Photography by Mark Zilberman
Interview by Melanie Meggs
IN CONVERSATION WITH MARK ZILBERMAN
Mark Zilberman is an American photographer who has traveled internationally to see and photograph the ordinary and unique of life. As a child he recalls memories of his mother buying his first camera, which sparked the beginning of his photography journey and had continued uninterrupted into his early thirties. During this period he made a living as a freelance photographer in New York City, photographing for many magazines and graphic designers. As time went on, Mark's interest turned towards photojournalism, with trips to Gaza, the West Bank, Panama and Nicaragua. It was at this point that Mark made a decision to put photography on hold and return to college to do his Masters in Social Work. Working in that field continuously since, his work as a social worker for over twenty years has now informed what his photography is today.
In this interview for The Pictorial List, Mark talks to us more about his life working as a social worker and returning to photography in the digital age. In the accompanying photographs, Mark shares his project "Hebrew Halloween" about the Haredi community of Satmar Jews in Williamsburg Brooklyn.
“Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.”
Hello Mark, tell us about yourself. What drew you to photography? What was that moment that you decided to pick up a camera?
My photography journey has bookended my life. My first experience was when I was 6 years old. My mother was taking my brother and I to Washington DC to see the Japanese Cherry Trees in bloom. We walked by a drugstore window where I saw a bright shiny yellow box and said I wanted it. It was a Kodak Instamatic 104 with cartridge film and flash cubes. There I began and continued uninterrupted till my early thirties. During this period, I made my living as a freelance photographer in NYC. At this point I learned mostly on my own. Very much with the incredible photography book series by Andreas Feininger. But also, while pursuing a degree at Arizona State University and courses taken at Phoenix and Scottsdale Community College and SVA in NYC. Additionally, several years working as a photographer’s assistant in NYC where I had the opportunity to work for many amazing photographers.
As a freelancer in New York City, I photographed for magazines (BusinessWeek, Forbes, Eastern Airlines just some of them), and graphic designers (working on annual reports). As time went on my interest went more towards photojournalism. I went on several trips to Gaza, the West Bank (photographing settlements there), Panama (during the reign of Manuel Noriega), Nicaragua (during the time of the Sandinista Contra conflicts). I made a decision to leave photography at that point and return to college to get a Master’s degree in Social Work. The move into socially relevant work was consistent with the changes going on with me in my photography. I have worked in that field continuously since then. Though, it’s difficult to say how much, my work as a social worker for over 20 years certainly has informed my photography.
After about a 20-year hiatus from photographing, I slowly returned to taking pictures. There was a learning curve in becoming proficient in digital photography. I love digital photography. Analog photography is not romantic to me, as it seems to be for many other younger photographers. I just can’t get nostalgic over the scent of acetic acid in an enclosed dark space. As I don’t long for push mowers. I enjoy the immediacy and easily accessible control of digital. Along the way I started to look again at my work from the past. It was interesting to see that the pictures that I most liked at this point in my life were the images that were most like pictures that are done for photojournalism and street photography. And this is the direction that I’ve been going ever since. I also shoot weddings. But I don’t do these in the traditional sense. My weddings are in a documentary wedding photography genre (aka candid). And I enjoy them thoroughly because I pursue them as a street photographer. The amount of emotion that is going on at a wedding is abundant. And this is what I seek to catch on these assignments as well as on the street. Strong emotion.
Tell us about the series that you submitted to us. How and when did this project first manifest for you? What is the full story behind the project? What was the inspiration?
I don’t see myself easily fitting into any one group. Many of my views consist of positions that one would tend to find in very different groups. I can have at the same time, feelings of inclusion and exclusion. I can feel both acceptance and as an Auslander. It is a bit of a cliché, though still true nonetheless, that the camera can be a passport. It can be a raison d’etre amongst people and peoples you wouldn’t ordinarily be amongst. I found/find myself both photographically and personally being energized and pursuing photography in what would be called (although I hate this term) “subgroups”. I did this for seven months in Kibbutz Beit Alfa in the Jezreel Valley at the base of Mt. Gilboa in Israel. And, then again, photographing for several years in a rural upstate New York bar that effectively serves as the town green in the hamlet of Andes, New York. And, as you can see in the accompanying photographs, in the Haredi community of Satmar Jews in Williamsburg Brooklyn.
I was raised in a reformed Jewish home on Long Island. There really could not be a more differentiated approach to Judaism than that of the reformed Jews and the Satmar. I can have very different views of life than Satmar. Some of their stances, quite frankly, anger me. And yet, I am drawn. Who are they? Why do they do what they do? In the attached work, I ventured into Williamsburg on the Jewish Holiday of Purim. This is a visual day, to be sure. Basically, this is “Hebrew Halloween”. People are dressed in costumes. They are in a powerfully festive mood. They are celebrating the failed destruction of the Jews living in the Persian Empire. It is a moment of joy and vindication. It is a statement that at times when God seems most remote, God is there. I can’t think of a more needed day than this in these times.
With the camera, I was not a stranger. I was accepted. It was a basis for conversation, learning and growth. Photographically, I am looking to reveal the distinctiveness and uniqueness of these people. As well, allow myself to apply my chosen photographic style to make compelling, feeling and sometimes humorous imagery. I am drawn to images that show glaring and/or subtle juxtapositions. Often, these are evinced in facial expressions or body gestures. Other times in the light or color. I want my pictures to be strong. I want them to possibly entertain. I want you to feel. Something. Often, these are not necessarily pictures of anything. They are themselves. Themselves only. Then again, as often, they are quite rooted in precisely what is in front of me. This medium offers such an abundance of possibility and directions to go. Often, it’s difficult for me to discipline myself. But then, why should I?
Regarding your photography in general, what is the story you want your photographs to tell?
This is a difficult question to answer. I’m not sure that I’ve a single story to tell across all my photography. I struggled personally in recent years with what I feel is an absence of a singular style in my work. And it would seem that this is necessary to achieve some kind of notoriety. And I can’t tell a lie, I want my work and myself to be noticed. That in no way interferes with my desire for joy in the act of photographing. Emerson once said “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. As such, I have no hobgoblin.
But to answer your question, and I do want to, there are different stories. One story is the abundant beauty that is around all of us at every moment. And no medium allows for their preservation as well as photography. Another story is the is the transcendent nature of photography itself to present an entirely different abstract reality which is the photograph itself. And yet another story is the ability to elicit emotions via the photograph and yet these emotions may well have not been present at all at the time the picture was taken.
What does it take for you to photograph in a certain moment? Is it planned or solely driven by instinct…or a bit of both? Describe your process.
These days, I carry a camera all the time. Somewhat because I want to be able to catch something that is happening at any given time. And at other times, to give wings to the feeling or impulse that makes me want to interact with my environment and create a photograph. Of necessity, as I must make a living, I often need to plan the times that I am photographing. But, at other times it is instinct. One of the beauties of street photography is the ease of access. You really just need a simple camera. But then maybe, access is not enough. We are dependent on moment, light and luck.
Is there any advice that you would give yourself if you started photography all over again?
Don’t try to make a living at it. Regardless of whether you are successful or not and making a living at it, you will likely not have fun doing it that way. This is advice that I would have given myself knowing what I know now. I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t photographers who are making a living at photography who are not having fun. But for myself, who struggled to find out what “they” wanted all the time was poison to me and my work.
What other photographers do you look for inspiration?
As I have been taking pictures for many years, there have been MANY photographers that I have looked to for visual and personal inspiration. At this point in time, I can say that Bruce Gilden, Richard Kalvar, Vivian Maier (omg, what a story), Jill Freedman and Larry Fink (the perfect model for the wedding photography that I like to make). Next month likely, I can give you another list of different names. And I can go to Instagram anytime and come up with a long list of photographers that I quietly curse for making such amazing images. The amount of skilled and brilliant photographers roaming the planet is staggering.
If you could just choose one photographer to shoot alongside for a day...who would you choose?
James Nachtwey. Not sure I’d have the nerve, though. I see so much imagery from conflict zones. But I’ve never seen anyone’s pictures that are nearly as powerful and representative of war as his. I wish he was working in Ukraine, now.
Is there a special photographic moment you recall that will always remain with you...one maybe that changed your view of the world in which you shoot in?
Unfortunately, at the present time, there are too many moments that remain with me and remind me of the time we live in. Those are the undesirable moments of confrontation with people in public who become resentful and angry when I might be taking a picture that includes them on the street. I really mean no harm. And, in fact, the people in my pictures on the street are really props in my images. These images are rarely about them. They will say, “just ask first”. Sometimes I do. But many images are of a moment that will be gone by then. This isn’t a scheduled portrait session. They will ask me why am I taking their picture? I struggle for an answer that won’t sound like evasive bullshit. More often than not, I don’t know why I am taking a picture at the moment I’m taking it. I just know I have to take it. But this is not what they’re asking for. And they ask what I’m going to use it for? And the truth is, probably nothing. Maybe Instagram. Maybe the Museum of Modern Art. I have no idea. But I think these moments are evidence of the times and places we live in now. People in this country and throughout the world have become simply “wound too tight”.
What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length? Is there any particular equipment you need or wish you had to help you achieve your photographic vision?
Presently, I am using Olympus equipment. Previously I used the excellent Nikon D700. But it has the undesirable effect of getting heavier and heavier as I go through the day. In what used to take a very heavy backpack to carry with Nikon, I can easily carry in a shoulder bag with Olympus. Frankly though, if I was starting again, I would pick Fujifilm cameras. They bear some resemblance to the original 35mm film cameras that I find were so much easier to use. Back then, you could pick up basically any 35mm camera and use it. They would be some differences. Not many. Now, you can pick up one model of one manufacturer and you’ll need to thoroughly go over the instruction manual to understand that camera even though it is the same brand as another camera you presently use. In terms of preferred lens, I have been walking around with the equivalent of a 35mm lens for a while. And now switching over to a 24 mm. But I also like zoom lenses very much. So many photographers decry zoom lenses. I don’t know why. It’s true that prime lenses are generally faster than zoom lenses. Generally, I don’t need something to be so fast. And I like the options that zoom lenses offer. However, as I now go everywhere with a camera, primes are just lighter and easier. As for equipment that I might need or wish I had, I think I am pretty good right now. That will probably change in the future.
What are some of your goals? What direction do you think you will take your photography? Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
I really just want to continue making pictures as long as I can. I want my work to evolve to have identifiable characteristics that would be mine. Also want to be working on projects. Not just making singular images, but collections of images that are about something. I want to immerse myself in situations. I would like to take what I have learned and come to know in my social work and merge these disciplines into coherent bodies of work that neither social work or photography could do alone.
Some of the most growing and exciting times in my life were during the period when I travelled quite a lot. Photography, in a way, becomes very easy in a new and strange environment. Pictures scream at you. Too long in any one place and things can become banal. Going to a new place can be so liberating and stimulating. And, can definitely change the way you see when you return home.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
Roll down the windows, drive 10 miles over, turn up the volume to 11 and listen to The Dire Straits.”