“I believe and hope that there will always be manufacturers producing products for analog capture and printing, on some scale.”
William Zuback (born 1964) is a photographer from the USA working with traditional photographic processes. He’s especially known for his nude portraits.
In this conversation William Zuback explains why he prefers analog photography over digital image making and why he believes that the analog way will continue to fascinate generations of young photographers to come.
He also talks about his approach to taking nude portraits and reveals why it’s often not the naked body that catches the attention of the observer but the face.
Interview with William Zuback
William, you like to experiment with alternative photographic processes. Which process did you apply for your “Nude” series?
I would say that I have rediscovered traditional photographic processes.
I dabble in alternative photographic processes, but really the majority of my work over the last year is a view camera for capture and black and white negative film for recording my image.
I did apply the encaustic wax technique to some of my nudes but those nudes were actually captured digitally.
What fascinates you about the genre of nude portraits?
In 2012, I created my ‘Identity’ series, this resulted in photographing 33 individuals, both male and female, nude and clothed.
During this series I photographed 19 women and 14 men of varying age, body type, and race, to explore ones identity and how we label individuals based on their appearance.
“Nude studies in which the nudity is not there to be titillating, sexual or to objectify the sitter.”
The process of photographing these people had a profound personal impact on me.
I found the sessions to reveal a huge amount of trust, respect and honesty between me and my sitter. I also discovered how, despite the nudity, the concentration for the viewer most often was with the face, so I have continued to explore this but in a way that speaks more specific to the beauty, strength and introspection of the individuals.
I am looking to successfully create portraits/nude studies in which the nudity is not there to be titillating, sexual or to objectify the sitter.
Portraiture is a genre traditionally used to explore issues of identity. What do your photographs tell about the persons being photographed?
My intent is that through the dialog and direction before and during the session, I can pick up on the verbal cues, body language, and gestures, to help create a set of portraits that are an expression of that individual.
Since I do inject my own aesthetic with lighting, posing and verbal direction, I hope that I have been visually listening to their cues to help create this collaboration that still becomes a visual extension of their identity.
I can’t say I’m successful all of the time but from the feedback I’ve received after many of my portrait sessions, I succeed often and am getting better with the visual dialog and sensitivity to pick up on their simple gestures and body language.
This creates personal portraits that express the sitters beauty. Empowering them with the confidence of their body and pose while often showing an introspective quality to their own self.
Why do you consider it important to still be working the traditional analog way? And what can you learn from analog photography that helps you to become a better digital photographer?
“I have enjoyed rediscovering all the things that brought me to photography in the first place.”
I feel that analog forces you to slow down your visual process of seeing, composing, and lighting because if done correctly, you have to get it right at point of capture.
Although I scan my negatives, I force myself to only do post production work that I used to do in the darkroom. I will say that this has worked for me and I have enjoyed rediscovering all the things that brought me to photography in the first place.
I don’t want to suggest or insinuate that this applies to other photographers.
What do you think about digital photography?
I think that it is great. I don’t have a problem with what people use to capture their expression and narrative. We must all choose to work with the tools we are comfortable with and that help us to be productive and successful visual story tellers.
In the long run, do you think digital photography will take over traditional photographic processes and make them disappear? Who can really say for sure? I believe and hope that there will always be manufacturers producing products for analog capture and printing, on some scale.
There will always be photographers/artists that continue to work with traditional processes and new people curious about the older and more traditional aspects of photography .
I had a recent conversation with a photographer friend who works almost exclusively with film and silver gelatin prints, on a large-scale, and he actually said that Ilford is doing really well at this point and time.
If that is accurate then I think we can always expect to have some manufacturers supporting what will certainly be a niche art market.
We live in a world saturated with visual imagery. Keeping that in mind, do you think it’s still possible as a photographer to be unique these days? Or do you rather consider it to be more important to create an own style adding your personal twist to something that has already been done before?
The internet and social media has made image sharing much more readily accessible.
Even before the advent of image sharing I would imagine photographers/artists thought they created something completely unique and at times they probably have but without knowing what was happening half way around the world, I’m sure that there have always been similar expressions of idea’s with ones own style or personal twist.
Isn’t that what all art is about, ones own personal expression?
There will always be copycat artists but if you are true and honest to your own internal voice and unique experiences, the work should reflect that.
What was your most memorable moment shooting pictures?
Many of the memorable moments come from communication after the sitter reflects on the session or see’s the results of the session. Here are a few examples:
- “You have helped me look deeper within through this shoot, and I thank you. I wish you a blessed holiday season, you are the one photographer that I feel comfortable around 100% of the time, and that’s pretty rare.”
- “I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know how you helped me change my life. I kind of used you, in a good way. See I had a raging eating disorder for 13 years and was at a cross roads where I knew I wanted to change, but was too scared to tell anyone or ask for help. Right around that time the opportunity to do your shoot came up. I told myself that if I could ‘bare’ myself in that way, be brave enough to do it, that I could also expose my secret to my husband. It would be a way for me to practice bravery and remember that time when I needed to be brave again. In a way it was also a snub at the bulimic part of me that abused my body for so long, putting it out there like that was not something the bulimic ‘me’ was happy about. Two days after your shoot I did talk to my husband, then my mother and sister, mother in law and others. I am now on the road to recovering from a 13 year prison sentence and looking forward to my future. Things are already SO much better. It’s so difficult but I know that eventually I will be able to completely let it go. I just felt that you deserved to know that sometimes our art touches others in ways that they couldn’t imagine. Thank you again for, unbeknownst to you, being the catalyst in my recovery.”
- “Bill, you have done a tremendous work in my life. You came about in a time when I felt less than. You captured my essence and made me see the beauty in myself, to a point that I didn’t believe the picture was me. I am eternally grateful for you being an instrument in that.”
Philosopher Susan Sontag once said “The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own”. How has photography changed the way you look at the world and what have you learnt about yourself?
My photography has always been visual expressions/narratives of my own personal experiences or those I’ve observed during my life through my friends stories or community. My work has almost always been about my own reality.
“I can only be honest and genuine to my creative path and visual journey and hope the rest takes care of itself.”
It often doesn’t have huge universal relevance or appeal. What has changed most recently, is that you hear it often said that the process is only important to the artist and not the viewer. The viewer is only interested in what you put in front of them.
I guess I have become more reflective as an artist and the process or experience of creating the work has become even more important to me as an artist and that may isolate me more from the greater arts community if the work viewed doesn’t resonate with the masses. I guess that isn’t for me to decide, I can only be honest and genuine to my creative path and visual journey and hope the rest takes care of itself.
There is a passage in Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland that really resonated with me:
“Artmaking has been around longer than the art establishment. Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun ‘I’ was ever employed.”
Every photographer is going through different stages in his formation. Which “landmarks” do you recall that have marked you and brought you to the place where you are today as a photographer?
I will try to keep this concise. I’ve had many landmarks, most being people in my life offering encouragement and support.
My uncle, William Brunn, was an avid hobbyist and taught me how to develop and print both black and white and color in the darkroom. He spent many late nights with me teaching me how to hone my skills.
This took place at the early age of about 13. In high school I had a great photography teacher, Dale Stonek, who recognized my talent and helped nurture it for the next three years. When I’d ask him where I should go to school, he would always reply with only one school, Brooks Institute.
It took a few years after high school to make that dream come true but it did. Dale is still a good friend of mine today. As Ernie Brooks Jr. said to my class the first day of school, “when you graduate you will be a good photographer and a great businessman.”
“Do you think your clients care about your personal life?”
I believe that there was a lot of truth in that statement. I’ve grown into being better than just a “good” photographer but Brooks gave me the skill sets to be able to communicate visually using the craft and tools of photography. I had one instructor at Brooks for my portrait class who had just given us our week assignments.
After class I approached him and said, “can I get more time on these assignments? I’m flying home for my sister’s wedding and won’t have time to get them all done.” He looked up at me and said: “Do you think your clients care about your personal life?”
That was an eye-opening statement that hurt but was filled with so much truth. Before flying home I reserved rental equipment in Milwaukee so that while I was home for that weekend I could get my assignments done. I arrived for class that following Tuesday and turned in every assignment.
One of the best life learning experiences, as a soon to be photography professional.
My family (father, mother, sister, wife, kids) have always been my biggest supporters as I continued to progress as a working professional and developing my separate fine art work and career.
Once, when my daughter was in elementary school, we were at the kitchen table and she looks at me and asks, “Dad, are you always going to be a photographer?” I thought about this question and was both scared and proud of my answer, “Yes, I would imagine I will. It’s all I know.”
I had a paper route and one brief stint doing bindery work at a printer, every other job I’ve ever had has been photography related (photo lab, photo assistant, photographer, photo instructor); 35 of my 50 years of life have been devoted to the photographic process and profession.
Last but not least, let’s switch roles: Which question would you have liked to be asked in this interview about your work that I didn’t ask? Please feel free to add it – as well as the answer. If you would have to title yourself an artist or a photographer, which would it be, and why?
I see myself first and foremost as a photographer. Maybe it’s because of my educational background and my career as a commercial photographer?
“Creating images that speak to me.”
I’ve tried to think of myself as an artist but continually feel like I’m always injecting too much craft into my work when the majority of “artists” working in the medium of photography are more interested in research and the intellectual discovery of their work.
Again, I have to follow my own inner voice and visual journey. Creating images that speak to me. When I put the work out into the public, hopefully they will feel something from the viewing experience and figure out its place in the visual lexicon of this vast visual landscape.