To say photographer Andrew Zuckerman is a minimalist is an understatement. He describes himself as a disciple of Massimo Vignelli and Swiss 721 is the house font of his Chelsea studio, which is a tastefully graduated series of immaculate white boxes.
His apartment, he says, looks the same.
“I love everything to be in perfect order,” he confesses, wearing his usual uniform, which consists of a gingham shirt, a sweater with leather patches at the elbows and jeans. “I love everything to be clean. It gives me a sense of clarity. I love the blank slate.”
Such a slate will be familiar to anyone who has seen Zuckerman’s work. (And you surely have, whether you know it or not. I spied some of it recently, without looking, in the children’s section of a bookstore in Manchester, Vermont.) Animals, birds and people—drawn from his four volumes—Creature, Wisdom, Bird and Music—against white backgrounds, perfectly and vibrantly lit. “Get light everywhere,” is how he describes his approach, which transports everything he shoots to a neutral, and common, white space. “That’s the idea. Get light in everything.”
Calling photography hyperrealistic sounds slightly absurd, but that’s the effect that Zuckerman’s high-resolution, high-speed photographs create, as they highlight every coarse hair, every feathery wisp, every line on Iggy Pop’s face. They feel like paintings that have surpassed photographs, a reaction with which Zuckerman is all too familiar.
“The consistent reaction to my work over time has been that it looks like a painting,” he says. “But a painting is trying to look like life. The intentions in painting are similar to the intentions in my photography.”
Zuckerman, 35, has been a student of photography his entire life. A bad student (“they would probably call it something else now,” he says), he was drawn to photography and quickly discovered that cameras were “this amazing passport” that allowed him access to the hardcore punk scene in his native Washington, DC. By fourteen he was spending summers in New York, working at the International Center for Photography and shooting bands at night. “I considered myself a professional photographer,” he says with a sense of humor, comparing his precocious younger self to a character in a Wes Anderson film.
He attended the School of Visual Arts but “did not enjoy the experience,” too often finding his unsentimental approach classified on the less favored side of the art/commerce divide. He received his first commercial commission the day of his graduation, and then worked frenetically doing everything from product shots for Vogue to “product” shots for High Times. “When you’re building your career, you’ll do anything, and I did anything and everything,” he says. He shot in his apartment, running extension cords from neighboring units to feed his unquenchable demand for light.
The intentions behind his work have remained remarkably consistent throughout. As a student at SVA, he shot items discarded on the streets, albeit against black, and after graduation he became interested in high-speed photography à la Harold Edgerton, shooting pellets puncturing balloons and other instantaneous, unpredictable events. And then, of course, he became interested in animals—speaking of unpredictable events—an interest abetted by a long-running relationship with Puma, which resulted in a series of animal-driven TV and print ads for the shoemaker.
“I was obsessed with making these pictures of animals,” Zuckerman says. “I found them hilarious and interesting and I couldn’t get enough of it.”
Then, when book packager Geoff Blackwell came calling—in search of the photographer’s earlier, high-speed work—Zuckerman showed him his menagerie of animal portraits and Creature was born. Buoyed by an appearance on Ellen, and enthusiastic support from the host, the book became a hit. To date, Zuckerman’s books have sold more than a quarter of a million copies.
But Zuckerman’s work is, literally, never done. He enjoys an especially close relationship with Apple, which makes sense, given their shared dedication to visual clarity and his commitment to staying at the “forefront of technology.” The 2010 launch commercial for the iPhone’s FaceTime feature was widely reported to have been directed by Sam Mendes, but was in fact created by Zuckerman, the giveaway being that it features his wife and kids. (Zuckerman has directed one narrative short, as well, and has a feature in development.) Such commercial projects serve to support, as Puma once did, his obsessive taxonomical pursuits.
“The book Creature was an expression of where I was with the project at that time, but all my projects never end,” he says. “I just continue all these projects on because they’re not driven by the deadline of a book, they’re driven by the curiosity I have for the subject, so if I’m engaged, those projects continue and they become a sort of catalog.”
Thus far, these catalogs have included animals (Creature 2007), birds (Bird 2009), as well as elders and musicians (Wisdom 2008 and Music 2010). Currently, he is working with flowers, another classical subject on which he hopes to shed new light.
Zuckerman is also a collector, not just of pictures, but of things and ideas. “The medium that he works in is almost secondary to the fact that he’s a thinker and intellectual first,” says designer David Meredith, who has designed all of Zuckerman’s books.
The walls of his office are lined with books and objets d’art. He has a handwritten letter from Andrew Wyeth, whose heavy-lidded portrait is one of Zuckerman’s favorites from his second book Wisdom, for which he interviewed elders—from Wyeth to Nelson Mandela—and captured their visages in his democratizing white space. He has a handmade replica of an astronaut’s glove by the conceptual artist Tom Sachs and a photo by Adam Fuss, who he says is his favorite living photographer. He also has the books of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, who Zuckerman says, “were masters for the one reason that their work was not really about them. They trained themselves to see things beyond their touch, so their collection of work is about the subjects of their work.”
This idea of getting out of the way—of setting up a scenario he doesn’t really control and capturing the result accurately—is the driving force behind all of Zuckerman’s work. He calls it the “the idea of vacuuming myself out of a situation,” and he is fond of saying that his real work is lugging cases of photographic equipment around the globe, setting them up and then letting go. “He has this amazing discipline and confidence about actually trying to shoot things in a way that removes him from the scene,” says Blackwell. “He has this simplicity that he never moves away from.”
“I don’t change the way I make photographs,” Zuckerman says. “You could make one all by yourself. Without me. You could make one that looks exactly like that.” He points to the image of a flower that dominates one end of his office. “It’s not about what I’m uniquely bringing to it, it’s more about what I’m bringing together and collecting in a consistent way.”
In this sense, he reminds us of no one so much as John James Audubon, although he is determined to push his portraits of animals, birds and flowers past the anthropomorphism, nostalgia and sentimentality that have typically been brought to these subjects. (“I find nostalgia depressing, because it’s longing for not the present,” he says.) The maestro of modernism himself, Massimo Vignelli—whom Zuckerman met while working on Wisdom—approves, declaring in the introduction to Bird, “No one has reached the purity of Audubon’s drawings and watercolors. Until now.
“Andrew Zuckerman approaches birds with a contemporary, minimalist attitude: no more narrative context, no more psychological interpretations, no more candid shots in the wilderness,” Vignelli continues. “An absolute background made of pure white light acts as the field on which the birds fly or rest. In this incredibly luminous setting, the colors of the birds’ plumage come to life as never before seen by the human eye.”
“I’m basically a disciple of his. I’m practicing what he developed,” Zuckerman says. “My intention is not to be different. I’m part of a long line of practitioners who thought this way and I am just working towards getting better at that and, I hope, contribute something.” ca