PM, Tuesday and Sunday from 4 PM to 7 PM

A limited number of copies of City Mosaic are available for purchase at the gallery as well.

The exposition runs through November 10, 2012. Take advantage of the opportunity to view Sawyer’s work in person!

For more information about Sawyer and his œuvre, visit and


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