The Art of Hyper-Realism: Andrew Zuckerman’s Full-Scale Animal Portraits

Introduction by Bjarke Ingels, Principal Architect, Bjarke Ingels Group

Andrew Zuckerman is a present-day Renaissance person. His 1:1 animals — essentially hyper-realistic portraits of animals reproduced in full scale seem at first like ordinary animal photography. But having eliminated the natural habitat, the jaw-dropping beauty and forms and textures of the biosphere shine in all their complexity. And then you realize that they are actually paintings rather than photographs—because they’re photographs that seem impossible to take—and their resolution defies all existing technology. So the elephant is photographed and then repainted in post by putting together tens or hundreds of details into a full-scale, full-size elephant. I had seen elephants, of course—I had ridden one—but I had truly never seen an elephant until I saw it on Andrew’s wall (and now mine). Just as his work happens at the intersection between art and technology, his home and studio are like curated encounters with birds’ nests, space gloves, sculpture, painting, photography, design, architecture, calligraphy, taxidermy… different fields from different ages all fusing together in an obvious yet unpredictable coherence. And that is how Andrew is as a person, a friend, a conservationist. A relaxed source of deep knowledge from such different fields all flowing in free association with no prejudice of where the conversation needs to go or what aspect of it merits the most. I always leave excited about the world and what’s in it—and with a long list of things that deserve a deeper dive.

What inspired or motivated you into your career?

I started making pictures and little films at a really young age. Creativity was very much a part of the house I grew up in and making things was encouraged by the people around me for as long as I can remember. So continuing to pursue the things that interested me as a kid in a professional capacity seemed less like a career choice than the natural extension of those early impulses and the most comfortable way, for me, to engage with the world.

Who is or was your greatest mentor?

I’ve been fortunate to have had a few close relationships with older artists and designers who have imparted some serious wisdom over the years. I can’t say I’ve had a formal mentor—I’ve always wondered how that worked…

What is the most difficult challenge you’ve had to overcome?

I think, for everyone, it’s hard to balance time with your friends and family with the time you spend working, especially when your work requires travel. The most challenging periods for me have been when I’m away from my family, away from my kids, and reconciling what that trade-off is.

Who were some of your greatest past influences?

Massimo Vignelli comes up a lot, John J. Audubon, Fred Sandback, Donald Judd… I think about a lot of the architects, artists, and designers whose practice has in some way been engaged in what we tend to refer to as minimalism. I’m inspired by a reductive approach to the work. People who somehow find essential information and only present that.

Who among your contemporaries today do you most admire?

It’d be tough to single out individual artists who are working today because I’m excited by so many. But I draw an enormous amount of inspiration from friends who seem to make work in a vacuum, like Adam Fuss, Christopher Astley, and Bjarke Ingels. Their work transcends time and place and exists in its own universe, but one that’s equivalent to ours in its ideas, language, and richness. And while not contemporary, in the last couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with Edo-period hand-painted woodblock prints from the Ikenobo school of Ikebana. I’ve collected several volumes of these from the late 1600s. For me, there’s an inherent spiritual power in both the arrangements themselves and the way they’ve been recorded and committed to history.

Your portraits convey a lot of emotion, even the animal images. How do you encourage this in interacting with your subjects?

I think your work is an extension of your own spirit, and if you naturally connect with the world around you, are curious, and have a desire to meet others on an emotional common ground, that’s going to come through. We make choices when we make work. If you look at a session that I’ve done, there are lots of images that are unemotional because I can’t necessarily direct the subject to deliver what I want, whether it’s an animal or a person. The real work is in choosing a single image. I’m looking for that emotional common ground in the editing process.

How do you deal with the unpredictable nature of animals?

All animals, including humans, are unpredictable, so I’ve always thought that the most effective approach is to balance the desire to create an effective image with a total lack of expectation.

When you are photographing, say, a lion’s face, how do you safely get a closeup?

With a long lens.

How do you manage to capture birds in flight with such clarity?

With the “Bird” project I was really interested in allowing the viewer to look at a very fleeting subject in a really meditative way. So I wanted it in focus throughout, with virtually no movement within the wings. Fortunately, there’s equipment out there that can freeze action really well so I used that. It’s all about the light.

What equipment do you use for studio shots?

I’m not really very interested in equipment, but I’m incredibly interested in the impact technology can facilitate. I think of cameras as data-gathering tools. So I’m always trading up to the technology that allows you to accumulate the most data.

What would be your dream assignment?

To photograph an astronaut’s re-entry to Earth.

Who are your favorite people or clients you’ve worked with?

I’ve had the great fortune of working with extraordinary subjects from Nelson Mandela to Andrew Wyeth. All of the experiences that I’ve had in my own creative initiatives have been a dream. I’ve also been lucky to have had long, deep relationships with a select few clients. The projects we undertake greatly benefit from the learning that comes from such extended involvement.

What are the most important ingredients you require from a client to do successful work?

A clear intention from the outset and a mutually respectful, supportive dynamic through the process of collaboration. And it’s nice when realistic terms are set for what we want to achieve.

What is the greatest satisfaction you get from your work?

Completing a project. Stepping away from work that you’ve driven forward and seeing it as something totally outside of yourself that has its own life and its own things to say.

What part of your work do you find most demanding?

My crew and I have traveled all over the world to make the work we make, which requires a very specific, technically engaged set of circumstances to occur. The physical demands of setting the stage, so to speak, are probably what take the biggest toll.

What advice would you have for students starting out today?

Be bound by your ideas, not your medium.

What interests do you have outside of your work?

I see work as a vehicle to explore my interests, so the two are usually intertwined. I think of it in terms of how is it a passport to something you’d like to see or know more about? And if it’s not through image-making or storytelling, I try to find a different way in. I’m interested in design, for example, so when a gallery in New York called Chamber approached me to curate a year-long program of exhibitions on design, I said yes right away.

Where do you seek inspiration?

This may sound ridiculous but I do think inspiration is absolutely everywhere. I don’t seek it. I think if you’re living in the world and you’re curious, you’ll find inspiration in unexpected places.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I find that thinking about the future makes me really unproductive, so I try to stay in the moment.

Andrew Zuckerman is an award-winning photographer, filmmaker, and curator. Much of his work is concerned with the intersection of nature and technology. His immersive investigation of the natural world has produced multiple books: his books include Creature (2007), Wisdom (2008), Bird (2009), Music (2010), Flower (2012), and Designed by Apple in California (2016). He worked with the California Academy of Sciences as their 2016 Osher Fellow creating a body of work about the Twilight Zone, a relatively unexplored depth of the oceans. Andrew’s ongoing portrait practice utilizes both photography and filmed interview formats to examine human perspectives. Andrew has collaborated extensively for many brands including Puma, Gap, and BMW, as a photographer, filmmaker, interviewer, and creative director. From 2008-2017 Andrew served as executive creative director of Creature Pictures, a boutique production company he founded, which worked on numerous media projects for Apple. Andrew lives in New York City with his wife and three children.

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Author: Graphis