August 2017 Member of the Month

Bil Zelman

by P. Berberian August 1, 2017

Bil Zelman

All photos © Bil Zelman

Bil Zelman is currently directing still photography and film for a range of clients, including CocaCola, Harley Davidson, Guinness and more. Working from a small beach town you’ve probably never heard of just south of Los Angeles, Zelman lives with his beautiful wife, two dogs, and a bunch of old motorcycles and surf boards. Here, he speaks with Peter Berberian from PDN’s PhotoServe about his passion for the craft and his ever-expanding career.

Peter Berberian: What made you first decide you were going to be a photographer?

Bil Zelman:  I built my first darkroom at age nine and completely nerded out on the gear. The processes and chemistry gave me a strong feel for the technical side of photography. Learning it all at such a young age helped me to find my voice later on without all those distractions.

PB: Is there a photograph you loved as a kid that pushed you towards this career?

BZ: Ah, I adored the work of many photographers growing up: Richard Avedon, Sally Mann, Danny Lyon and others, but the work of Eugene Smith has always slayed me. He always wove an intimacy and humanity into his work that I’ve craved all of my life and career.

PB: What do you primarily photograph?

BZ: In my professional life I shoot primarily lifestyle and portrait work, but have always thought of myself as a photojournalist and street photographer in my personal life. The two blend in and out of each other very well. I’m fortunate to actually get paid to shoot pretty close to the way I would even if I didn’t have clients.

PB: Do you do anything before a shoot to prepare yourself?

BZ: Yes of course! I run the entire shoot through my mind as a practice, putting pen to paper. Mapping out shoot ideas and narratives, figuring out the back stories of the characters in the stories.  I usually turn up at a shoot with a long list, three times as many things as we can do and try to fit into a day. Then I shoot what feels appropriate, “People laughing with products” gets repetitive in a heartbeat. I try and spin more complicated narratives even if it’s something small. I also write treatments before almost every job, improving on and modifying it along the way.

PB: What is your favorite set up (camera/lens) to shoot with?

BZ: I use a 35mm digital camera and a 50mm lens for about 90 percent of the commercial shooting I do which is interesting because I use a 28mm or 35mm for most of my personal work. I’ve got a large kit with tons of Profoto B1’s and four different Canon cameras and nearly every lens they make under 300mm, but I can shoot pretty much anything with one camera and a 50mm.

In fact I’m shooting personal work near the fires in British Columbia now and only brought a 28-, 35- and a 50mm lens. It keeps my decisions simple.

PB: Who are your greatest influences in the art world?

BZ: The disturbing and powerful portraits of Francis Bacon

The awkward use of gesture and line of Egon Schiele

I love the notion of using the camera as a tool for social change and Lewis Hine’s exposure of child labor is a great example of photographs catalyzing legislative motion.

I can’t say enough amazing things about the power and proximity of Bruce Gilden’s portraits.

Larry Finks “Social Graces” still stops me in my tracks and manages to make great social commentary about class division from simply juxtaposed narratives.

PB: What is your favorite photography quote?

BZ: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough,” —Robert Capa.

I was super flattered that The LA Times used that in a review of my work once years and years ago, but it’s so very true for me. It’s hard for me to really connect and have a conversation with my subjects if I’m more than five feet away.

PB: Who are your three favorite photographers?

Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, and I won’t bother to try and introduce who might possibly be the greatest living and most influential photographer of all time: Martin Parr. If you don’t know his essay “The Last Resort” or the seemingly hundreds of other essays he’s worked on or edited, you’re missing some of the best work ever created.

And for the record…four out of five of the my next favorites are all women. I think subjects might have an easier time trusting and opening up to female photographers and Lisette Model and Mary Ellen Mark and so many others have made such beautiful work with that trust.

PB: What is your favorite photo that you have taken?

I might have five or six images which compete for my all-time favorite, but “Seven Young People” (shown below) is certainly in the Pantheon. It’s an uncropped and perfect image from edge to edge, and I took it with my arm outstretched not looking through the camera as I did obsessively for 18 years (and still often do).

It’s in my book Isolated Gesture. Here’s a beautifully penned essay on the series here by Leah Ollman.

Want more? You can check out Bil’s work at and on his PhotoServe portfolio. I personally love his work for Jim Beam Whiskey. I really want to be at that party! Check it out.