Portraying people as they really are is an art in itself. The impressive black-and-white photographic portraits by David Zimand offer an unfeigned perspective of different individuals and their character. In the following interview, the New York-based photographer talks about why emotions are so important in his work and how ZEISS lenses help him to visualize them.
How did you first become interested in photography?
My grandfather, an engineer in the U.S. army, was a passionate amateur photographer. He owned a remarkable collection of cameras and lenses – easily a hundred cameras or more and as many lenses. He also maintained a small optical testing laboratory of his own in his garage. I learned a great deal from him from a very early age about lens and camera designs, and about photography itself. I was also extremely impressed that he lugged 4×5 cameras with him around Europe during WWII to capture landscapes. He later bequeathed some of his treasures to me, including a Carl Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex TLR and a Rollei 35. I was so impressed with their performance that I purchased a Contax RTSIII while I was still at school. Even today, I still use the lenses that came with it on my digital cameras.
What stirred your passion for portrait photography?
I love portraiture. I love people. I love seeing into people and who they are through their eyes, faces and expressions. Portraiture allows me that unique opportunity to see even further and yet stop time to investigate and understand even more. When I take photographs of people, I want to know more about them – the backgrounds they come from and the things that make them what they are. Every face tells a story, and there’s so much to discover. The sharpness and clarity of ZEISS lenses add to that visual story because they help me identify characteristics and nuances in faces and help me reveal who they are, from the essence of their being. In fact, it is one thing I hear often that people feel I truly captured the essence of my subjects and their personality.
The Planar T* 1,4/50 is my constant companion and helps me to accentuate the individual’s personality very naturally. It’s fast, offers high-contrast images and has an ideal resolution for portraits. It’s perfect for capturing that certain something in a facial expression, be it a friendly smile, twinkling eyes or a fine skin texture. In addition, I often consider my photography akin to painting with light, focus and bokeh – something similar to Da Vinci’s sfumato whereby he incorporated a sense of a lens and camera before such existed by painting in a depth of field and sense of bokeh. The Zeiss lenses and particularly my Planar 1.4 allows me to achieve that with precision and beauty.
How do you select your subjects?
When I’m not working on a specific job, I love spontaneous, chance encounters. Whenever I’m out and about, I keep an eye out for interesting people. In portraiture, the eyes are very important. I like bright eyes – I can’t explain why. I will often be captured by the beauty of people’s eyes and have a strong desire to photograph them to see further into them and capture that beauty, that gaze, that window into their soul. The eyes allow me greater scope for creativity and composition.
How do you determine the line of gaze of the people you photograph?
In most cases, I have my subjects and models look directly into the camera – that’s the best way to capture the interaction. A large part of my work is concerned with highlighting the emotional essence of their character, so I really need to connect with the subject. All photographers have their own methods when it comes to this. I find I need to build a special relationship with the model, and only then can I really capture the essence of their character. The greatest compliment I can get is when subjects tell me that I’ve captured the essence of their character. That’s more important to me than anything else, including the aesthetic results.
Are there times when you cannot get close to people?
Some people are very guarded in front of the camera and even blocked. That is always a challenge, particularly in commercial work when time is of the essence and people have little interest in building personal relationships. But even then, I make it my job to establish rapport and bring out the real person “behind the mask”. Every once in a while I’ll find someone who simply will not allow that guard to come down. In that case, I prefer to pass on the job rather than produce such work. I see no value in flat, emotionless images of people.
Why are most of your portraits in black-and-white?
I love black-and-white photography. I tend to shoot around 80 percent of my work in black-and- white. I feel it lends more character to my portraits and offers more detail and texture. That makes them more epic and monumental in their own sense. With black-and-white, I can bring out the real nuances and richness of character. It’s so much more complex and brings out the individual’s emotional qualities better. And personally, I’ve found that it allows me greater control over my work.
How do you prefer to use light in your work?
It’s very much like in painting. Even as a portrait photographer, we use light to accentuate particular facial features that characterize the individual. At the same time, aesthetics are especially important. For example, I like using a soft box with a direct or even indirect ring light. This lends the model an exceptionally pure expression. In addition, these tools also help smooth out the disruptive facial characteristics such as shadows, harshness and impurities. It’s always a challenge creating the right balance when it comes to portraits. On the one hand, I like to highlight as many interesting details as possible, and on the other make the unaesthetic aspects fade into the background. Here, too, the eyes play a central role of course. The key is to illuminate these especially well. By that, I mean clarity: light too much from above, for instance, intensifies rings beneath the eyes and creates unwanted shadows.
Who are you inspired by in your work?
People I admire include Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and Ansel Adams. When it comes to Ansel Adams, I’m particularly fond of an image he took of Georgia O’Keeffe. It’s quite remarkable how authentically her emotions were captured in that photograph. I actually had a chance photographic encounter with Ansel Adams when I was young. He ran courses in Point Lobos, a nature reserve to the south of Monterey in California, where I grew up. Unfortunately, however, one extremely mediocre snapshot is all I took away from it all. But the experience did encourage me to become better.
What advice do you have for amateur photographers?
Try out a lot of different things. In order to find your own style, you need to just explore and do what feels natural. It took me years to find what really appeals to me and where my strengths lie, though it was always there. The crucial thing is that you’re prepared to leave your comfort zone and break down your barriers. That takes courage, but it’s worth doing. For example, take photographing people on the street – some will be happy for you to do so, and others not. But if you are always worried that they will say “no”, you will miss the best photo opportunities.
About David Zimand
New York-based photographer David Zimand studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SFMA) in Boston and at the Rhode Island School of Design. He has been a successful professional photographer for over 20 years and specializes in portrait photography.
Tags: Andrea Jung, black-and-white photography, Carl Zeiss, Carl Zeiss Ikon Ikoflex TLR, Carl Zeiss Lenses, Chris Noth, Contax RTSIII, Dan Akroyd, David Zimand, Matisyahu, photographer, portraits, portraiture, Rollei 35