10 Questions: Zalmy Berkowitz

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Berkeley based Californian photographer Zalmy Berkowitz, shoots film (only venturing into digital recently) is content photographing his life and the life of those around him. He makes it his goal to view the world with kindness and giving. Zalmy approaches his photography by working hard to ensure he is at the right place at the right time. Zalmy’s documentary work touches your heart and soul – you watch life unfold right in front of your eyes. He’s artistic vision describes rhythm and movement amongst the chaos of life’s candid moments. His film work makes you fall in love with analog all over again. For the rest like me, on a budget, we’ll have to make do with presets :p

(Zalmy’s work was previously featured on Staff Pick post).

1. What do making images mean to you?

Well hello to you too 🙂 I guess we’ll jump right in. I don’t really make images. I mean sometimes I do, but mostly I just take them. The thing I like most about photography is it’s honesty (compared to other visual art forms), and it’s ability to capture a real moment, like something that actually happened, and quite possibly would have happened without you being there to capture it. I appreciate other types of photography (and sometimes dabble in them myself), but it’s a completely different genre for me.

From “Out & About” series.

2. Where did you grow up and how did that play a part in your photography?

Well mostly in Southern California (Huntington Beach to be exact), though when I was 12 I moved with my mother to Brooklyn. I feel like I should say something profound here, but I really have no clue if and how that played a part in my photography. Honestly I barely remember my childhood. Anything before 10 is kind of a blur. Some random memories here and there…  I guess in some sort of strange irony, the lack of memories kind of drives my passion to document my own family. To make sure at least I (and they) remember their childhood (and my part in it). Besides for that I’m not really passionate about photography per se. I mean I enjoy it, and I appreciate it for what it is and what it can do, but it’s not something I can’t live without.

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From “In & Around” series

3. There are a lot of professions out there – why be a photographer?

I’m decent at it, I enjoy it, and it (theoretically) pays the bills. Sheesh, these aren’t the answers I think you want… Besides for that it gets me out of the house (we homeschool our 5 kids so that’s sometimes nice 🙂 ), it’s about people, and I’m my own boss.

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4. What is your favorite non-photography pass time?

Learning, reading, hiking (again, theoretically), hanging out with my wife, playing legos or whatever the kids are into these day. Oh, and sleeping, mmmmm, sweet glorious sleep.

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5. What are you reading now?

Unconditional Parenting by Alfi Kohn; Teach Your Own and How Kids Fail, both by John Holt; Various books on Jewish Philosophy; The Rebbe by Joseph Telushkin; The Revenge of the Baby Sat (Calvin and Hobbes).

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6. Is/Are there any project(s) you wish you could do – or might do?

I assume you are speaking photographically? In the words of Yoda, “Many wish I do, few do I might.” I’d absolutely love to spend some time in Jerusalem and some other cities in Israel and photograph the life there. I spent many of my formative life there, 4 years as a student and another right after I married, though I only owned a camera for a small portion of that (an Olympus point and shoot when I was 15). It’s a fascinating place and ridiculously photogenic. Besides for that, I’m content photographing my life and the life of those around me. Maybe I’ll do a project about Jewish life in the Bay Area…

 From

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From “Instant Awesome” series .

7. Do you shoot with your left or right eye?

Funny you ask. In Kabbalah it teaches that kindness and giving come from the right; while strength, strictness, and judgement come from the left. The world and the people in it are very interesting in that they very much reflect how we look at them. It’s a cruel world and it’s a beautiful world and the two aren’t always exclusive. Much depends on how we see it. To get to the point, I try very hard to view the world with my right eye. And yes, I shoot with my right eye as well 🙂

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8. Who do you respect – in photography or elsewhere?

Gosh, this list could get long. At the risk of this sounding ominously like an acknowledgment chapter in the beginning of my non-existent (as of yet) book, I definitely need to list my wife, Estee Berkowitz. I’m not a fan of public love letters and this is not that. I seriously respect her devotion to looking at the world and at herself and seeing not what is wrong, but what needs fixing, and then going ahead and fixing that. And of course my spiritual leader and Mentor Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Photographically speaking there are many contemporaries I admire. Alain Laboile for his way of capturing his family, and even more for living a life he believes in. Richard Israel does his own thing, and that’s rare. Hmmmm, I really admire the older NatGeo folks, especially William Albert Allard (I have like 3 or 4 of his books), and Sam Abel. I’ll stop there.

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9. If you were to start all over again, is there anything you would do differently? Why?

Are we talking from like birth? I’d have a freaking diary so I’d remember stuff! Actually at no matter what age that is my biggest regret, not writing stuff down. I just started recently (again), but it seems like a hard habit to keep up. It’s new years so… 🙂

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 From

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From “Instant Awesome” series .

10. Where do you see yourself in 10 year’s time?

Running a holistic Jewish Day School in Berkeley. And an overnight camp. Still taking photos, but not professionally.

Bonus Q: Do you think the gear you use affects the way you photograph? Why?

Oooooh, I love bonuses (I always found it hilarious when I got a 110% on a test)! Yes. Very much yes. As outsiders (which most of us were before we got into photography) the industry pretty much dictates what our views of photos and photography is. When I first started there was “only one choice”, a DSLR. A box with a crusty viewfinder looking at a 2×3 cutout of the world. Then, upon shutter trippage, there was a sort of magical osmosis of light into 0’s and 1’s. It sucks you in and you get obsessed with sharpness and pixels, and beyond that you have all this information and you have no clue what to do with it. So you pull sliders this way and push them that way to get some sort of “retro” look or whatever it is you thought was cool at the time… Fast forward a couple of years (it’s a long story and there’s no need to bore you), and after working with film for a while you get to get a feel for what an image is “supposed” to look like, you get a love for the imperfect, the grain, the blur, the emotion. Along the way you climb out of that 2×3 box and look through holes and through rangefinders, through waist level finders, and through ground glass. You find the format that speaks to you the most, and you run with it. Or, in my case, keep on using everything. I’m giving digital another chance now (after a few years away), and, although I still like film better, and I’m still using that 2×3 DSLR, now I can see past it, and this paragraph is getting way too long.

My gear is always changing. With film I always had a couple of Nikon SLR’s and mostly used a 28mm on them, and some sort of 6×6 system with an 80 (and usually a 50). I tried pretty much everything south of large format (though I have a Speed Graphic fitted with a Schneider 12.5cm f/2 aerial lens for Instant Film). Now I also have a digital kit (giving it another chance after being away for a few years), a d750, d810, 20mm G, 28mm G, Sigma 35mm, and a 58mm G (not to mention all my older manual lenses). It works.

From Zalmy’s Field Notes:

When it comes to the choice of films, Zalmy shoots with whatever he can get his hands on – usually expired film. His favourites are discontinued Portra 160VC, 400VC and 400UC for colour, and Neopan 1600 for black and white. And the versatile Portra 400 for his wedding and portrait commissions. Zalmy has been developing (black and white negatives) and self scanning his film using his friends’ Frontier SP2500. These days, he sends them to Danny Goodman to develop and scan. And when he shoots with Digital, he uses the Mastin presets.

From “Camp Days” series (digital)

(About 3 frames from above were made on a digital camera)


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Comments (4)

  1. Beth Herzhaft

    This is TERRIFIC! I am always a little afraid to read interview blog posts since those interviewed too often supply the "correct" answers replete with a sprinkling of false humility, instead of answers that feel real and genuine. As a reader I don’t feel like I have been at all surprised or enlightened, and more like I have just read a press release.

    In addition to being a great photographer, these answers are refreshing, honest and funny. Thanks Zalmy Berkowitz!

  2. Ari Dorfman

    Wow this is a great interview. Zalmy’s answers are real, raw and gritty, just like his images. SO awesome.

  3. Greg Coltman

    This is why I love LLF. The photographer interviews resonate. And this one definitely resonates. These are the kind of images I want o shoot of my family. Not copying the style per se, but the mentality behind it. As a father of boys (3 and 5) i want them to run free, be children, enjoy childhood and learn and discover the world, and those book recommendations have now been purchased. Great honest, no pretence interview and great photography. Zalmy Berkowitz is now bookmarked ;).

  4. Marija Obradovic

    This is by far THE best interview on the site. I enjoyed it all way through, and the photos are just amazing.

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