Photographer Zack Balber’s solo show at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, in Wynwood, opened before sundown on Saturday, in time for Art Walk and just before Yom Kippur was over. For observant Jews, the timing might seem sacrilegious: Yom Kippur is the holiest days of the year, and for a Jew to open the refrigerator — let alone an art exhibition — on that solemn day of fasting and atonement violates orthodox decorum.
But it felt fitting that Tamim opened when it did. The show, Balber’s first at Snitzer, comprises 11 large portraits of people the photographer considers “untraditional Jews,” whether because they have scores of tattoos (a taboo in the Jewish community) or for another violation of religious or social norms. In Hebrew, tamim translates as “pure”, “unblemished”, or “complete”. But the title of the show is not ironic, says Balber. To him, these outsiders are pure — not in spite of their imperfections — but because of them.
Balber, a Jew originally from Pittsburg who moved to Miami as a kid, says he always “gravitated” to outsider Jews, even earlier in life when he spurned his religion. For one reason or another, “they were always on the opposite side of the stereotype,” he says.
Now, after a “crazy” childhood that included drugs, fighting, and his father being imprisoned, Balber identifies as a Jew and serves in the role of “spiritual mentor” to several of the people featured in the Tamim series. This intimacy between photographer and sitter resulted in arresting portraits, in which the subjects’ seeming impenetrability gives way to vulnerability, even invitation.
For Jews and Gents alike, Tamim should serve as a powerful reminder that identity emanates from within, that skin, clothing, hair, jewelry, scowls more often obscure than reveal. The show will run through November 5. The following quotes come from a recent interview I did with Balber.
Balber: The way I got into photography, I was in the rainforest in Costa Rica and my dad handed me a camera and I literally got lost for about a week in the rainforest taking pictures.
I never thought it was a viable option to go to school for photography. But I [enrolled] in New World School of the Arts. About two years into it, I was waiting tables at Soyka and I see Bruce Weber. I didn’t even know who the guy was. Someone said, “He’s a really famous photographer.” So I went up to him during the lunch shift, and I was like, “Hey, I’ll do whatever it takes to come see what you do.” He’s from Pittsburg, I’m from Pittsburg, so we started talking about Pittsburg. A week later he called me for my first shoot with him, which was for Abercrombie.
After working with him for a little while, basically what he told me was, “Go do your own thing. This is my dream. You got to go get your dream.” Which I really respect.
Balber: I was always in love with candid photographs. I felt that staged photography lacked a certain humanity. It lacked something, an essence. I was in love with Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt — you know, the more documentary photographers.
I started looking more into Diane Arbus, who was Jewish. I was really into a quote from her … that she enjoys taking pictures because she always feels like she’s doing something wrong, like she’s stealing something or being sneaky. I very much related to that. One of the reasons I love photography is that it has the potential to be naughty or dangerous or invade your privacy — take moments that you don’t want the public to see and make them public. It’s like the tool to invade privacy.
Balber: The yarmulke [in all of the photos] is the one I got bar mitzvahed in. I love the idea of what the yarmulke is for. It’s used as a constant annoying reminder that there is a power bigger than you. The yarmulke is annoying. It falls off your head. It messes up your hair. It’s this constant annoyance. But, from a spiritual side, I think it’s really important to have those reminders, because it’s so easy to forget that you’re not God, that you’re [not] the master of your own destiny.
So, for these guys, some who are on a spiritual path and some who are completely off of it, wearing the yarmulke became a public acknowledgement — for them and for me — that God is for real. Even just for this photo.