Self-quarantine still lifes

Zoë Zimmerman finds her voice in color

by Emma Gabel
Posted 6/18/20

On the cusp of the pandemic, Zoë Zimmerman's work revolved around people.

Whether photographing the working people of Taos for her Works in Progress series for Tempo, or taking recital portraits for the Academy of Performing Arts, there would always be someone in her studio.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, this paradigm changed overnight.

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Self-quarantine still lifes

Zoë Zimmerman finds her voice in color

Posted

On the cusp of the pandemic, Zoë Zimmerman's work revolved around people.

Whether photographing the working people of Taos for her Works in Progress series for Tempo, or taking recital portraits for the Academy of Performing Arts, there would always be someone in her studio.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, this paradigm changed overnight.

"All my clients for April canceled," she said, adding that April is a particularly important month financially for the commercial end of her photo studio. When her youngest child, Camille Cooper, unexpectedly returned home from college on the East Coast (a COVID-19 hot spot) a two-week period of intensive self-quarantine ensued.

This quarantine coincided with Camille's 18th birthday and the end of child support payments just at the time when she was very much supporting her child. Their financial outlook during lockdown "was grim."

Zimmerman switched gears in the studio overnight. With the inability to photograph people she began the introspective Self-Quarantine Still Life series using this unprecedented time as an opportunity to experiment with a medium she had rejected in the past: color, digital photography.

"I had come to digital photography kicking and screaming," said Zimmerman. Before quarantine, her art relied on an analog photographic method, one which utilized large format cameras and an antique photographic process to achieve her particular aesthetic. Her personal expression was entirely in black-and-white. "I switched gears very quickly, seeing this time as an opportunity to learn something that I felt like I was not quite up on ... I had the time to find my voice with color."

Some of these works in the Self-Quarantine series closely align with Zimmerman's past still life experiences, where, according to her, "the image is a metaphor for my own emotional state." But others in the series operate more like a kind of visual diary of quarantine, "reminders of what was happening in that day, a document of an isolated time."

The result is a series that beautifully captures the contemporary crisis in the style of an old master painting. Some, like Self-Quarantine Still Life #51, document the effect of COVID-19 on a local scale -- in this case, the moth infestation of mid-May -- while others, like Self-Quarantine Still Life #62, examine the state of the nation.

A number of other works also function on a more formalist level as explorations into light, color and form.

This aesthetic has evidently resonated with a great number of people. "I am, by nature, slow," said Zimmerman. "No one would have ever previously accused me of being prolific. I work slowly and carefully, and never put work out until I know it is perfect. I overthink everything, and I don't like to share my work until I know that it's good."

And this knowing that it's good can take a long time; one of her more recent series, Of Men, Strength and Vulnerability, was completed over the course of two years. The Self-Quarantine series, composed of nearly twice as many works, was completed in just over two months.

It is a dramatic change of pace that has paid off. "I started doing this work," said Zimmerman, "because I had the opportunity, the time and the concentration to do it. But really, so gratifyingly, that work immediately created an income through this pandemic."

Much of her success can be credited in part to social media. "I felt compelled to share this work, like sharing a conversation - conversations that I couldn't have in person." Zimmerman had been posting the images on a daily schedule, helping her amass an online following. "The pictures became shared kind of broadly, and I suddenly went from just creating to being a cottage art industry."

Zimmerman also attributes her success to the generosity of one of her followers. "When I was 40 pictures in ... a patron asked if he could buy the whole series." At that point, the work was still unfinished, and existed only as a digital file on a computer. But she agreed, and that investment enabled her to start production of prints of the series.

The Self-Quarantine series has received a lot of attention from the art world at large. In early May, Zimmerman was interviewed by Ann Landi for the website Vasari21, as well as The Paseo Project for its"'Art in Quarantine" podcast, both of which helped bring her work to a wider audience.

She was also contacted early on in the series by the New Mexico Museum of Art, looking to feature her in an online exhibition, as well as acquire Self-Quarantine Still Life #3 for its permanent collection. Zimmerman has been contacted by publishers and is already immersed in the process of turning the series into a book. "I have never had so much buzz so fast."

"I think a lot about what this experience during this time of social isolation would have been like if Camille hadn't come home," she said. "I can't imagine how totally peculiar it would have been. I wasn't lonely, and for that I am grateful.

"The work has taken on a life of its own, and I think I have found my voice in color."

Zimmerman's work can be found on her website at zoezimmerman.com, on her Instagram at zoezimmermanphotography, or on her Facebook page at Zoë Zimmerman Studio. Zoë Zimmerman is represented by the Photo Eye Gallery in Santa Fe.

Emma Gabel is a student at Sarah Lawrence College and Zimmerman's assistant.

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