Have you ever caught yourself in the middle of a movie, book, or story, and realized that you probably haven't blinked in the last several minutes because you have been gorging on every last little detail that you can find? You're just totally and completely immersed in the narrative before you. It is as if for a brief moment, your own life doesn't exist, and you are experiencing the life being laid out before you. Every time that I look through the moments captured by Zalmy Berkowitz, I have the same reaction. Image after image after image is a perfect moment of authenticity, frozen in its own space, and almost becoming a mirror for what it is to experience life.
I had a video chat with Zalmy to talk with him and ask him some questions about how he sees composition. (A subject that he knows quite a lot about and even teaches.) The video call goes live, and Zalmy pops up. I quickly get the impression that he's locked himself away in a quiet corner of his home for our talk. Behind him are bunk beds. I wonder to myself, "where do the other four of their six kids sleep?" The sheets and covers are seemingly kicked to the end, and a roller-blades box lays on top of them. Zalmy sports a cozy looking green sweater, a dark grizzly beard with a tinge of grey that rests on his chest, clear-rimmed glasses, and on his head, a kippah or yarmulke. He has a natural glow and warmth about him, is quick to smile and has, what I would call, a zippy personality that accompanies his dry and charismatic humor.
We had a wonderful conversation not only about composition but one that also spilled into life itself and more specifically, the beautiful chaos that life is. When I later went to transcribe our chat, I realized that chaos had struck even while we were speaking. Not one bit of it had managed to record. You can't really have a redo of a candid conversation, so after he and I talked we decided that we'd do take-two via email. I'm almost glad, in a way, as I love the way that Zalmy's specific wordings give you such an essence of the impression that he makes. I've left his answers just as he emailed them to me.
Where did your obsession with composition start?
Obsession?! That’s a heavy term. Maybe compulsion, irrational drive, subconscious drive, Oedipus complex… Or maybe it’s all that I’m good at 😂 (you better keep my emoticons in this interview!) I’m also good at avoiding hard questions… Honestly, I don’t really know. I come from a graphic design background (as in I did graphic design, and sucked at it, before photography), so I did some formal (read: sitting at my local library (which I love) and reading my butt off) learning in that regard, but I’m not sure if that’s it. Maybe it’s that I love photographing the chaos of life and it’s not really legible unless it’s organized in some coherent composition.
When you step into the role of a teacher, what would you say that your philosophy around teaching is?
Philosophy around teaching or teaching composition? I’ll assume the latter. I think composition is kind of like the words, sentence structure, prose, etc. that we’d use to tell whatever story we are trying to tell. Meaning it’s not the story itself, rather a way of delivering it. Important, but never as important as the story itself. Does that make sense? It better.
What influences the way that you see narrative?
Oh man, deep questions! What happened to the weather and traffic? This is tough stuff for a SoCal-ite. I guess everything? I mean our thoughts and emotions, and subsequent actions are all a result of everything we’ve seen, heard, read, thought upon, decided, discarded, picked up again… no? For me, particularly, it has to do with my terrible memory. I know almost everyone says they have a bad memory, but I truly do. I remember very little of my childhood, and if I don’t document (via photos or words) my life, whatever happened just melts into the endless black hole of my un-memory. So, for me, photography is very much a vehicle of recording experiences (as much as that’s possible), and what happens with me is that I don’t just have the photograph, but I remember the entire setting or outing in which the photograph occurred. Especially when shooting film. The act of choosing exposures for some reason acts as a sort of anchor in my brain to counteract the pull of that collapsed star.
Speaking to your personal style, when you take a photograph, would you say that you aim to capture the complete story of that moment or to leave the narrative open?
Oh, I want to capture everything. I’m not an artist trying to make anyone feel anything or try to figure out what’s going on. Again, for me, it’s fairly strictly a means to record my life for myself and my kids. I mean, there will always be ambiguity, and I’m sure my kids (and everyone else obviously) will see something else, but that’s not really my goal.
Tell me about the idea of embracing the chaos.
Fine. As I mentioned (like a bajillion times :) ) photography for me is a way to document my life. And it’s often the little things that make a life unique. All the things we tend to avoid by shooting longer or wide open. The dirty socks on the floor, the odd toy that the baby likes to play with, the scratch on the fridge caused by your oldest trying out his homemade slingshot. I feel that the chaos is what makes life, and photos, rich with meaning. Photos that you can spend time on, looking around, piecing together into little stories that make up life.
Additionally, I feel that with social media we see so much of the “perfection” that other people have (as if) and we kind of feel like everyone else has their life together beside us. It’s not healthy, and it’s not true. So I do my best to put as much mess as I can out there to counteract all that ridiculousness. 🤣
You’ve said that you don’t remember much of your childhood before around age 10. It seems that has made the idea of harnessing story and creating memories significant to you now. If you weren’t capturing a story in a photograph, how else might you harness and relay these memories?
I did say that! I’d write. I think writing is the most powerful of all the human arts and I wish I’d do more of it. I’d sooner put down my camera for good than my pen.
Tell me a joke you know.
VSCO. Oh, snap! 😆
What’s an interesting fact about you that most people don’t know?
Well, most people don’t know any facts about me so this should be easy :) Hmmmm, well, when I was 11 I was bitten by a Rogaine bottle on my chin and was blessed for all time with an overabundance of facial hair. Okay, that’s not very factual, but I was the official beer buyer in high school at age 15 (back when New York City was more jungle than urban).