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Gérard Gentil – Nonconformist Photographer

How taking risks opened doors to an extraordinary life and career.

How taking risks opened doors to an extraordinary life and career

NameGérard Sylvain Pépin GentilBirthFebruary 21, 1944BirthplaceFort de France, MartiniqueEthnic OriginMartiniquais, BiracialOccupationsFilmmaker, Video Editor, Graphic Designer, Scriptwriter, Mentor, Media Growth Specialist, Creative DirectorWebsitegerardgentil-dop.comShare

Fact checked by Charmaine Gooden

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Gérard Gentil isn’t one to ignore opportunities for adventure in both his personal and professional lives. The free-spirited sense of self and way of life he’s embraced has led to an extraordinary career.

Marilyn Brooks (Photo courtesy of Gérard Gentil)
Photo Gerard Gentil, Hair La Coupe, Fashion Coordination Calvin French

Early Life and Career

Born in Fort de France, Martinique, Gentil was the only son of three children, with sisters Jocelyne and Ghislène. Father, Guy, was a major nurse in the French Navy and his mother, Amélie, worked in a bank. He received his high school education at Lycée Victor Schoelcher.

At seven years old, Gentil remembers taking a photograph of his then five-year old sister, Jocelyne, and he refers to it as his first fashion photo. “As an adolescent I’d carry a camera everywhere, taking pictures of everyone I saw, including family,” he remembers.

Growing up in Martinique, Gentil moved on his own into a house near a hotel where he says, “I occasionally spent time having a drink, listening to music and meeting tourists.” One night he met two men on vacation from Montreal and quickly became friends. “I offered to drive them around the island, saving them the cost of taxis,” he explains. They were so happy to have met him, that before leaving, they said to him, “If you ever want to come to Montreal, you can stay with us,” he says. 

Gentil, who was 19, took them up on their offer, moving to Montreal in 1967 during the excitement of Expo 67 (International and Universal Exposition), honouring Canada’s 100th anniversary celebrations.

After moving there, Gentil arranged to have dinner with his new friends at their apartment. One of the guests was the model Ulla Moreland, who asked if he was interested in becoming a fashion photographer.

She explained the Montreal fashion industry to him, advising him on potential contacts and came up with concepts he should explore. “Unfortunately, despite networking with several influential contacts, I felt dismissed by the industry, not taken seriously,” he explains. But those rejections fueled his determination to succeed as a photographer and he enrolled in a private photography school, SMP (School of Modern Photography).

 

 

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Marie, Adélina’s daughter, Gerard's grand-mother born in 1888.
Adélina, Gérard's great grandmother, Slave person’s daughter. (Photo courtesy of Gérard Gentil)

It’s like I’m on a tightrope, not really falling on either side. Because I don’t look Black,” he explains. “I’ve never encountered people who would have problems with my being biracial.

Breaking Barriers

After five years in Montreal, Gentil moved to Toronto in 1972, to pursue his dream of learning English. While working with Chatelaine Magazine in the late ‘70s, “I was lucky enough to shoot with Patti Hanson (Mrs. Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones), which she enjoyed,” says Gentil. “She spoke to Wilhelmina Cooper, the Dutch-American model and founder of Wilhelmina Models. Those kind words convinced Cooper to bring me into the American market, where I travelled the country with her, as a beauty pageant judge,” he explains.

“During the time I opened my studio on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Cooper became ill and died, just a few weeks after battling lung cancer,” Gentil shares. We could hear his voice trembling through the phone as he was saying how sorry he is. “Some people you just can”t forget.”  he adds. He is full of gratitude for Cooper, who he credits for having a wonderful impact on his career. “My time with her represents a real milestone in my career,” he states, speaking softly.

Not long after she passed, Gentil started working with Eileen Ford of Ford Models. In the early ‘80s, Ford was one of the most powerful agents in New York. “Ford was a really big influence in my professional life,” Gentil admits. “That’s when I started working with some of the big guys.”

Over his career Gentil would amass a portfolio of covers ranging from Canada’s Chatelaine, Flare, Style, and Toronto Life FASHION magazine, to  American Vogue, Glamour, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal and Harper’s Bazaar.

“The thing is, it’s like I’m on a tightrope, not really falling on either side, because I don’t look Black,” Gentil tells us.  “Black from a slave woman, white from her master,”  is how he describes his biracial ethnic origins. “I’ve never encountered people who would have problems with my being biracial.

Even my friend, Calvin French, who was considered Canada’s first Black male supermodel and identified as a person of colour, never faced racial obstacles,” says Gentil. “He was respected for his talent more than his skin tone,” Gentil observes. “Your attitude and the way you express yourself makes them forget you’re Black.”

But after flying high and achieving great success as a photographer in New York, Gentil began to question what it meant. “I started to realize how empty my life was and believe it or not, the next thing I knew, I closed my studio after eight years in New York and headed to Europe, leaving everything behind,” says Gentil. He reveals that “eventually I realized it was some kind of spiritual journey I was searching for.”

Influence and Legacy

“When I first met him, he was exploding with creative talent like I’d never seen from photographers,” says David Nankoff, Business Development Manager at the Montreal World Film Festival and Gentil’s friend. “He was quite unique and with his ability, I thought he’d soar to the top,” he adds. Looking back on when Gentil aimed to secure multiple well-known magazines within three years, Nankoff remembers his success in securing them within only three months.

Gentil’s skills allowed him to venture into cinematography. “When I discovered that filming is still photography, I felt at peace with it,” he tells us. He was involved in a short film project about the art of marriage, called “Martial Arts,” directed by Anthony Marinelli and screened at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Gentil also worked on a short called “The Dump,” directed by actor Neil Holland, which keeps winning Oscars in the U.S., and is currently nominated for Outstanding Cinematography and Best Actor at the Nomadic Film Festival. “Being a part of these projects brings new pressures, but it can create an exciting environment,” Gentil shares. “It keeps you alive.”

Recently, Gentil has merged into the film industry and is currently involved in helping video production companies increase their brand visibility in collaboration with a team of highly-qualified experts. At the same time, he was asked to create a name, logo and campaign for a new resort coming to Martinique.

He’s temporarily back home  because his mother passed away and reveals he’s been offered work as a Creative Consultant on live event projects featuring Alicia Keys and Yemi Alade (being negotiated).  

In closing, Gentil asks himself, “Why did I choose to be a photographer? I didn’t want a boss,” he answers. “Freedom has always been important to me.” And this lifestyle allows him to explore the world and experience new surroundings. “If you have a free spirit,” says Gentil, “a lot of doors open and opportunities appear,” he adds. “Once you have that state of mind, life is so generous.”

Most of Gentil’s carefree decisions have led him to the extraordinary life he’s been living and he hopes to share them and provide guidance to others.

(Photo courtesy of Gerard Gentil)

Looking back on when Gentil aimed to secure multiple well-known magazines within three years, Nankoff remembers his success in securing them within only three months.

About the authors:

Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

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Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

Read More

About the author:

Over the years Prof. Gooden has built a multi-media career as an editor, writer, presenter, public relations consultant and special event manager, spokesperson, host, and educator. She...

Read More

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