The Hallmark Institute instructor and fine art photographer talks about the Hallmark approach to teaching and why his kit includes a pair of fireman's boots—and shares a selection of his eloquent black-and-white landscape images.
You can see more of Zide's photography on his website.
Michael Zide was very straightforward when we asked how and when he got started in photography.
"I have no background in the arts,” he admits. "In fact, I had absolutely no interest in photography until I was 22 or 23 years old. My dad was an avid amateur photographer and 16mm movie maker, and I do have memories of being with him in the bathroom darkroom and the smell of hypo permeating the air. But I was going to be a doctor or veterinarian. I went to UCLA and USC for undergraduate work and needed a lot of credits to graduate, so I took photography in my senior year just for fun.” He loved photography for the fun as well as the art, it turned out.
January 11, 1949, was a date that proved transformative for Michael Zide and his love of the changing landscape. That was the year of the great Los Angeles snowfall. "I thought that the landscape was covered in pure gold,” he recounts, "and I couldn’t wait to get outdoors and start shoveling. Something in that vision would eventually point me to the East Coast and the changeability of the seasons. My mom, who was originally from New York, and my dad, from Chicago, were incredibly supportive. So right after man’s first moon landing I headed east, to Martha’s Vineyard, where I lived and photographed for 13 years.”
On Martha's Vineyard island, Zide taught the art of black-and-white landscape photography in numerous workshops while creating a body of work that has been featured in galleries from New York City to Los Angeles, as well as internationally. His landscape work from the Vineyard and Western US is in private, corporate, and museum collections. He speaks warmly of his mentor, Max Yavno, a fine art and commercial photographer.
Zide’s forte was—and is today—landscapes. As a teacher at Hallmark Institute, he sees his most formidable challenge as teaching students how to develop an inner voice and personal vision regarding their commercial pursuits. When speaking about his own work, many of the same concerns and ideas apply: How do we identify and respond to gesture in the natural world without the presence of a human element? How can we see, "sense,” and communicate that feeling photographically? What do you see of yourself when you look through the viewfinder?
Like all teachers, Zide must be half entertainer, half educator, in order to keep the students on edge and paying attention. He has to illuminate, inspire, motivate, and educate. That’s a tall order for any discipline.
"I feel so fortunate,” Zide admits, "because what I do—black-and-white landscape photography—is accessible yet challenging. It has its own language. However, it’s just like any other area of photography—fashion, wedding, portraiture, commercial—in that it’s a specialized niche in the much broader science and art that students learn in their 10 months of study at Hallmark. I’m amazed at how fast and how capable they become in just those 10 months at Hallmark.”
Lest you think Zide has spent his entire life as a fine art photographer and teacher, one look at his bio says otherwise. Commercial clients have included Polaroid, Sinar Bron, Schneider Optics, Miller's Professional Imaging, Graphistudio and Newsweek, to name a few. In 2007, he was selected by the Legion Paper fine art paper company to be one of its Moab Master photographers and gained sponsorship by Bogen Imaging. Zide's landscape work has been widely published in such magazines as Black & White Magazine, Silvershotz, Today's Photographer Magazine, and Photo/Design. Now living in Amherst, Massachusetts, he continues to do commercial work on a freelance basis while sharing his experience with Hallmark students.
The Hallmark methodology is very effective, Zide says. All of the instructors are passionate about what they do in teaching the broad underlying basics—design, composition, lighting, communicating with those elements to make each photograph speak.
"Each person has their own path," he says. "Students find and refine their own unique way of speaking through the medium.”
"Trying to please a commercial client,” counsels Zide, "is not the same as having total freedom to create fine art. Expressing your client’s message is what the picture needs to be about. Is your technique helping speak to those needs or is it becoming overpowering and has it become the message itself? Those sort of questions are important for the photographer to ask."
When asked what was a memorable moment in teaching, Zide answers quickly: "The first time a student asked me to be his mentor, that was flattering and at the same time represented a wonderful by-product of being a teacher. Another time, a student said to me he appreciated my work, but never fully understood it until viewing it as an original print, in a gallery. Those moments are what make teaching so joyful. It’s what gets me up in the morning.”
On graduation day Michael Zide cautions students to "put one foot ahead of the other." Working as a professional photographer, he says, has to be viewed as a large life process. Success is measured as lots of small steps on that larger path.
"I also keep persistently reinforcing not to be satisfied,” he says. "Sure, it’s OK to be pleased with the outcome of one image, but there’s more to it than that. Look at life overall. Have fun. Earning a living in photography is so extraordinary—certainly not the usual nine-to-five job. Even if things get rough and you have to take a break from photography full time, luckily you can pursue it on weekends or part time. It’s a really great way to support and express yourself.”
The most important item in Zide’s arsenal? A pair of fireman’s boots that he purchased in 1969 when he first landed on Martha’s Vineyard.
"A lot of my photographs,” he shares, "were improved by walking into the water a little bit and getting the tripod wet. That viewpoint made the difference."
Plus, he adds, in 40 years of photography he lost only one camera to a rogue wave. Not bad.