Andrew Zuckerman is an important figure in the next generation of photographers. At just 31, he has already produced two books, worked extensively for top magazines, and even crossed over into independent film.
An alumnus of the School of the Visual Arts, he assisted immediately after graduation. Before long, he was shooting his own work for a client stable that included Vogue. At that magazine, Zuckerman’s editors gave him very specific directions for the assignments which he describes as “still lifes of bags and shoes.” The Vogue assignments also nurtured an aesthetic crystalized in his first book, Creatures: “We had to have a perfectly white background,” he says. “And it had to be beautifully done.” During that time, he worked from a pre-war apartment on 46th Street equipped with a borrowed set of Speedotron lights. “I didn’t have enough power in my apartment,” he says, “so I had to run cords out of the windows into my neighbors’ apartments and pay their electric bills.”
Expansion—the theme of our featured image—is a fitting topic for Zuckerman’s career which spans art books, commercial photography, television commercials and film. The featured image is a high-speed photograph of a water balloon being pierced by a pellet and is part of a larger body of work exploring the Big Bang theory. He used a piece of equipment often used in high-speed photography called The Time Machine to create an interface between his camera, strobe and a microphone mounted to the top of his pellet gun. Zuckerman used a Broncolor Graphite A4 power pack set at very low power with a Pulso Twin 4 bi-tube head. The reason for the low power setting was to get the highest flash duration, in this case around 1/6000th of a second, in order to properly freeze the motion of the balloon bursting. He used a Hasselblad H2 with a Leaf Aptus 75S digital back and a 120mm lens. The exposure was f/11 at 50 ISO with the shutter left open. Once everything was in place Zuckerman would pull the trigger of the gun and The Time Machine, hooked up to a microphone mounted on the gun and a pocket wizard connected to the camera and the single strobe, would then do all the work. “The sound of the gun is actually what takes the image,” he says. The gun was five feet away from the balloon and the pellet was traveling at a 1000ft/sec so it was mostly just math and “a lot of trial and error,” he recalls.
All his work, from his first book, Creatures, to his current work, Wisdom, is concept driven. Its medium is a secondary concern. “When I’m after something I look for the best way to communicate it cohesively. I feel that working seamlessly between mediums offers you more entrance points into your project,” he says. “I tend to elevate my subjects by reducing the elements around them. I’m interested in the bare essence of the subject.” Creatures, a book presenting exotic animals from around the world on bare white backgrounds, exemplifies this notion. A hit when it came out, it was featured in both trade and mainstream media, including Ellen.
His forthcoming book, Wisdom sometimes demanded eight shoots in eight days in five countries. For a single page of his work-in-progress, his crew of four flew to South Africa for three minutes with Nelson Mandela, which he called a challenge. “I used an enormous strobe set up for everyone else and I needed to make him fit into the book seamlessly. After some experimentation I figured out a solution,” he says. “I had a very shallow depth of field and almost no focus and there was all sorts of noise because they had to be at the highest ISO.” No matter: the image wound up on the cover of Time.
His methods were simple with these famous people (with whom, experience has taught him, “adoration and ass kissing on any level does not work.”) But more to the point, he says, is curiosity. “When a project is completed it’s demystified and I go on to the next thing. I think it’s unhealthy to think of achievement as arriving somewhere,” he says. “Ownership can really stop you.”
Zuckerman was interviewed by our Editor Zack Seckler about his career and his craft:
Zuckerman: The featured image was part of a larger body of work. I was interested in exploring expansion. I was learning a lot about the Big Bang theory. The water balloons were a great device to explore that.
F STOP: Let’s talk a little bit about how you got started off. How long have you been shooting for? Did you go to school for photography?
Zuckerman: I started shooting when I was a kid. I’m from Maryland, but I spent my summers during high school at the International Center of Photography in New York, basically mopping the floors of the dark rooms and setting up chemistry for classes in exchange for free time in the darkroom. I did a little bit of traveling after graduation and then came to New York and studied at the School of Visual Arts. I did some assisting during that time and started shooting very small assignments pretty much immediately after graduating.
F STOP: What sort of assignments?
Zuckerman: My first job was working for Vogue. I would shoot still lifes of bags and shoes. The Vogue art directors were really specific. We had to have a perfectly white background and it had to be beautifully done. I worked out of an old pre-war apartment on 46th Street. A fantastic photographer I assisted gave me a set of lights to start out with. They were really old Speedotron piggyback systems. I didn’t have enough power in my apartment so I had to run cords out of the windows into my neighbors’ apartments and pay their electric bills. I had a totally jerry rigged system. Thank god no one from Vogue ever actually came to my studio! I wouldn’t even get dressed. I was shooting like eight products a day for Vogue and other magazines. I basically spent a year doing still lifes, which I had never intended on doing. It taught me how to light and be efficient and work on my own. I never worked with an assistant. It was just me alone in my apartment.
Zuckerman: There wasn’t one moment where everything changed. I treated my work with rigor whether I was working for myself or someone else. It didn’t really matter what I was doing. I quickly learned that people took notice of my personal work and gave me opportunities to replicate it for them. It became crucial for me to create my own work because advertising would then coopt a piece of it for their own means. My initial concept had little to do with the concept they were after in the ad. They would just borrow the aesthetic and apply it to their needs.
F STOP: How did you get into doing film work?
Zuckerman: I’ve also been interested in moving images since I was a kid, making flip books, etc. I made a film when I was in art school and wanted to get back to it. I had a client that allowed me to experiment with film after I did a successful print campaign for them. I made some spec commercials and then started directing commercials for them, which led to directing more. At a certain point I was ready to make my first film, so I applied money from the commercial work to fund my own short film and then went on to Sundance and that set me up in the proper film business and allowed some space for people to listen to my ideas for a feature.
F STOP: How did you get the major Hollywood actors Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard for your first film High Falls and how did you produce it?
Zuckerman: They’ve been close friends of mine for years. I don’t really pay much attention to Us Weekly and Hollywood, so to be honest I didn’t realize how well they were regarded in the business. I wrote a film and they graciously agreed to go down the road and make it with a very inexperienced director. We had a blast and really enjoyed working together.
F STOP: How long did it take to shoot?
Zuckerman: We shot in four days, over July 4th weekend and edited it through the rest of that summer. Fortunately, we were in the festival circuit that year.
F STOP: You’ve shot still photography, film, television commercials and have published two books, what appeals to you about using different mediums to tell a story?
Zuckerman: You tell a story in every medium. I’ve always found that photography informs moving images and moving images inform photographs. Words can do the same thing for both of those projects. What drives a lot of my work is the concept and execution tends to follow. When I’m after something I look for the best way to communicate it cohesively. I feel that working seamlessly between mediums offers your audience more entrance points into your project.
F STOP: Do you have an overarching message in your various bodies of work?
Zuckerman: It’s hard for me to look at all of my work and say, “These are the through lines I impose.” I think that everyone has a unique style, like handwriting. For example, visually, I’m interested in reduction. But this is less what my work is about conceptually, and more about how I execute it. I gravitate towards reductive work and minimalism. I try to create an arena that’s really clean and clear so that my subject or my collective subjects are easily understood and not clouded by style or extraneous information. I tend to elevate my subjects by reducing the elements around them. I’m interested in the bare essence of the subject.
Zuckerman: The people in Wisdom have all changed the world in some way. I do my books through a book packager in New Zealand and they had previously done a book on Mandela. Archbishop Tutu was very generous and offered to write letters on our behalf to the contributors. He was a defining factor in getting people involved initially. Once I had a site where I could present the work, it stood for itself. We devoted everything to the project. Most of my other work was put on hold for a few of months.
F STOP: Did you do the stills and the film interviews on the same set?
Zuckerman: We created a really efficient system. We were on and off a lot of airplanes. We flew to South Africa for three minutes to meet with Mandela. We had trips where we did eight shoots in eight days in five countries. It was an insane project. There were four of us and the funding wasn’t tremendous.
F STOP: How did you pay for it?
Zuckerman: We used my advance to make the project, but then we had a backer. We had created a system that we could set up anywhere in a matter of minutes and complete a photo shoot and an interview in about 20 minutes. I had 14 minutes with Ted Kennedy. The whole day with Willie Nelson. We had a team. There weren’t hired guns for the day, except for a grip sometimes if we needed help. The only thing we didn’t travel with was grip equipment. We traveled with strobes and hot lights on the same stand on one arm, we’d flip them around and the hi-def cameras would come in, and the still camera would come out. It was like a dance.
F STOP: Tell me about getting your subjects to work with you on set, do you have a certain ways of approaching or dealing with your portrait subjects?
Zuckerman: Having been around enough people that are in the public eye I’ve learned that adoration and ass kissing on any level does not work. Transparency, honesty, and respect for their time is absolutely crucial. Every time a subject has told me about a bad experience on a previous shoot it’s because the photographer directed them too much and there were long set ups and too many pictures. I use a ton of light. It’s uncomfortable and hurts their eyes, so I try to do it in under 20 frames. I don’t take a lot of pictures.
F STOP: So you don’t direct at all?
Zuckerman: I have an idea of what I’d like and some subjects are more directable than others. The painter Andrew Wyeth asks subjects to sit for three weeks when he makes a painting. When he sat for me he asked, “how do you want me?” So I simply positioned him and he was there for me as long as I needed him. Others don’t want to be told that. You need to be a listener and be flexible, open, and honest. It’s important to begin a shoot with clean and clear intentions. Generally, if you respect your subjects you’ll get good results from people.
F STOP: Who did you have the most interesting experience working with?
Zuckerman: Nelson Mandela was both technically challenging and really interesting socially. They had not granted a portrait session with him for a number of years. Everyone in the world told us we couldn’t do it, but with a little bit of persuasion and luck we were able to get the session. However, they told us that we only had three minutes and couldn’t use lights. It was a challenge because I used an enormous strobe set up for everyone else and I needed to make him fit into the book seamlessly. After some experimentation I figured out a solution with fluorescent lights that were quite far away, but I had a very shallow depth of field and almost no focus and there was all sorts of noise because they had to be at the highest ISO. I was able to walk away with an important image, which then wound up being the cover of Time Magazine for his 90th birthday and an iconic Mandela image.
F STOP: Does working in film influence your vision and practice in still photography?
Zuckerman: Everything I come across informs everything else. Nothing exists in a vacuum. When I’m taking photographs I’m not just taking photographs. I’m working with photography as a tool. The different mediums are entirely different platforms for engagement with a subject. There’s an unlimited amount of knowledge you can gain and apply between the different mediums. On every shoot you’re constantly learning. I think that a feeling of accomplishment holds you back from doing more.
F STOP: What drives it then?
Zuckerman: Simply my curiosity.
F STOP: You don’t have any sense of achievement finishing up a big project?
Zuckerman: It just becomes demystified. The world is a mysterious place and I find that curiosity is driven by the urge to demystify things. When a project is completed it’s demystified and I go on to the next thing. I think it’s unhealthy to think of achievement as arriving somewhere. I don’t think there is anywhere to arrive at. You’re constantly moving.
F STOP: How much time do your projects generally take?
Zuckerman: Some projects are compressed and some projects develop over time. I shot Creature for over five years. I’m still doing animal photographs. Right now I’m working on a book called Bird. I’ve been photographing birds in flight for a number of years. Wisdom had a nine-month shooting schedule, but unlike some of the other projects it was back to back.
F STOP: Were you working on anything else while you were shooting Wisdom?
Zuckerman: I took a few breaks for advertising projects. I did a BMW campaign and a big Puma print campaign. It was challenging though. I needed to turn a lot of projects down.
F STOP: Is your advertising work mostly moving images?
Zuckerman: No. Actually, it’s TV and print.
F STOP: It seemed like there were a lot of commercials on your website.
Zuckerman: Everyone engages with my website differently. I like to develop micro sites so my projects can stand on their own.
F STOP: How long have you been doing that?
Zuckerman: I did my first micro site for High Falls. And then I did one for Creature, and then for Wisdom. My larger projects now have stand alone sites.
F STOP: Do you find that’s a good strategy?
Zuckerman: You can’t make work for everyone. You have specific audiences for each body of work. Someone who intensely loves animals and just loves my Creature book could care less about my pictures in Switzerland. So they have a place to go. To them I exist as the guy that did Creature. I don’t think it’s relevant to them that I’ve done High Falls.
F STOP: Thinking about your work as a whole, you said that curiosity drives you. Is there an equal amount of wanting to educate, inform, and inspire the public as well?
Zuckerman: No. It’s mainly for me, but I’m glad that I can share it. Broadly, I am interested in the human experience as a theme. High Falls is about how you navigate relationships in a space of moral ambiguity and during a time when there’s no real right and wrong. Creature is about our relationship to other animals in the world besides us. Wisdom is about how you navigate your journey as a human being and how you relate to the rest of the world and manage your own experience. So I think a lot of my work is driven by my curiosity about the human experience.
F STOP: Do you see any connection between Wisdom and Creature? They’re both shot on a white background and humans are, after all, animals.
Zuckerman: It’s funny, very early on in the project after I had finished Creature I thought I was going to do a project called Human. I’m so glad I didn’t call it Human, because that’s not what it ended up being. There are similarities between the projects because I’m interested in essence and connectivity. In a lot of the animal portraits there’s an underlying consciousness within the animal and I hope that a stripped down sense of humanity is evident in Wisdom. I’m not interested in Willie Nelson with his guitar in his studio. That kind of environmental portrait doesn’t really tell me who he is, that tells me what he does for a living. I’m interested in who he is and his perspective on life.
F STOP: Do you enjoy doing advertising as much as fine art?
Zuckerman: I think the division between them is antiquated. I’m interested in communicating in general. Sometimes I’m communicating from a self-generated concept, and sometimes I’m communicating a concept that’s been generated by a group of people and I’m helping them execute it.
F STOP: Could you describe your process of conceptualizing?
Zuckerman: I think all of us have multiple dialogues going on at all times and since we’re constantly confronted with the present, we’re constantly inundated with ideas. I don’t really have a process. My process is about staying open to possibilities and not getting to a point where I feel ownership. I think that ownership can really stop you. I made explosion photographs and afterwards I saw a number of photographers using explosions. I would get emails from friends, “Look this guy ripped you off.” But that doesn’t exist. Copying doesn’t exist to me. I think that we live in a collective consciousness and we’re all interested in doing things for different reasons. For me, it’s important to start with concepts and not execution. I’ve gotten tripped up on an idea when I start with how it should look.
F STOP: What are you working on now?
Zuckerman: I’m working on a number of things. We’re mounting a museum exhibition for Wisdom in Australia in a few weeks. I’m working on my next book, Bird. I’m also nearing completion of the first draft a feature script that I’m hoping to make. I’ve been researching for about five years. It’s called The Beauty of Bruno and it’s s a life story about a man who was involved in the music business from the forties through the seventies. It’s about a lot of things: resilience, Buddhism… It’s sort of a philosophical meditation on the music business and porn.
Written by T.K. Dalton
Edited by Jesi Khadivi
Diagram by Linda Arredondo
This piece was originally published 10/1/08 on Zack Seckler’s formally named publication The F STOP.