Andrew Zuckerman: Graphic Portraiture

pages 30 and 31

The graphic work of professional photographer Andrew Zuckerman is in high demand. His books and exhibitions sell the world over. Here he reveals his approach to capturing the essence of a subject in his portraits and why he loves to shoot against white. By SEAN SAMUELS.

“I don’t believe you can make effective images if the idea is to be a photographer. The idea should be to be an artist and to express oneself. Photography is a fascinating and very accessible tool to do this, but it can’t just be about photography, it has to be about something else.”

For portrait photographer Andrew Zuckerman the ‘something else’ is the need to document and communicate, in its purest form, the absolute essence of the subjects he captures, whether human or animal, male or female, and to reveal the common consciousness we all share. Andrew is a natural historian and the images he makes are a record of life.

For his latest project he has turned his attention to music and interviewed 50 rock stars to learn their take on the music industry. The images are simple portraits set against pure white backgrounds, a style Andrew, who is based in New York, has used on all his previous projects – 2007’s Creature, which is a collection of more than 300 images of animals, Wisdom in 2008, a series of portraits and interviews with men and women over the age of 65, and Bird from 2009, which features bright and colourful photographs of more than 90 species of birdlife. For this book he travelled to more than four countries over the course of a year and used a state-of-the-art Leaf Aptus 75S digital camera with high-speed strobe lighting to freeze the super-fast birds in action.

“The style is a function of what I was after conceptually with the work I was creating. I don’t really think of it so much as an aesthetic style, but as a solution to a series of desires I have for what I want my work to communicate. It is what it is and hopefully draws out everything that’s contained in the subject itself. My feeling is that everything I want to get from my subject is inherently there. I don’t have to impose too much on to that subject to create a successful image or to transfer the qualities that I want to the audience.”

When Andrew chooses to photograph a subject, he takes a thorough look at it. When shooting animals and birds he is not as interested in behaviour or instinct as he is in the unseen. He is trying to distil the true nature of the subject, which is why he chooses such a deceptively simple set-up. I say deceptively simple because the stage he uses is housed in 13 cases and requires a team of four people to move it around the world. It is, however, a fundamental part of the whole process.

“I’m trying to neutralise and democratise the space across the board so what I am most interested in is the subject itself, not really its relationship to its environment or its behaviour or really anything that has to do with any element other than the subject itself; the essential qualities of that subject visually.”

The idea of white space, open light, a very crisp and clean approach and the consistency of these projects is so Andrew can provide an unadulterated experience for the viewer in a way that is completely open.

While shooting Birds Andrew and his team worked in aviaries and zoos or in studios into which people brought birds from their private collections. He keeps his lights at low power to make the flash duration quicker and sets the shutter speed to the light of the flash duration. The set is customised according to the situation, which takes into account the subject’s needs. If it is a bird this means how they fly and what Andrew’s able to get them to do. Then it’s a matter of trying to catch as many images as possible.

“Sometimes I have an idea of what I want, other times I’m not really sure. I generally know as soon as I meet the animal and begin the process of working with them. I do research, but my main concern is their visual presence, not their behaviour, which is what you will commonly find – their behaviour within nature and this isn't what I am after. So once I’m actually in front of the subject I can get closer to an idea of what I might want.”

Andrew is looking for that moment when you can peer into the animal’s eyes and understand that we all share the same world together. On other occasions he’s looking for the inherent beauty in the animal. “With birds we usually don’t get to look at them for any significant period of time, they are often flying away and we see only the bottom of them. It is a fleeting moment you get to experience them. The truth is these images provide an experience where we can spend time looking at the physical make-up of the bird. Far too often we think of animals as the other. They live outside, we live inside, they fly, we don't. They eat differently and behave differently, all of these things, but we are a lot closer than we all believe.

“I think that part of the effect of the images I shoot is that you can take a moment to see these animals in an entirely new way that is not looking down on them or looking at them as different but in fact as sharing a certain space with us and that there is more connectivity than we think.” Growing up just outside Washington DC in the US, Andrew was always encouraged to explore his creativity. The family home was a supportive environment for all his endeavours. His parents, both avid enthusiast photographers, kept a darkroom in the basement and Andrew was given access to it from a young age.

As a teenager he worked in the darkrooms at the International Center of Photography in New York, hanging out with some amazing photographers. He spent most of his teenage years photographing punk rock bands in Washington DC and covering the city’s music scene. Following this he attended the famous School of Visual Arts in New York and then assisted.

“Photography has been the vehicle to get me into many different experiences throughout my life. It has always led to something else and helped me to understand the world around me. I am a deeply curious person. I am involved in a lot of different things in a very thorough way. I like to make things; experiencing the world and then creating something out of that experience. Photographing bands at night taught me that photography is a passport and a reason to be somewhere. It’s the key to the back door. That became a theme for me in my life.

“I am an avid collector of books and art and am inspired by many things around me and I’ve never really considered myself just a photographer; I’ve always made films and done a lot of writing and played music. Photography has served a real function in my toolbox of expression, but it has not been the defining vocation.”

Andrew is inspired by a lot of different things, and while photographers are not the main source of inspiration for his photography, preferring instead the output of writers and film makers, the work he admires is varied. “I would say Adam Fuss, an extraordinary artist I know and whose work I collect. It constantly teaches me about my own work. I think he is a master, and I also love Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and William Eggleston. But I couldn’t say ‘ the first time I saw this photograph it changed everything.’ I think there is a sense of bullshit when people say that. You live your life and if you are curious about the things around you and you obsess about them, they can inspire you. I am inspired by the guy we buy fruit from in our neighbourhood. Every time I see him he tells me something that changes me or he shows me something that excites me.”

His time is split 50/50 between film making and photography, and he hates to create mythologies about what his specific creative outlet is. “Sometimes I feel as if sitting with my kids in the back yard arranging sticks is a creative outlet. I think you should be creative when you cook, when you read. Creativity is not defined by the actual physical act or the end-product. Creativity is about the way you live your life. You can’t pinpoint inspiration.
Generally if you are inspired by another person’s execution, the intent of what you are making from that inspiration is not going to be pure. I would never say ‘be inspired by another photographer’ necessarily, but be inspired by life and use photography as the means to express what formulates from your inspiration.”

When shooting humans there are some aesthetic concerns that are shared with photographing animals, but it is also an entirely different experience. Andrew believes humans have more tools at hand that help to create a connection between the audience and the images, and the work itself and the subject. Also the interviews he conducts play a large part in the portrait. “I don’t have a belief that the essential portrait exists in the single image. I believe the complete portrait should include the person’s voice, their movements in a film, the single image, the written word, their perspectives and ideas on the world in which they live. For me these are more about what I am interested in.

So aside from a similar mechanical approach, they are entirely different exercises and I can’t do both in the same year. I’ll do an animal book in one year and then a human book the following year.” What makes a successful still image portrait for Andrew, when he doesn’t have the luxury of an interview or sound or the film or any of the other tools he uses in his projects, is a connection. “I hope the portrait releases some sort of veil that exists between the subject and the audience. A big reason why my images don’t have a lot of shadow, why they are not done within an environment, is because I am looking for a reductive approach to making the work. I think generally deep eye connectivity works and that’s what I am drawn to. When I do have a connective gaze from the subject to me or my camera and subsequently the audience, the veil is lifted and the connection is that much stronger.”

For Music, Andrew’s latest book, he has photographed and interviewed musicians from Ozzy Osbourne to Lenny Kravitz. The approach is the same he used for Wisdom, with discussions on life themes such as love, peace, creative ideas and the environment. The musicians speak about the themes of music, from performance to inspiration to fame. “I wanted to break down the concerns musicians have in an effort to demystify the process and create a deeper understanding of the medium, which I believe most people don’t know much about.”

Making time to fit into the insane schedules both his human and animal subjects adhere to is one of the hardest things Andrew faces. In his New York studio is a team of people constantly chasing the subjects he wants to shoot. “Sometimes it’s a flat no, other times it’s a maybe or I’ll be there and then they don’t show up. It’s a real challenge getting people on board with the work you want to do and it’s a real gift when they actually do. I have been heavily supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whom I have been able to convince about the validity of my work and the contribution culturally it makes. He has been able to reach out to certain people I need extra help with, but the list of people is ever changing. As in life you learn about new things and become curious about new things, new people and animals so that’s a very fluid and organic process.”

Once this is agreed it then becomes a mission to get to the shoot and record everything he requires for the different outlets, such as books and exhibitions, and Andrew has absolutely no expectations there.

“Going into these shoots, they have all been surprising. I have shot several hundred animals all over the world in exactly the same way, so I have dealt with enormously ridiculous situations many times. It is absurd to be in a birdcage for nine hours waiting for a bird to come down off a ledge to pick up a worm; that you get one shot to get this very rare bird you have convinced a number of people to allow you to spend time with in that space to get it. I’m not shooting home pets; in some cases these animals are extremely valuable and in most cases very protected.

“It’s not the most comfortable experience to photograph animals in this way. I am always amazed we get anything when we leave the shoot. I don’t have a lot of faith or expectation going into the shoots, which I think is the key to my continued ability to do them. I’ve watched people with expectations who wonder why the animals aren’t performing in a certain way, as if the animal owes you something. But you have to go into these situations knowing you are extremely lucky if the animal is going to allow you to photograph him or her and be open to the possibility of collaborating with you. Generally the biggest surprise is if I get anything by the time I leave.”

While Andrew would prefer not to spend so much time away from home, he is adamant this work needs to get done, for two reasons. Firstly, it is to do with his own personal journey and what he gets out of making this work. He feels his life has been enriched immensely by his experiences with the people he has photographed, the places he has visited and the animals he has come into contact with. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, he believes the work and the way he is creating it has a lasting value culturally. Some of his subjects may not be around for much longer.

“My photograph of Nelson Mandela may be the last portrait sitting that he ever does, so there’s a historical preservation context to my work. Obviously with the animals it’s the same thing. There is a sort of two-dimensional taxidermy to them. So I believe this work will have a lasting impact and be around for a while, making a significant contribution to our visual and auditory library and anthropological library.”

Andrew may always make his images in the same simple and systematic way. This photography is not about technique. It is about the need to understand the reasons behind making the image, which is something all photographers must consider if their photographs are to create a connection between the subject and the viewer. The reason why you choose to portray your subject is more important than how you set about achieving it and this will inform your execution. It then becomes a matter of patience and perseverance until you are satisfied you can do no more.


New York based Andrew Zuckerman has won several awards, including the British Design and Art Direction (D&AD) Yellow Pencil photography prize. He is the author of three books and much of his work has been commissioned for multiple brands around the world.For further information, visit www.andrewzuckerman.com  

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