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Up Close and Personal

Behind the lens with Bil Zelman


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Bil Zelman Untitle #4
Untitled #4 Private Party in Buffalo, date unknown, Zelman, dressed as a caterer, crashed a soiree at a prestigious doctor's house to get this shot.

He’s been attacked by a neck-biting monkey while snapping shots of sloths in the Amazon, floated on icebergs in Patagonia, sailed through the Bahamas with Alexandra Cousteau, and licked lemon ants off tree bark as a snack in Peru. He’s partied with Gaga; cracked up the “It” girl of comedy, Kristen Wiig, getting her to squawk like a bird for a portrait; and shot David Bowie as his first megastar assignment at the ripe age of 20. Since then, Taylor Swift, the Rolling Stones, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Hawk, Jerry Seinfeld, and myriad other A-listers have all posed for him.

But photographer Bil Zelman says his most recent project, Isolated Gesture, a collection of street-style images, is his proudest accomplishment to date. It’s also his first published work and the culmination of a storied 22-year career.   

Consistently touted as a Top 200 photographer worldwide, Zelman could live anywhere, but chooses San Diego as his home, along with his producer wife and two rescued dogs.

He grew up in upstate New York, the son of an esteemed research scientist (part of the team that invented the artificial kidney in use today) and an erudite college professor mother. Though genetically wired for success, Zelman proved rebellious from the get-go. He discovered his first true sanctuary in the quiet of a darkroom at age nine. “When that door was closed, no one could come in,” he recalls. He received his first Nikon from his parents, and much of his life since has been experienced through the viewfinder of a camera.

“When I’d see something interesting I would walk by, stick out my arm and click—a huge flash would go off in the subject’s face—and I would keep walking.”

At 15, Zelman had cultivated an artistic style. By the time he hit the State University of New York at Buffalo, he was getting assignments from major music rags, though his trajectory toward success wasn’t without a few hiccups. “On an assignment to shoot Bowie, I was sick with nerves and every shot came back orange and blurry. I cried when I sent them in to the photo editor. Ironically, it was the nascence of the grunge movement and the magazine thought they were brilliant and immediately gave me another assignment. That’s how my career started,” he laughs. “They had no idea they were hiring a kid with a pager.”

In college, he started a project called Isolated Gesture, shooting complete strangers with a modified old 1969 Nikon. Nineteen years later, he’s published a book of street photography bearing that same title. “It’s a deeply personal body of work—a dark and moody one that really defines me as an artist,” Zelman says.

From 1993 to 2002, he obsessively carried his Nikon everywhere he went, visiting small towns, crashing parties and parades. “When I’d see something interesting I would walk by, stick out my arm and click—a huge flash would go off in the subject’s face—and I would keep walking. I never spoke to any of them.”

Zelman targeted events in the newspaper and dressed up as a caterer to gain access—needless to say, he was tossed out of a few soirées and made a few enemies along the way.

“Since Garry Winogrand, Larry Fink, Diane Arbus, William Klein and so many others, the aesthetic of the ‘wrong’ has become accepted practice in photography. Aggressive framing, dramatic contrast, unconventional subjects, unflattering shots—all have become comfortably ensconced in the standard repertoire. These photographers—and Zelman positions himself among them—are agitators of a related sort, purposely getting it wrong in one way so as to get it right in another, disrupting visual order to ignite a kind of visceral disorder,” wrote Leah Olman, Los Angeles Times art critic.

The oversized, hardcover edition of Isolated Gesture was designed by South Park resident Dave Roberts, printed locally by Neyenesch, and can be found at Balboa Park’s Museum of Photographic Arts, where Zelman also has prints in the museum’s permanent collection, and on Zelman’s website (zelmanstudios.com).

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