Paul Zollo’s pictures tell a story without speaking. Each picture taken reveals the life of the subject being photographed. He is also admired for being an accomplished writer and singer. Despite his wide range of talents, he is a very humble man who values family life more than anything else. His interview allows us to take a deeper look into his life, and explore the world with his point of view.
How did you get into photography and why?::
I have always enjoyed photography since I was a kid, experimenting with little cameras and polaroids, too. But except for the instant response of the polaroids, I was frustrated by the lag time between the process of taking a photo, and the ability to see it developed. I am a musician-songwriter as well, and I love the instant response of an instrument. The moment you play a chord on a guitar, for example, you hear it. I also knew nothing of darkroom technique, so I moved away from photography except for the occasional dabble. Later I started to do a lot of music journalism – interviewing great songwriters for magazines and also books I have written (including Songwriters On Songwriting).
I fortunately met the legendary Henry Diltz, rock photographer extraordinaire, and thanks to his great generosity of spirit, he started photographing the many great songwriters I would interview. This was still the age of film. I had worked with a few other photographers, but they never got the natural, exultant kind of photos Henry always scored. So, although he didn’t know it, I basically apprenticed with him, and studied his way with people, his amiability, his ability to slide into comfortable situations with people and capture their genuine spirit, as opposed to posing and styling them. So I learned a great deal – not just about how to create and frame a good portrait, but how to interact with a photo subject.
With the advent of digital photography and high quality SLR cameras, I starting taking photos again. And digital, of course, affords me the instant response I had always wanted – and with photoshop the ability to darkroom photos quickly and easily – and so I started doing all my own photos for my interviews, as well as branching out into the whole great world of portrait photography, taking photos of everyone – friends, family, strangers, musicians, famous people, people wanting to be famous, performers, dancers, etc. – and living in Hollywood, everyday presents me with an amazing panoply of humanity to photograph. So for the last many years, I have been deeply and passionately involved in taking portraits mostly – as well as other kinds of photos – and have had my work published in many magazines, and also in art galleries and restaurants.
What challenges did you face in your line of work, and have you ever felt like giving up?::
As it’s not my only line of work, photography remains mostly something I do with a lot of passion. I love getting any photographic assignment, as taking photos for me is always a joy. I love the process of it. And I love what the post-processing you can do with a photo in photoshop. The challenges are many: overcoming my natural shyness so as to approach strangers – even those who often seem quite unapproachable – to request a photo; learning how to take performance shots in low-light situations and from a distance; mastering the technical aspects of photography such as use of lenses, exposures, lighting, etc; learning my way around photoshop; and learning the art of action photography. Those are the main ones. No, I have never wanted to give up. Not yet anyway. [pqr]I have a perpetual hunger to do more.[/pqr]
What do you consider your greatest failure and why?::
I haven’t had one major failure as much as many small failures – but we learn from our mistakes. For example, I went on a shoot with only one memory card – when I was first starting out – and quickly filled it up, and was unable to take more shots without deleting existing ones. Now I know to have a few cards. And there were the times I took photos too rapidly – swept up in the excitement of an event – and didn’t get sharp focus. And other small failures like that. But all have been learning experiences.
What do you consider your greatest achievement and why?::
My greatest achievement photographically, I would say, is being able to realize a vision for a photograph. Often I have had notions of something I wanted to do, and then I set off to achieve that vision – and to realize in a picture what was just an inspiration. For me, one of the enduring beauties of photography is the ability to do that – and in a short period of time – come up with a concept, and make it real. For example, I have done many photos of the great L.A. band The Fuxedos, led by Danny Shorago. And I was doing a photo essay on bands for the L.A. magazine Campus Circle, and wanted to include the Fuxedos. In their show, which is wonderfully theatrical and surreal and often hilarious, Danny dons many guises and costumes and uses props. So I wanted to give a photo that kind of flair, and thought of inviting people to pose as his various characters. Danny liked that idea, but wanted to pose as the characters himself – and have me photoshop him in. So I posed the whole band on a stage with him in the middle – and props around – and then he put on different costumes and I shot him separately, and then photoshopped two versions of him on either side of the photo so in the end there were five Dannys. And I collaged in some other colorful elements – and was able to create exactly what I had envisioned. And I have done this many other times – given myself a challenge, and then realize the vision of that challenge. And in photography, I think, more so than other arts, perhaps, this is achievable – as if you fail, you simply try it again – and keep working till you get what you want.
How have you thrived despite negative comments from others?::
Just the realization that everyone has their own responses to work, and what doesn’t or interest one person can often captivate and compel another. But it all starts with the passion of the artist. I love my work – and there is satisfaction in creating a compelling photograph that is mine alone – before anyone sees it. And that sustains me. Then when I get a positive response from others, it’s even better. But I am very used to the process of getting indifference. And part of an artist’s life in this world is understanding people are overwhelmed everyday by all the informational input they take in, and so creating anything that busts through that barrage of input is hard. To get someone to slow down for a moment and look at a photo – that isn’t always easy. Which is why I love Flickr so much – because it is a community of (mostly) serious photographers, who love looking at photographs as much as taking them, and responding to them. It’s a place where people from all around the globe – literally – stop and look. And that is rare and it’s an amazing and beautiful thing, this intercontinental global connection of artists and their art.
Who (and or what) inspires, motivates you?::
I am inspired daily by great photographers past and present, and I am inspired daily by the endless variations and beauty of the human experience. I sometimes think I’ve already crested in a way, and there is nothing new under the sun to photograph. But I quickly realize there is an unlimited amount of different kinds of people within different situations to photograph. Every day is new, and I am inspired simply by going down a certain street or to a certain place and photographing what I see there, and realizing the random act of going to that place resulted in these very specific and timeless photographs. And understanding that perhaps what seems random isn’t random at all, and that as we lead we follow. It’s something I’ve learned in writing songs – leading and following at the same time, being the artist and the recipient of the art – guiding but responding simultaneously – and allowing what is timely to become timeless.
Do you have any favorite quotes, pictures, internet links that you would like to share?::
Mark Twain said, “To a man with a hammer every problem in the world becomes a nail.” I think that says so much.
Buckminster Fuller said that if you are drowning and a piano-top floats by, it will serve as a good life-preserver, but one shouldn’t then assume the best life-preservers are piano-tops – and that “piano-top thinking is prevalent.”
Randy Newman said, “Don’t let the critic become bigger than the creator.”
The photographer Lisette Model, who was one of Diane Arbus’ teachers, said, “The most mysterious thing is a fact clearly stated.”
Ansel Adams said that sometimes he gets to a place just as God wants him to click the shutter. I know what he means.
Arbus said that a photograph is a secret about a secret. I don’t completely agree, but I like the quote and the poetry of that.
Henri Cartier-Bresson said he wasn’t interested in the photo once he took it, and that “hunters, after all, are not cooks.” I like that idea, too, but don’t share that feeling at all – I like the cooking as much as the hunting, if not more.
I agree more with Ansel Adams, who said that you don’t take a photograph, you make it. And Adams again, who said “there are no rules in photography, there are only good photographs.”
And Paul Simon said, “I am more interested in what I discover than what I invent.”
What are the most important things you have learned in your life so far?::
That the only thing that limits us are the limitations we create. That what people appear to be externally might be vastly different from what they truly are. That people’s assumptions, on which they base their reality, are frequently false. That there are no rules except the ones we write for ourselves – even including the rules created by those we admire and emulate. That most people want little more than for somebody to really listen to them. That nothing holds us back as much as fear, and that transcending fear is a daily challenge. That life constantly presents us with obstacles, and the challenge is to stay on the beam, stay focused and positive, and more than anything, not to be derailed. [pq]That the thing that ends the journey is giving up.[/pq] That looking to other’s for acceptance is often the wrong place to look.
That fame doesn’t necessarily equate with greatness, but that it sometimes does. That fame can be a big burden but also a blessing. That although we exist in time, we can aspire to create that which is timeless, and there is much in life and in love which is timeless. That there’s a whole lot more to reality than what we can see, and what we measure. That there’s strength in admitting mistakes, and a universe to be gained by learning from mistakes, not spinning in the same circles, and not always “crashing in the same car,” as David Bowie wrote. That asking questions and admitting what you don’t know leads to a lot of wisdom. That the point of power is in the present, and what is present will rapidly be past – so that the things we do in the present change the world – both the outer world we live in, and the inner world of the spirit. That being a father is one of the greatest gifts life offers.
That great pizza is great. That the future isn’t at all as futuristic as we dreamed it would be. That Darwin and Freud were both wrong. That the only real evolution is the evolution of the spirit, and in that respect we have a ways to go, but have made more progress than most people recognize. That a vision of a world beyond war is achievable. That everyone is unique, but also the same. That all adults were children once, and part of them is still a child. [pqr]That love takes effort but it’s worth it.[/pqr] That patience is a virtue, and a necessary one. That faith matters. And that we should focus on gratitude for all we have everyday.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?::
Strengths: love of art, passion and creativity, energy, gratitude, loyalty, love for other people, humor, music, learning, not assuming I know everything there is to know.
Weaknesses: impatience, procrastination, disorganization, intolerance, laziness, self-obsession, egotism, sorrow, vanity, envy… can someone stop me already?
What are you goals for the future?::
To keep hope alive and not to be derailed. To complete and get published a big volume of my photographs with essays to be called Angeleno. To be a great dad and son/brother/husband/friend. To write good songs and finish a new album. To write more books. To have fun.
What are some things that people might not know about you?::
I love the history of Hollywood – the town, not the industry – and wrote a book of Hollywood history called Hollywood Remembered.
“Paul Zollo – Photo by Debbie Kruger” [Online Image]
“Paul and Joshua Zollo” – magnolia83912 on Flickr [Online Image]
“Paul Zollo” – Wikipedia Entry [Online Article]
“Paul Zollo” – Facebook [Online Social Site]