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Stepping Back Into Landscapes

Tom Zimberoff

Tom Zimberoff

Tom Zimberoff

I am a classically-trained clarinetist, who studied music at the University of Southern California before pivoting to photojournalism.

I’ve covered hundreds of historical and breaking news stories and shot hundreds of portraits, including magazine covers John Lennon to Steve Jobs . . . even Ava Gardner’s last photoshoot, plus two sitting American presidents for the covers of TIME and FORTUNE. My first two portraits were Marx and Lennon: Groucho and John.

I’ve just completed writing "A Photographic Memory," a “photoir” filled with stories that begin when I was 21 and spent a with a day with John Lennon during the so-called “Lost Weekend." Then, how my career literally took off when I stowed away aboard a helicopter carrying the military dictator of Panamá. I didn’t think about the possibility of being invited to exit the aircraft before it landed. I was hoping desperately for an exclusive with the camera-shy ruler. It turned out to be my entrée to more than two decades of shooting for Time magazine.

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By professional reputation, I’m a portrait photographer. The late film director, John Huston, whose portrait I earned the right to shoot with a winning poker hand during a poker game in Budapest, had a face like a road map of Hollywood. I’ve enjoyed memorializing the landscapes of faces like his.

Over the piles of cash we anted up (local Hungarian forints made it seem like we were playing with Monopoly money) Huston told me, "It's not poker unless someone gets hurt.” I tried not to hurt anyone with my camera by getting close enough for a good clean shot — close as in rapport, not just proximity — to avoid inflicting gratuitous wounds.

We don’t LOAD cameras much anymore, but we still AIM them and SHOOT pictures. With that in mind, I still get a bang out of describing my pursuit of portraits as a predatory sport, hunting big game: the famous and the simply fascinating.

To memorialise each encounter with an interesting human being, in one shot so to speak, epitomizes the hunt. When I was proud enough of a new portrait to add it to my collection, it was because the subject allowed me to reveal something personal framed within a graphical composition. Predatory? I’d bag my quarry by looking through a lens, not down the barrel of a gun. But I still hung their heads on a wall to admire like trophies.

I rarely had time for landscapes. Now, I'm making time, hunting for places as much as people and showing others what I’ve been lucky to see and distil through my viewfinder.

Regrettably, the words PORTRAIT and LANDSCAPE have been commercially appropriated. To some people, it simply means the vertical vs. horizontal framing of a picture. But both portrait and landscape are art forms, not formats.

After a long hiatus from my early attempts, I thought I'd step back into landscapes again. I've included one of my old favorites, "Conzelman Road," made in 1987 above San Francisco's Golden Gate in the Marin Headlands. It was shot on film, of course. Now, I've gone digital with a Hasselblad CFV II 50C fastened onto the same ELX 2¼ camera I used decades ago to make that photograph AND a new Cambo Actus DB onto which I can fasten the very same digital-capture device as easily as I could swap out a Hassy 12-exposure film back, which both replaces looks like. No! It looks better.

The results with both set-ups are equal to the quality I achieved with a 4x5 film camera. Now, though, my gear is more portable, allowing for an increasing number of peripatetic expeditions. Incidentally, I used my 4x5 for portraits as often as 2¼.

For my ”4x4” I chose three landscapes shot within the past month plus one made nearly 35 years ago, to make a point about digital interoperability.

Since I acquired a 28mm Digaron lens, I decided I had to have the Cambo's technical movements, too. I used that Cambo combo to photograph the Ocean Beach Sea Wall. With the Hasselblad back's 43.8 x 32.9mm sensor size, I have the equivalent of a 20mm lens on a 35mm camera (and about the same size) but with the resolution of 4x5 film. Ya can't beat 50MP. Well, yes you can with Hasselblad's pixel-porn H6D-400C. Yes, That’s 400MP at a correspondingly radical price point. I'm sure Hassy's X System will eventually drop a 100- to 400MP sensor in our laps.

For the tree roots, I used a Hasselblad 907X with the same CFV II 50C that I used to photograph the pebbles in beach sand, but attached to an antediluvian Hasselblad 500C/M instead.

Bye-bye film.

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