“I grew up in Los Angeles, it probably doesn’t show in my work… I think that people who move here have a romanticized notion of it and tend to feed that back into what they create when they get here.” If the place he grew up didn’t have much of an effect on his work, one particular experience in his youth did. He brought a disposable camera on a trip to London and took pictures of “various historical sites.” When he got the pictures developed, he showed them to his father, who said that “if he wanted to see pictures of [historical sites] he could have just looked at a postcard.”
“That’s probably where I adopted the notion that a photo without a person in it isn’t worth taking,” Ziff said. He’s been shooting fashion professionally for more than ten years, preferring that style partly out of his interest in fashion itself and partly out of his ideas of what his photography should be. “I’m not interested in honesty within art,” he said. “The fantasy is much more compelling to me. Fashion photography — the kind that I like — it is pure fantasy.”
Ziff later cited photographers like Sølve Sundsbø and Tim Walker as influences, as well as designers like Iris van Herpen and Alexander McQueen. “I don’t know if they’ve influenced beyond dangling the proverbial carrot impossibly beyond my reach,” he said, “but they’ve expanded my artistic vocabulary immeasurably.” Indeed, if there’s a common element running through his influences, through everything from Van Herpen’s dresses to Sundsbø’s Vogue editorials, it’s fantasy and unreality.
At first, Ziff was a professional retoucher, a career that lent itself well to the sort of photography he would end up doing. “Through working on other photographers’ images,” he said, “I sort of organically began to shoot my own.” Today, his otherworldly, sublime photographs can be found in magazines like Schön! and Glassbook, promotional materials for Stella McCartney’s SS2017 collection, and the cover of Halsey’s most recent album. (I mean “sublime” in the original sense of the word; his best work is intense and overwhelming in the best possible way.)
Still, Ziff doesn’t necessarily consider himself a photographer in the traditional sense, though he wrote, “the idea of photography as a means of artistic expression fascinates me, probably because I can’t paint.” Unlike Ed Freeman and Emmanuel Monzon (the former a digital artist who uses photography to collect visual data; the latter a “painter who works in photography”), Ziff is concerned with engaging multiple senses and incorporating tools from various disciplines outside the visual arts. “Having total sensory control over how media is consumed was always my primary objective,” he said.
To that end, Ziff has incorporated the music he composes into his photography and has started collaborating with motion designers. Music, he explained, is the only artistic discipline he’d had formal training in, though his knowledge of composition is almost entirely self-taught. “My music project was always supposed to be a multidisciplinary audio-visual experience,” he said, “and while it never materialized that way, I always felt that I was losing something by creating either music or photos alone.” When he worked solely in photography, he explained, he felt that music was the best way to explain the shoot’s tone to models.
Some of Ziff’s photography, then, if “photography” is even the right word, has thus become the kind of audio-visual experience he referred to. “Combining [music and photography],” he said, “was just the next logical step.” This sort of work has appeared in Schön!, as well as on his Instagram, which currently has about twenty-two thousand followers. (He has an ambivalent attitude towards that platform, he said. “[It has] exposed my work to a broader audience,” he said, but added that he has a special hatred for what he termed the “like-based economy of social media platforms.”)
Still, Ziff admitted to residing in a state of ongoing uncertainty and low creative self-esteem. “I’m perpetually in a place where my skill has massively outgrown my taste and I’m terrified that I’ll never have another good idea ever again, or where my taste has outgrown my skill and I hate everything I do and I’m embarrassed over everything I’ve done,” he said. “Disappointment, shame and embarrassment seem to be my most significant motivating factors.” He was, however, optimistic, in his own darkly humorous way: “As long as I’m self-loathing enough, I’ll continue to evolve.”
At the end of the interview, he concluded: “The best is yet to come. I hope.”
Written by Peter W. Coulson
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