The Photographic Work of Tom Zimberoff
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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 like trophies."

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 other magazines.

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 ZimberoffAn 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 something righteous.

JD: I remember that you actually discovered photography while at USC.

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 portraitist.

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 beautiful.

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 furniture.

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 profession?

TZ: Everyone else made fortunes in real estate.

© 2003 Tom Zimberoff