“Cameras Were Invented for Inarticulate Photographers Like Me”

Meet Tom Zimberoff

Born in Los Angeles in the 50’s, Zimberoff traveled the globe photographing presidents, dictators, actors, musicians, luminaries, and more. From portraits of Steve Jobs, John Lennon, President Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Danny DeVito — you’ve definitely seen his photographs.


Polarr: I’ve read that you were always really into music — I was wondering how your experience with music has influenced your photography.

Tom: Oh my goodness. Let’s see. I was a music major in college (that’s what I intended for my career but I didn’t want to wait 45 years for the principal clarinet player of the New York Philharmonic to die before I got a job). I wound up by accident, really, with a camera and I wound up photographing a lot of musicians — classical, jazz, and rock ‘n roll. I started photographing a lot of rock ‘n roll bands and then eventually getting work doing that, and suddenly while I was in college I was making a pretty good amount of money doing that kind of work.

They’re both universal languages, are they not? The late, great photographer Ansel Adams once equated a negative of photographic film to the written score of a musical composition. The way that you would recreate what was in the negative of a photograph, by working with it in the darkroom, is very much like the way, say, a conductor takes the musical chicken scratch of ink on pieces of paper and turns them into magnificent art that is heard by multitudes of people. So, it’s a means of re-expressing something that exists in an abstract sense and makes it more tangible.

John Lennon. © Tom Zimberoff / all rights reserved. This photograph may not be shared, copied, distributed or altered.

P: Would you say you had any sort of artistic philosophy?

T: I specialized in doing portraits because I really enjoyed the encounters I had with people as a photographer. I used to say it was like being a big game hunter — you stalk your prey, you take your best shot, you try to avoid gratuitous wounds, and then you hang their heads on a wall to admire like trophies. So, it was kind of like collecting people, and collecting experiences, and memorializing them, which was fun.

P: Did you like to listen to music while you worked?

T: Not when I was shooting, certainly not. As a matter of fact, I think a good photographer photographing people will do most of the work before they ever place a camera between themselves and their subject — spend as much time with that person as possible intimately watching them, seeing how they move and how they interact with their environment, and listening to what they have to say, and understanding what their interests are so you can juxtapose some of those ideas with your own. You’re in the process of creating a picture in tandem with your subject because, at that point, it becomes a collaborative experience. By the time I’m actually looking through a lens, other than “move your chin a little to the left,” it’s totally quiet. There’s no conversation, no music, no nothing.

It’s nothing like your typical fashion shoot on TV, you know, “work with me baby,” and there’s rock ‘n roll music blaring, etc. That’s certainly one way of working, but it wasn’t mine.

Steve Jobs. © Tom Zimberoff / all rights reserved. This photograph may not be shared, copied, distributed or altered.

P: I’ve also read that you used to be really into gadgets and all kinds of photography equipment. How do you feel about all the changes that have occurred in photography with the advent of technology — editing on your computer, cell phone photography, etc?

T: First of all, I think all photographers are gadget freaks. Digital just means more gadgets, so nothing’s changed. In fact, I like to say the business side of photography hasn’t caught up with the creative side technologically in the 21st century. I mean, there’s still a lot of things about the photo business that are completely analog and way behind the times. But in terms of technology, I think that there are a lot of things that are misconstrued — if not completely misunderstood — about the transition between analog and digital photography and what that means to the medium itself.

For example, I enjoyed (well, sort of — it was a little bit of a masochistic experience) working in the darkroom. “I’m just gonna go in there for an hour and do a couple of prints” and 12 hours later you come out bleary-eyed. But it’s not that different turning on your computer — “I’m just gonna make a couple of prints and boot up Photoshop” and 12 hours later…it’s the same thing. But, the difference is this: I can make a better print today in my office with my Macintosh and gigantic HP printer than I ever could in the darkroom. And it’s easier. However, it’s not just a matter of “okay, I’m gonna make one print and all I have to do from then on is push a button and it spits out identical copies ad nauseum.” It’s not like that at all. Just as in the darkroom, no two prints were ever alike. There were matters of time — how long you soak it in the stop bath, how long you burned or dodged this part of the image. Every image is different. If you go back to a great artist like Ansel Adams, you can look at one of his early prints and look at a print made 2 or 20 years later of the same image and they’re completely different…And that’s part of what makes collecting fascinating.

Jackie Chan. © Tom Zimberoff / all rights reserved. This photograph may not be shared, copied, distributed or altered.

The biggest thing that I think people miss is this: because it’s so much easier to capture images using digital technology, there’s a disconnect in people’s minds about how relatively easy or hard it is to protect, conserve, store, those images for the future… [With film], when you’re done, you stick it in an envelope, stick it in a drawer and it’s safe. Short of fires and floods, it’s gonna be there in 600 years and look just fine. Today, I don’t know that the imagery I have on a hard drive — I don’t know if there’s going to be technology that can read those files 5, 10, 15 years from now, so I have to continually keep backing them up and re-backing them up onto newer and newer media just so people can look at them when I’m dead and gone. Digital is far less archival than film.

T: How do you feel about Instagram and preset filters?

I don’t know whether to say I’m a-mused or be-mused because the so-called filters (which is really just a metaphorical term when you’re talking about Instagram or any digital photography, they’re not really filters at all). They’re algorithms that recreate what we used to call mistakes. Seriously. I can make my picture look like it came out of a polaroid camera too fast and I didn’t let it develop, you know, or the chemicals got smudged on the borders. Those were mistakes. People now look at that as nostalgic and as an aesthetic application of technique. Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not. But it’s just funny.

I’m going to digress for a minute. There’s a difference between a photograph, which has a very specific definition, and an image. May I ask how old you are?

P: I’m 20.

Arnold Schwarzenegger. © Tom Zimberoff / all rights reserved. This photograph may not be shared, copied, distributed or altered.

T: So, you’re looking at photography in a completely different way than I am. You’re probably not that familiar with actually looking at photographs, which are 2 dimensional objects which you can hold in your hand and admire with completely different aesthetic qualities than you see on a computer screen. When you see a photograph in a museum, even behind glass or in a frame in a controlled environment like that, it conveys things you just don’t get looking at “the picture,” where you’re basically looking at the value contained in the content as opposed to the value in the aesthetic object itself, for its own power of existence. That’s a huge difference that people are missing out on getting to look at today by failing to make that distinction — which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with one or the other or that one is better than another. That is totally not true. But they’re different, and the problem comes when there’s a conflation of meaning and one or the other meanings is lost and that’s a shame.

I’ll tell you, today, if you’re a professional photographer and want jobs from art directors, you will do phenomenally better taking a physical portfolio of prints to show your work to an art director than sending them to your website. Hands down.

So, where was I? There’s a difference between Instagram and photography — the way they’re used. An Instagram is to photography as texting is to prose. So, it’s a means of communication that uses digital, visual imagery, and it’s used in an almost perfunctory manner without much thought going into it, which has augmented communication between people through the new technology we call social media. That didn’t exist ten or fifteen years ago, and that’s terrific. But, to think that that is photography writ large is a mistake. It’s just a technique called photography that’s being used to communicate ideas. What you see on Instagram isn’t necessarily “photography.” And let me be even more specific about that — I am not saying that what an artist creates using Instagram isn’t art, it can be. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen some art in a gallery (I wish I could remember the name of the artist) who basically was using printed Instagram images.

I can’t remember his name… It’s hard for me to describe. That’s why I always used to say that cameras were invented for inarticulate photographers like me. But therein almost lies a definition for Instagram or even Snapchat — it’s a way of articulating things that you can’t say, but that you can show.

Lyle Tuttle. © Tom Zimberoff / all rights reserved. This photograph may not be shared, copied, distributed or altered.

P: Do you have any thoughts on Snapchat?

T: If one picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then surely photography is the lifeblood of not only communication but also commerce. Surely, too, photography is art — or it can be in the hands of talented practitioners; ergo photography is certainly a powerful means of communication.

I think Snapchat, like Instagram, is an example of how a 160 year-old technology has transmogrified, becoming a form of conversation, an alternative to speech. It’s a shortcut that precludes more engaged and intricate conversation, that avoids words and speech without necessarily eschewing them to make conversation.

I suppose I was trying to make a distinction between the routine use of Snapchat or Instagram from the purposeful use of a camera in the hands of someone dedicated to conveying a sophisticated visual idea, a conceptualization, something more than merely an illustration of what’s in front of your eyes.

P: What was your favorite part of being a photographer?

Tom Zimberoff.

T: First of all, I enjoy photography more than being a photographer by an order of magnitude. I love photographs. I never wanted to be a photographer, professionally. I just fell into it (couldn’t get out of it for a long time), and I found that I was very good at it. People paid me lots of money to do it, so I did it. What I enjoyed most — and the reason I photographed people — was I enjoy people. I enjoy meeting people and being friends for an hour, a week, three days, three months, a year, years with some people I’ve had the privilege to meet that I might not, or probably would never have met, had it not been for the camera. The camera was a license — a ticket — to adventure. I shot my first assignment for Time Magazine when I was still a teenager. Before I was 21, I had toured with the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, spent a day photographing John Lennon, and shot the first cover of People Magazine. I mean how much more incentive can you get than that to keep going? It was an amazing adventure and I loved the ride. Some people think I’ really, really stupid for having given it up, but that’s another story.

It’s just the opportunity to meet people and say that I was friends, an enemy, a confidant of this fascinating person or this famous person or this infamous person for x amount of minutes, hours, days or years. I have stories — that’s what it’s all about. Being able to refer to those stories, having been memorialized on film, wow, that’s just so cool.

P: Least favorite part of being a photographer?

T: Taking pictures. The work. Or, do you mean as an avocation or as a business?

P: Either one.

T: As a business, I really hated the competitive nature of it. No matter how successful you are or have been, you are only as in demand as your last photograph. If you screwed up once, as far as they’re concerned, you’re screwed up. So, that kind of competition. I did not enter a lot of contests, although I won some. I just didn’t put my work up to be viewed competitively. So, the work involved with just trying to get the next job was just degrading, I hated it. But I loved shooting the people that I met.

P: I understand you went into photojournalism.

T: You know, I said I never set out to be a photographer, and when I became aware of one genre of photography or another and I saw something I liked, I went “gee I wonder if I can do that.” And I would go out and try to do that, be it photojournalism or music photography, or portraiture or whatever, and I would not copy but emulate the kind of work that inspired me. If I could accomplish that, I was happy. But, once I felt that I had accomplished something as good as somebody else could do that I admired, I sorta went “eh, been there, done that, got the t-shirt, what’s next?” I was totally impatient, so I had an unusual career in the sense that I was pretty economically successful and successful having been published in many different genres of photography.

P: So when you did photojournalism, did you approach it just as another challenge or were you maybe attracted to the mission of journalism?

T: I’ll tell you a story of how I went in that direction…I was going to school at USC and I had just started carrying around this Pentax Spotmatic SLR, just teaching myself how to take pictures. I was on campus early one morning and I was sitting on the steps in front of the school auditorium, and the library is right across the quad. Suddenly, the doors burst open and people are running out. This guy has a knife and people are chasing him. He’s running across the campus, and I join these other people chasing him and I’m just taking pictures, what the hell. The guy barricades himself in the Law School building if I recall, and we’re all sitting there waiting for the SWAT team to arrive. A kid comes over and taps me on the shoulder and says “hey I heard you’ve got pictures of this guy.” He was the editor of the unfortunately named Daily Trojan, the school paper, and he said “can we see your film?” So I said sure… Anyway, the picture ran on the front page of the school paper, so he said “how would you like to work for the Daily Trojan for free film and processing and access to the darkroom?” and I said hell yeah.

Robert Ludlum. © Tom Zimberoff / all rights reserved. This photograph may not be shared, copied, distributed or altered.

So, for the first time, I was exposed to other kids in school, all of whom were journalism majors. Not photojournalism, because there were no photojournalism classes, per say. You couldn’t get a degree in photography back in 1970. So, I’m exposed to all of these guys, but they were exposing me (excuse the pun) to other great photographers I hadn’t been familiar with. The Magnum photographers like Cartier Bresson and others like W. Eugene Smith, Ansel Adams, Mary Ellen Mark. Amazing work from amazing photographers, and I’m starting to go to museums and buy books and get really seriously involved with it.

The next semester, the USC school of film established a course in photojournalism, and I enrolled in that course. I was pretty much new into the class when we were given our first assignment to try to photograph a feature news story over the weekend.

I was in a nightclub that Saturday night (I was underage and the only reason I got in was because my buddy’s father owned the place) and it was a place called The Daisy. It was the first private disco in America. I mean, it was the hottest ticket in Beverly Hills. It’s 8, 9, 10 at night and in runs the star of The Beverly Hillbillies — Max Baer Jr. who played Jethro — yelling “help, help my camper’s on fire!” He had this open road RV and somehow an electrical fire had started in the engine compartment right in front of the nightclub, right in the middle of Beverly Hills. He jumps out of this thing, and leaves the brake off, and it coasts backwards into a lamp post on the corner of Rodeo and Dayton Drive right in front of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and there are flames leaping out of this thing.

My friend and I run outside with a fire extinguisher, but I then ran back to get my camera. And so I photographed Steve, whose father was a famous jazz singer, Mel Tormé, reaching past the flames to pull the fire alarm box on the lamp post…because there were celebrities involved, I went “I’m gonna call the wire services!” I called UPI and got an answer, so I zipped over there and showed them the photos. They said “this is great we’ll run it on the wire and pay you fifteen dollars,” but I negotiated that I had to get a wire photo credit. It ran on the front page (it was a slow news day) on the Sunday papers coast to coast from New York to Los Angeles. So for my assignment, on Monday morning I brought in the front page of the New York Daily News and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. From then on I wanted to see what I could do with photojournalism…

P: So what are you working on now?

T: Well, as I realized long ago, nobody picks up a camera just to start a small business… The singular question that every photographer asks, whether they’ve been in business for two weeks or for 25 years, is “how much do I charge?” The answer to that question changes for every time you shoot. It’s very difficult.

Pixterity is the name of the company. We’re building the professionals-only marketplace to connect photographers online, for the first time, with their existing clients so that they can solve each others’ problems. And those problems are manifold. All commercial photography is offline — all transactions are on paper, over the phone, very 1995. All of the 6.5 billion dollars in sales to photographers hired to shoot custom photo assignments are on paper and are fragmented amongst tens of thousands of photographers. No company is monetizing that at all. That’s what we’re doing.

P: How do you like startup culture?

T: Well, like James Brown used to say “I’m the hardest working man in show biz,” I’m the oldest entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.

There are so many people coming out of college who want to start a company for the sake of starting a company just because it’s popular to start a company, not because they have an overwhelming passion to do something or even just a good idea. So many companies are based on the premise of success being “we’ve got a lot of people looking at our website or a lot of people using this,” but it doesn’t necessarily do anything. I think it takes away from a myriad of companies who are taking advantage of startup culture, that are really doing something to change the world.


P: Who are some of your favorite photographers?

T: Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Philippe Halsman, Jim Marshall, Max Yavno, Arnold Newman, Joel-Peter Witkin, Ruth Bernhard, Herb Ritts, William Garnett, Joseph Koudelka, Sebastiao Salgado, and Horst immediately come to mind. There are more.

Interview conducted and edited by Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow us on twitter and try our products when our startup is still alive : ).