Windows to the Soul
By John D. Adams
“For me, photography has
become an integration of life and craft. Through it I am able to give value to people’s lives and derive value in my own life, beyond making a living.”
— Robert Zuckerman
There is an innate kindness behind photographer Robert Zuckerman’s eyes that shines through his camera lens, bathing his subjects in a cocoon of willingness and trust. It’s an invaluable quality for a man who spends the majority of his time making pictures with people. And it certainly explains why he has been able to capture a humanity with his subjects no matter if they are Hollywood’s biggest stars or “regular” folks on the street. “Whenever I’m photographing somebody, whether they are from the hood or are a big star, I hold on to the idea that if you put love into something, then through some kind of alchemy, that shows in the final product.”
You may not realize it, but you have seen Robert Zuckerman’s work. For decades, he worked in Hollywood as a movie studio photographer, producing advertising and publicity images for films like: the first three “Transformers;” both “National Treasures;” “Flight;” “Unstoppable;” “The Pursuit of Happyness;” “Terminator 3;” “Training Day;” “Any Given Sunday;” “The Crow;” and many others.
Will Smith calls him “Picasso.” Jerry Bruckheimer, Denzel Washington, and Michael Bay have often vied to have him on their film sets. Arnold Schwarzenegger even introduced him to former President Bill Clinton by saying: “This is Robert Zuckerman, the best photographer I have ever worked with.” Heady praise from Hollywood hotshots are a rarity and further exemplify the impact that Zuckerman has on most every person he works with.
Yet even while he was working on a movie, Zuckerman would often turn his camera away from those famous faces to onlookers or extras. “I was so drawn to them,” he says. “I once read an artist statement that said: ‘The more personal my expression, the more universal its meaning.’ And that really struck a chord with me. Yes, that’s what art is about.”
Shortly after 9/11, the world seemed shrouded in terror. “I realized that the antidote to terror is in the richness of life that is around us every day. And that’s when I came up with the initial idea behind KINDSIGHT®– random encounters can become a story. From taxi and bus drivers to waitresses, plumbers, or kids at a playground, KINDSIGHT® shows the extraordinary within the ordinary.”
It is no easy task to give people a sense of ease while photographing them. In an interview with The Miami Herald, Zuckerman said: “Traditionally, photography has involved aggressive, acquisitive language…Shoot. Capture. Take. I never use those words. I ask people: “Can we make a photograph? That way it’s framed as a collaboration.”
He began accompanying his photos with stories that reveal as much about his own feeling of human connectivity as do the pictures themselves. “I sent them around to friends. Across the board people could relate to the humanness of it. Then, I would send some big movie poster that I had done, and the response was often: ‘Nice poster, but we really like the personal stories better.’ I realized that I was on to something.” Zuckerman developed his collection into a best-selling national book and multiple exhibitions and installations. James Crump, renowned fine art publisher and curator, wrote: “Zuckerman’s portraits are infused with an uncanny sense of hope and spirit in the post 9/11 era.”
“Bob, why are you limping?” In 2003, Zuckerman arrived at a business meeting, when he was asked this question. “I hadn’t really noticed it that much,” he begins. “My primary care doctor thought it might have been a herniated disk.” It wasn’t. But it took another seven years of multiple MRIs, spinal taps, and neurological testing before he was finally diagnosed with an extremely rare, degenerative disease: Adult Polyglucosan Body Disease. Primarily affecting those of Eastern European Jewish descent, the disease attacks the central nervous system, slowly but systematically shutting down motor skills. There is no treatment and precious little research. And yet, Zuckerman has maintained an astonishingly positive attitude. “Hollywood stopped calling,” he says. “Even though I’m in a wheelchair, I’d still be working if they would hire me. But I am advancing to a higher calling.”
For the last decade, Zuckerman has been a popular speaker, inspiring young students through his KINDSIGHT® work and other projects. “Most of us have challenges in life. Part of my job is to inspire and empower others. An early mentor once said to me: ‘You can do it.’ Those are very powerful words. I hope I can bring some of that encouragement to young people.”
He’s going to have an even bigger chance to inspire students. Zuckerman has just been named a Dean’s Distinguished Fellow at the Florida International University School of Architecture and Arts for the coming academic year. It’s an affirmation of his ability and a testament to the man’s talent, integrity, compassion, and desire to bring words and pictures to others.
Visit Robert Zuckerman’s website at: www.robertzuckerman.com Learn more about Adult Polyglucosan Body Disease at: www.apbdrf.org
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