Tom Zimberoff was born in Los Angeles, a child of the Fifties.
He was raised there and in Las Vegas, Nevada. As proficient with
a clarinet as with a camera, he succumbed to the lure of photography
while studying music at the USC School of Performing Arts. "Portrait
photography," he says, "is a predatory sport. I stalk my prey like
a big-game hunter, look for a good clean shot, and try to avoid
unnecessary wounds. Then I hang their heads on a wall to admire
Having begun his career in rock 'n roll photography, touring with
The Jackson-5, Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones, and Stephen Stills
among others, he moved over to television and motion picture stills
for advertising. After that he embarked on a career in photojournalism,
spending several years in, among many other places, Central America
working for Time and other magazines as a member of the Sygma
Photo Agency and, later, Gamma-Liaison. His photographs have appeared
on the covers of Time, Fortune, Money, People, and numerous
Zimberoff portraits are found in the collections of the National
Portrait Gallery in London, the Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the Corcoran
Gallery Of Art in Washington, DC, the Oakland Museum in California,
the Los Angeles Public Library, the Los Angeles County Museum Of
Art, the Canton Art Institute in Ohio, the Performing Arts Library
& Museum in San Francisco, as well as several corporate collections
and university libraries. His first two portrait subjects were Marx
and Lennon -- that's Groucho and John, of course.
An Interview with Tom Zimberoff
exerpted from Darkroom Photography
© Jeff Dunas 1990
We've all seen Tom Zimberoff's work-and over the last twenty years,
we've seen a lot of it. From covering rock 'n roll superstars and
celebrities early in his career to making distinctive portraits
that today grace the pages of a wide array of magazines, movie advertising
campaigns and corporate annual reports. (Today's business titans
are celebrated as much as show business personalities.)
Zimberoff compares portrait photography to hunting big game. "It's
a predatory sport," he says. "I stalk my prey and take my best shot,
while avoiding unnecessary wounds. Then I hang their heads on a
wall to admire like trophies." Nonetheless, his work is taken seriously.
Zimberoff has proven that he is one of today's master portrait artists.
Zimberoff portraits are in the collections of the NATIONAL PORTRAIT
GALLERY in London, the ISRAEL MUSEUM in Tel Aviv, the CORCORAN GALLERY
of ART in Washington, D.C., the OAKLAND MUSEUM in California and
the CANTON ART INSTITUTE in Ohio. One of his most compelling series
of fine-art portraits, called Maestro!, includes almost every major
symphony orchestra conductor of our time. His first two subjects
were Marx and Lennon -- that's Groucho and John, of course. He is
a member of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) and
lives in Sausalito, California.
JEFF DUNAS: Let's start at the beginning. I remember your statement
20 years ago that music was your life and photography couldn't possibly
be worthy of your time as a career. You were waiting for Motown
Records to sign their first white clarinetist. Do you remember?
TOM ZIMBEROFF: Sure! I got started in photography because guys
like you were having a ball and making money at it too! I thought
it would be a lot of fun.
JD: Looking back, are you glad you met guys like me or would you
rather have been a musician?
TZ: To tell you the truth, I would have enlisted in the Air Force.
JD: The Air Force? I could have saved your life!
TZ: Think about it! If I had it to do all over again, I'd have
enlisted in the Air Force after high school, gone to Officers' Candidate
School, gotten my college degree, become a fighter pilot, retired
as a Lt. Colonel with a military pension after twenty years and
become a photographer.
JD: You blew it!
TZ: I know. It would have been a perfect life.
JD: You were a marvelous clarinet player.
TZ: I was then. My father was a musician too; and he had a classical
career before moving to Las Vegas and working in the show bands.
I suppose I got my musical talent from him.
JD: So you lived in Las Vegas for a time before moving back to
Los Angeles in your teens. I remember you in the early days of your
photography career, as an equipment freak.
TZ: I was a gadget freak, as 95% of photographers are. I love intricate,
mechanical things. I had a Sinar and a Cambo view camera, tons of
Nikon, Hasselblad, Leica and Rolleiflex equipment and all the accessories.
JD: I remember at the time your interest in photography was photojournalism.
TZ: And celebrities. I was interested in pursuing the agency route,
which was a brand new phenomenon at the time. Gamma was new, modeled
after the venerated Magnum concept. I got tired of photographing
rock and roll bands, television sit-coms and game shows, so I decided
to set out in the world of photojournalism and prove myself-to do
JD: I remember that you actually discovered photography while at
TZ: Early one morning I was standing in front of the USC library,
where I was studying on a music scholarship. Suddenly a guy came
running out of the library. He had assaulted someone, and people
were chasing him. He ran across the campus and barricaded himself
in the law school building. I was snapping pictures all the while
when someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I had pictures
of all this. I said, "Yes." That was Tony Korody, who was the picture
editor of the Daily Trojan, the school newspaper. He asked if he
could see the film. I said "Sure," so we souped the film and he
used it on the front page. He then invited me to work on the school
paper. I accepted. I soon began to see the earnestness with which
Tony, who later did much great work for People magazine, was approaching
his work. That impressed me. Peter Read Miller, who now works at
Sports Illustrated, was there too. You have to remember that at
that time, there were few if any college-level courses in photography.
There were no degrees given for photography, except, perhaps, at
Brooks [Institute of Photography] or The Art Center [College of
Design]. That began to change in the late sixties and early seventies.
JD: Now there are degrees awarded in photography at every major
school in the world. Funny how it was really just a short while
ago that photography didn't exist in higher education, particularly
now, with the myriad workshops available to students. There were
only rare opportunities to study with master photographers, because
most master photographers didn't teach.
TZ: In 1971 USC established an elective course in photojournalism,
and I signed up. Two weeks later, we were given our first class
photo assignment. That weekend I was in a local Beverly Hills nightclub
called The Daisy-well, you knew The Daisy-with our friend Steve
[singer, Mel Torme's son], when, suddenly, Max Bear, Jr. [of The
Beverly Hillbillies] came running in shouting that his R.V. was
on fire outside! Steve and I ran out the door with fire extinguishers.
Immediately, I thought, "What the hell am I doing with a fire extinguisher?-I
should get my camera!" So, I grabbed my trusty Pentax Spotmatic,
the seminal mechanical-optical influence on my life, and shot the
burning camper, which had rolled down the street and, by this time,
crashed into a lamppost near the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I framed
Steve in the foreground pulling a fire alarm box that was conveniently
located on that very lamppost. On Monday morning I sauntered into
class with copies of the New York Daily News and the Los Angeles
Herald Examiner, each with my picture prominently displayed on its
front page (I sold it to the wire services). My professor said,
"Zimberoff, you have an A in the course. Don't come back!" I really
pissed everybody off! Not long after that, I quit USC, hung out
my shingle and began my career.
JD: What happened next?
TZ: I worked one summer part-time for a Hollywood public relations
firm, and shot celebrities at parties for them. At one party a fellow
came up to me and said, "Hey, you look like you know what you're
doing. Have you ever worked in television?" I said, "Sure." Of course,
I hadn't. I found out that he was the publicity director for Group
W Broadcasting and Viacom in Los Angeles. They were just about to
start production of the David Frost and Tommy Smothers shows. I
got hired. I started photographing celebrities. That led to working
on movies. I shot stills for the television program called In Concert,
which ABC produced at the Aquarius Theater in Hollywood. I got to
shoot many rock and roll stars and sold the stock from that show
in Japan through the Imperial Press [Photo Agency].
JD: About then you got involved in real hard-news. I remember seeing
you festooned with press credentials. You had a White House access
pass. You photographed a number of world leaders. Wasn't it for
Time, most of that material?
TZ: Well, I did work for Time as a free-lancer quite a bit. But
Time never assigned me to photograph a US President. I did have
a Time cover with Carter and Panama's ruler, Omar Torrijos. It wasn't
hard though, if you had a press pass, to cover an "event of state."
Say, [Israel's then Prime Minister] Menachim Begin was visiting
the United States and gave a press conference. You went there and
got a great head shot and sold it as a magazine cover. Those are
the kinds of things I used to do. I built a file [of stock photos].
It wasn't as though I had portrait sessions with all those people.
But I did once get a cover assignment from Fortune to photograph
President Reagan in a private sitting. That was later on.
JD: What happened in the meantime?
TZ: I started working with the press agencies. Gamma to be exact.
David Burnett was there at the time. He was always such a good shooter;
and, being a few years older than I was, he was an inspiration.
I wanted to emulate the kind of work that he and his colleagues
were doing. It seemed very exciting. Robert Pledge was our agent
at the time. He later left Gamma and founded an agency called Pledge
which soon after became Contact. I felt a certain amount of loyalty
to him. It was he who got David and me press credentials to photograph
the Republican National Convention in Kansas City in I976. That
was a turning point for me, because it was as much a convention
of photojournalists as it was for politicians. That's where I first
met all the great Magnum photographers and saw them at work. Avedon
was making portraits there. Just everyone. They were all there.
If you had a camera you felt like you were one of them. And they
seemed to accept me, too. It was very fraternal. It was fantastic.
I enjoyed that. And I loved their war stories.
JD: So you went to war.
TZ: No, I went to New York! I went there looking for ideas. I found
a story in the New York Times about the Black Berets, the Ranger
Battalions in the U. S. Army, training in Panama to combat worldwide
terrorism. Also at that time Jimmy Carter was campaigning for the
Presidency and said that he would make the Panama Canal his primary
foreign policy concern if elected. I realized that few Americans
knew much about Panama then-and certainly nothing about its reclusive
leader, General Torrijos. So I was going to make it my business
to go to Panama, ostensibly to photograph the Black Berets and develop
some file material on them; but really to try to meet Torrijos.
That's just what I did too. He liked me. I went back several times
to photograph him.
JD: After that you were traveling everywhere. I remember you went
to China and photographed Deng Xio Peng.
TZ: That was in 1981 when I went to China with Alexander Haig.
JD: What was the best assignment you did?
TZ: I really can't answer that. But I can tell you about the first
big story that I did- and I made a killing. I was already in Japan
with the Jackson Five while a friend of mine negotiated a contract
with Mark Spitz to exclusively photograph his wedding and honeymoon
for the press.
JD: Flash forward. You left photojournalism to become a well regarded
TZ: I guess so. I don't know. I am going to say something odd.
Really, I love photography. But I love photography in a different
way than I enjoy being a photographer. I enjoy looking at photographs
much more than I enjoy making them. If I could afford it, I wouldn't
be a photographer making images for the most part; I'd be collecting
images; I'd be amassing one of the greatest collections of photography
of all time. I'd like to be independently wealthy and be able to
collect the work of photographers whose work I admire.
JD: Where are you going from here?
TZ: Hopefully doing more of what I enjoy -- that is making portraits.
You see, a great side benefit of doing what I do is that I can become
friends with some of the most interesting, intelligent and unusual
people in the world for a few minutes at a time.
JD: The bottom line?
TZ: To do enough commercial assignments to be able to photograph
what I want-where and when I want; to publish the work in book form.
JD: Do you consider yourself to be an artist?
TZ: No comment. That's something other people should ascribe if
they want to.
JD: Being an artist is a state of mind.
TZ: Then in my life I'm an artist, but not necessarily or particularly
as a photographer. Living your life is an art; doing it well is
JD: What are your principal types of clients?
TZ: It's about one-third editorial portraiture, advertising and
corporate each. It's a fairly even mix. Even though the editorial
doesn't pay very well, you never want to lose touch with your magazine
work because it's an excellent introduction to portrait subjects.
Plus it's free advertising. That's how I look at it.
JD: Is there anything special about portrait photography that you
can tell our readers?
TZ: It's really about 10% creative inspiration, and 90% moving
JD: Do you preconceive your images or do you wing it on the fly
when you have a portrait commission to do?
TZ: That's a good question. You don't often get a great deal of
notice when you're going to photograph someone who may, in fact,
be quite interesting. That's a real problem, especially with editorial
work when things have to be done yesterday. You ideally want to
learn as much about your subject as possible. Sometimes you can
go to the library and cram, reading articles about the subject.
With celebrities, you frequently know a lot about them to begin
with. You try to incorporate that knowledge into your conception
of a photograph. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, things
turn out completely different by the time you come face to face.
You're forced to improvise. I work like a musician under those circumstances;
it's a form of improvisation. It's like jazz.
JD: If you're seasoned and professional, you'll always discover
marvelous elements you couldn't have anticipated.
TZ: We're pros. We'll always come away with a publishable picture.
JD: Style helps. Well, how did we fare these last 20 years in this
TZ: Everyone else made fortunes in real estate.