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Q: Can you tell me about your background? How did you get started in photography?
MZ: My first camera took rolls of black and white film that were developed and printed at the local drug store. The only photo that I can find from that period is a treasure; I must have been six or so. It’s a slightly out of focus image of Rusty, my childhood dog. It’s a memory that represents that wonderful animal and my extremely poor photographic expertise. I also recall standing next to my father in his makeshift darkroom. I remember his patience in explaining each tray in the print-making process, the strong but oddly agreeable smell of stop bath and fixer and the first “magical” appearance of an image. An extremely talented amateur, my dad’s enthusiasm seemed to rub off more on my brother than myself.
Growing up in the Southern California landscape, I was a kid whose eyes were constantly scanning the ground for the next Horn Toad lizard, (they looked like horned dinosaurs) or the large and bizarre looking insect called a Jerusalem Cricket (resembled something from another world entirely). In love with the wonders of nature, the surprising and the mysterious, no event affected me more deeply than the sight outside my bedroom window as the sun rose one particular morning. I was five years old and stood in place questioning the spellbinding scene beyond the glass panes. The event is referred to as Los Angeles’ “first historic snowfall” by the L.A. Times of January 11, 1949. Almost 20 years later I began to realize its lasting impact as a budding landscape photographer. My wife summed it up beautifully, “That first snowfall set in motion both the search for a view of equal enchantment, as well as a visual memory in search of meaning.” More than four decades later, last night to be precise, I found myself walking a familiar path into the Poor Farm Swamp Preserve minutes from my home. With camera and Gitzo tripod in hand I was testing the ISO capability of the Sony A7S with some Zeiss lenses. Pointing up at the sky, the exposures at 2,000 ISO were 20-30 seconds long. Only the tail slap of a beaver amidst the usual evening pond chatter could be heard in the almost total blackness. From that child years ago with eyes downward cast, last night I was looking up at the stars hoping not to run into a bear.
I experienced my own creative Renaissance in the late sixties. Picking up a 35mm camera, I began down the road so many photographers have followed. I was living proof of the rule of 500,000 which says that every photographer has at least 500,000 bad photographs inside themselves and it’s their job to get them out of their cameras as soon as possible. Making “successful” photographs is full of challenges. The camera does much more than record what is in front of the lens. It also translates that reality into a 2-dimension color or gray tone interpretation that communicates in its own particular language. It’s no small task to render a subject photographically successful regardless of how enticing and dramatic the scene. As Elliott Erwitt, one of my favorite photographers said, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”
The longer I make photographs, the more I find the process still keeps my interest because it is more art than science. Always surprising, so many photographs fail to measure up to expectation. Successes may be few in number, but they make all the others worth the disappointment.
Every success or failure is opportunity to study the workings of the decision-making process, pointing you further down the road towards the next image. To paraphrase the authors of “Art and Fear,” “…the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections are your guides, to matters you need to reconsider.”
Q: What is your definition of fine art photography?
MZ: In 1917, Marcel Duchamp entered a porcelain urinal, titled “Fountain” into the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. Thought to be a vulgar joke by some and quite disgusting, it was rejected. However, it definitely stirred the passions of the committee and gave them an opportunity to see reality in a new light, an opportunity they obviously didn’t take. To many people, myself included, this is part of art’s role.
The focus and intention of photographers are as varied as the number of people who hold cameras in their hands. Subjective and interpretive or objective and detached from human emotion, it provides a tool for infinite creative possibility as well as archiving the appearance of things down to the smallest detail.
Fine art photography is about making introspective, intuitive and conscious decisions that interpret the photographic subject through the mind and heart of the image maker. Each new attempt confronts the photographer as well as the subject. At its heart, all art represents studies in “self-reflection.” As Oscar Wilde said of another medium, “Every portrait that is painted with feelings is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”
The word “gesture” describes what I look for in the landscape. It is the evocative shape of things, the play of light on form, the weather and the emotional tone that attracts my eye. Everything in the landscape can serve as a metaphor for the camera and act as idea or e motion, much like an actor standing in for the concerns of the playwright. I seem to be retelling the stories of my life that occurred in past dreams and in memory through the evocative shapes of nature.
Q: How does fine art photography differ from other types of photography?
MZ: Fine art and commercial photography differ in intention. Fine art demands the photographer’s personal interpretation of the subject while commercial photographers interpret the client’ s message through adroit technical competence. Photographers that create fine art have no client other than themselves. They sell their work online or through galleries or other venues, but they are fully in charge of how they apply their creative impulse and in what form it ultimately may take. Commercial photographers, on the other hand, take direction from the needs of the client. Conveying the client’s message in the most eye-catching and compelling images possible, they are expert at shaping stunning photographs that communicate the virtues of that product. Generally considered work for hire and compensated financially, they may or may not have their name associated with their efforts. ]
Q: What drew you to fine art photography specifically?
MZ: I was drawn to photography in stages. I remember seeing the beautifully reproduced work of Eliot Porter’s “The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado” published by the Sierra Club. It was eye opening. I was taken in by the highly detailed images, done with a 4X5 view camera and printed in rich color. Unlike other landscape images I had seen in magazines such as “Arizona Highways,” Porter’s work seemed to be on another creative level, more reaction to the scene than a record of the beautiful moment. Eventually I found my way to the black and white work of Minor White, interpretive and mysterious, his work opened my eyes even more to an artistic vein that continues to shape my efforts.
Q: Do you always use black and white?
MZ: Beginning photography back in the days of 4X5 sheet film, black and white was the only process I could control from capture to print. It was as much a practical as aesthetic decision. I was fortunate to find a mentor in Max Yavno, famous for his work in both commercial and fine art photography, I was inspired to push my work further as I witnessed his mastery in the darkroom. Responsible for demystifying much about the process, his friendship and knowledge were motivating forces in my early work. Now that photographs can be made digitally, color capture and “processing” are accessible to everyone. Deciding to work in black and white requires another way of seeing the world of light and form. Although I do make some photographs in color, I enjoy trying to solve the challenges of interpreting the world through the timeless beauty of black and white.
West Tisbury, MA. Sony A7R digital camera.
A heavy plank of wood destined to heat the Vineyard home of my friends had caught my eye. Rescued, this tree sprite traveled back home with me, a gift from my two artist friends.
Aquinnah, MA. Toyo 4X5 field camera.
Backlight is my favorite lighting. The closer the direction of light to the lens axis, the better. Len’s flare is always the challenge. For this perspective I had to walk out into the water off Aquinnah and plant my Gitzo tripod into the ocean bottom.
Lone Pine, CA. Toyo 4X5 field camera. Outside Death Valley, the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine is known for its distinctive rock formations and the location’s use for many of the early Hollywood cowboy movie chase scenes.
South Amherst, MA. Mamiya 645 with Aptus digital black.
My front yard was the setting for this image. I love the slightly asymmetrical placement of apple trees and the two diagonal frost lines adding more textural interest.
Hadley, MA. Mamiya 645 with Aptus digital black.
An image right out of my childhood dreams, I saw this tree off Moody Bridge Road and I thought I was back in the Haunted Forest of Oz. The tree was in a difficult lighting, either in speckled light or shade. I needed to accent the tree trunk and tree “arms” by positioning two location strobes and blending ambient and strobe exposures. During the 30 second exposure, I discharged each strobe head 12 times.
West Tisbury, MA. Nikon 35mm film camera with 35mm, f1.4 lens.
This moment could have been a simple document of the spectacular Aurora. I was extremely fortunate to find the curtain of light positioned directly above the Byrd family’s home in what seemed an almost spiritual gesture. I had to thank my canine companions for needing to walked outdoors at 2 a.m.
Shutesbury, MA. Nikon D800E and 20mm lens.
The fungus that is illuminated on this suspended log was large and brilliant orange. It was challenging to translate that eye-popping color into shades of gray that came close to equaling its luminous glow. The lens’ short focal length helped maintain a sense of the fungus’ relatively large sie yet show a wide enough expanse of the rushing water below.
Damariscotta, ME. Canon 5D Mark 111 digital camera.
This photograph benefited from micro-composing. I was very careful to position the end of the floating form against the light tone of the reflecting water. The image would have been weakened significantly if the dark hanging forms had overlapped the dark area of the image. The approach to the subject was through ankle deep tidal water. Having firemans’ boots with me was a big help.
Rockport, ME. Mamiya 645 with Aptus digital black.
Teaching at Maine Media Workshops a few summers ago, we took a field trip to this abandoned stone quarry. The rock wall and its reflection seemed to peer right into my camera lens.
White Sands National Monument, NM. Toyo 4X5 field camera.
Of all my dune experiences, White Sands National Monument is the most memorable. Its brilliantly white gypsum dunes are breathtaking. It was also the setting for a misadventure I won’t forget.
Oak Bluffs, MA. Toyo 4X5 field camera.
To create the misty effect on some but not all of the rocks, 20 or so exposures were made on one sheet of 4X5 film. How misty or distinct the rocks appear was controlled by the timing of the cable release and shutter.
West Tisbury, MA. Nikon film camera.
A beautiful line of snow decorated the trees on this April 1st snowfall in Martha’s Vineyard a number of years ago.
Turners Falls, MA. Mamiya 645 with Aptus digital black.
Passing this stand of birch trees, I noticed the human-like gesture expressed by this particular scene and made this photograph.
There were many interesting compositions within the frosted pane. Aware that the photography that may work the best may not even be one you remember having taken, I try to exhaust the possibilities of “seeing” each subject and photographing it every possible way.
Rockport, ME. Canon 5 D Mark 111.
An early morning in Rockport, I was photographing this magnificent throwback to the dinosaurs as he/she was exploring the river bottom for breakfast. It took to the air and luckily I was ready to pan during the exposure and create this image.
See Michael’s full site and more of his images: www.michaelzide.com.