Zelda Zinn interview
Blue Mitchell: Tell us more about your background and how you came to photography.
Zelda Zinn: I grew up in Houston, Texas in a big family. From my earliest days, I used to draw and dream up art projects. My parents are culture vultures and were always taking us on trips, to art museums and cultural events. As for my love affair with photography, I have a clear memory of the image that stole my heart: I was 9 or 10 and took a photo with an Instamatic of my friend Devorah blowing a gigantic bubble. When I got the print back, not only could I see the big pink bubble; I could see them through it to Devorah’s face. It was magic, and I was hooked. I went on to an arts high school where we got to take extra art classes instead of P.E. That’s where I learned how to develop and print film. I attended St. John’s College, a tiny liberal arts school in Santa Fe. They gave me a key to the make-shift darkroom, and I spent many happy hours in there. I ended up at the University of New Mexico for my MFA, studying with Beaumont Newhall, Betty Hahn, Tom Barrow, Max Kosloff, Nia Janis, and others.
Can you describe the process you used to create Obsolete and how you came to it?
In the summer of 2008, my boyfriend and I were in Italy. Walking down the streets of Florence, I started thinking about all of the people throughout the centuries who had walked down those same streets. They were long gone, but traces of their presence remained—a notch carved in a door post, a scrape on a wall. I wondered about all of those people I could never meet: who they might have been, and what their lives might have been like. So I started shooting signs of age and distress. Feeling that I wanted to add a human presence, I decided to combine them with found photos from the turn of the 19th century. The pictures are digital collages created in Photoshop. My dad is a geologist, and I thought of time as creating intervening layers between the past and us.
Who are some of your photographic heroes and why?
Betty Hahn is probably the most influential teacher that I had. Known for her non-silver work, she taught me that a photograph could be so much more than just “a picture.” I’m also a big fan of Annette Messager and Christian Boltansky, for the conceptual and creative ways in which they use photographs. I love Roy DeCarava for his amazingly poetic and dark images. Same for Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Some of Lewis Baltz’s early pictures of industrial parks also take my breath away. It’s a long and ever-growing list.
If you were teaching a Photography 101 class and the lesson was Creativity, what do you think would be the best advice for students to get their creative juices flowing?
Two thoughts come to mind on this topic: To quote Linus Pauling, “the best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas.” In other words, brainstorm. It’s an important part of my process, always. The second point, to paraphrase Jasper Johns, is that you take something, do something to it, then do something else to it. In other words, if you’re stuck, DO something. Act. Those two techniques work for me, and I suggest them to my students.
Read any good photo books lately?
I just discovered South African photographer Roger Ballen, whose work is disturbing and amazing. I also recently got Doug Doubois’ moving book All the Days and Nights. As for photo crit, I’m reading Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art. It’s smart, and well written with no “artspeak.”
What's your favorite photography website that you frequently visit?
I’m constantly trolling the web to find new photographers. I like Lenscratch, ZoneZero, Tiny Vices, Photolucida, FotoFest, Photo Eye, and, of course, Plates to Pixels.
Any new projects on the horizon that you can share with us? How about Guided Imagery?
Guided Imagery is my latest body of work. It’s based on the idea of finding shapes in clouds. I make subtle, suggestive forms and then shoot them. They are real photographs, but I think of them as drawings made with a camera. They make me think of Vija Celmins work with graphite. They are black and white and very plain; there’s barely anything there. I love the idea that they aren’t about what you see; they’re about what you can make of them. Unfortunately, since they are so subtle they don’t look very good online…
I’m also doing an on-going project using the security envelopes that my bills come in. I’ve done a series of drawings based on them and lately, I’m making collages with torn pieces. The most recent ones are a group of images of trees with interlocking branches. I’m never bored.