Acclaimed art photographer, Zoë Zimmerman has lived in Taos since she was 7 years old. Her earliest memories are of the East Village of Manhattan during its bohemian heyday.
Zimmerman returned East to study at Rhode Island School of Design, and until this year, traveled frequently to the place of her birth. Much like the trope regarding Texas, you can take the girl out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the girl, she retains an edgy quality to her work, no matter the subject. Zimmerman's eye for the offbeat and the noir asserts itself like a mysterious fragrance - here now, and gone.
While the greater world reels from the effects of the pandemic, Zimmerman seems to have deftly steered her ship through these rough waters, making, showing and selling her work, despite little brick-and-mortar gallery action. Aside from shooting a series on Taos essential workers for Tempo, Zimmerman has been juggling several other balls in the air.
Tempo caught up with the glamorous artist for a socially distanced lunch at Manzanita Market recently. We left as the lunch rush began and walked to where her car was parked outside the World Cup Café. A couple strolled by, dressed for summer even though there was a chill in the air, defiantly daring anyone to question their lack of face covering, as they waited for the light to change.
"Time to go," said Zimmerman as she unlocked her car door.
I crossed the street to where my own car was parked, following the tourist couple, who headed up Kit Carson Road as if there weren't a care in the world. As I drove home I reflected on the way our conversation had ended, with Zimmerman putting the safety of her family before her own considerable wanderlust.
Tell us a little about your life these days - how has COVID impacted your work?
I doubt if anyone would say that they were exactly prepared for a global pandemic and the resulting quarantines and distancing and isolation, but I feel that working artists have had a bit of a leg up in this unprecedented circumstance. After a life-long darkroom and studio practice, I am comfortable working in isolation. It's part of my process - the mode in which I am least self-conscious and most productive.
That being said, when the lockdown hit, I was immersed in two different projects, both of which required people in my studio, and overnight I had to set those projects aside and simultaneously shut down the commercial aspect of my studio at what is usually my busiest time of the year.
Because I was already in full production mode, transitioning to a different project was fairly seamless. I launched immediately into what I am now calling the COVID Vanitas series: still lifes of my experience of the quotidian in quarantine. The body of work which is now quite extensive is ostensibly a diary of this unprecedented time of looking inward and much contemplation born of mandatory isolation.
I chose to post these pictures online daily and they became my conversation with the outside world and also very quickly became my livelihood. A patron purchased a portfolio of the first 40 images in the series which enabled me to start producing the work as prints and thusly birth a very satisfying cottage art industry from my little corner of isolation.
I'm still working on the series and it is now the largest body of work I have produced. Previous to this strange time, no one would have described me as prolific but in the past seven months, I have produced what is for me an overwhelming amount of images and have received a very encouraging amount of attention for the work from a wonderfully all-encompassing stratum of people from old fans of my work to museum curators, to book publishers and art critics.
The work has been shown both virtually and actually across the country and this fact has kept me from feeling alone or isolated in the least. I actually feel more connected to the outside world than ever before. The work was included in a show in Chicago at the opening of the Filter Photo Festival curated by Strange Fire Collective and has just come down. I could not participate in the festival or attend the opening, but the work has taken on a life of its own while I continue to eke it out from my obscure, beautiful, rural corner of the world.
You usually travel abroad at this time of the year - presumably, that's not in the cards this year - how will you use the time instead?
Yes. I am rarely in Taos this time of year and I'm feeling very sentimental about my usual travels, but it has also been quite wonderful to be here for the glory of autumn in my hometown.
A part of the impetus to travel for me has always been the opportunity to hone my skills as a photographer outside of the controlled environment of my studio. My travel pictures are a practice necessary to keep me sharp in my seeing. But this year I have transferred that practice to learning definitively about color and digital medium, and am thusly satisfied that I'm moving forward in my skill set and not stagnating even though I'm standing still.
What's changed for you in your daily life?
Ironically, before the pandemic, I was living alone and suffering more than a bit from empty nest syndrome having launched my youngest child to college on the East Coast. I was battling with loneliness I had never felt before. When they came home quickly and unexpectedly in March, my loneliness problem was solved.
I am a family-oriented creature and living alone is not something I am yet comfortable with. As soon as Camille returned, I was again satisfied with my daily life. I have also had more time to work on my land, finessing the irrigation system, playing with the water, bringing the neglected corners back to life, growing too many tomatoes and raising chickens. Just two chickens but I've gotten really close with the silly things and they keep me company in the studio. I didn't see that coming.
You are the mother of two young adult daughters - how have you been staying connected with each other during this time?
Camille Cooper, my youngest, returned Home from Sarah Lawrence College in New York before spring break thinking that she would be able to return in three weeks. That three weeks has turned into seven months. Their girlfriend, Emma Gable, also a Sarah Lawrence student, joined us in May and has been here for the duration.
They have since moved from my small cottage (the historic Ledoux schoolhouse) to my mother's house where they have more space and more autonomy, which is a lovely opportunity for all involved. They are continuing their studies online and though I am jealous that I do not get to reap the daily benefits of their brightness and energy and excellent musical taste, I am pleased to share their exuberance with my mom ... and I still see them most days as they have only moved to Talpa and there is always reason for them to drop by.
My eldest daughter, Janifah Guevara, is living in Portland in the midst of all that strife and worrying me terribly daily. But she is 25 years old and has been intensely independent for ages and her choices are out of my hands. The wildfires and protests and general unrest in Portland scare me, but she assures me that she is fine and safe. I have to trust that that is the truth. There is talk that she will return to Taos for the duration of the pandemic probably in December and I am scurrying to find a comfortable spot for her to land.
You have a few irons in the proverbial fire, currently. Can you tell us a little about these disparate projects?
At the beginning of the lockdown, I unearthed a project that I began years ago in conjunction with Suki Dalury and Genevieve Oswald of Shree Yoga. It was a project that had been relegated to the back burner for some years but suddenly in the COVID times, it became pertinent to share this work with the Shree Yoga community and my larger community.
The project consists of an archive of photographs of yogis practicing their asanas and wise words and guidance which were penned by Suki. We made a decision to post an image and related musing every day for 108 days as a gift to those who had lost the daily consistency of their yoga practice as a result of the lockdown.
This daily posting enabled me to organize and edit the work without the vast amount of images becoming overwhelming. The end product of this sharing endeavor is a book of 50 of the photographs paired with 50 gems of guidance and affirmation. The book is a testament to Shree Yoga studio, which has not survived the pandemic and will be closing their doors in November.
The book is currently being printed and hopefully will be delivered in time for Shree's closing ceremony on Nov. 1. It was originally our intention that sales of the book would help keep Shree open but now, alas, it will be a beautiful souvenir of a special community and a special period of time. I am very happy about the culmination of this work that started long ago. The book is a jewel.
I continue my project in conjunction with the Taos News, making portraits of the working people of Taos, a tribute to the tradesmen and "essential workers" of our community. COVID has slowed the project down as I am loath to invite people into my studio but I have continued slowly with doors open and distance required to document the people who I feel are the backbone of Taos.
The COVID Vanitas still life series has taken on a life of its own. I continue to shoot and share and am working on a book of this series as well. As far as exhibiting the work, Ron Cooper has offered to show his collection of the images in his and Sandra Lerner's gorgeously renovated home and gallery when such things are allowed again.
I am holding off on scheduling other exhibitions until I have the timeline of the book production in hand but at that time it is my intention to travel with the work (ah, travel …). I have had very positive interest but it seems a waste to invest in shows that so few will attend right now. And I have time. Time is what I have.
What's next, once the world starts to open up?
It makes me nervous to plan for when the world opens up because we have no timeline and I don't want to set myself up for disappointment. I am looking forward to having people in the studio again but am unsure if I will continue with the projects I was doing on the cusp of the pandemic.
I feel my vision has shifted and I don't know if it would be appropriate to pick up that thread or just forge ahead with the new skill set I have acquired during lockdown. I am excited to be working with a first-rate designer and printer for the still life book and that's a slow process that I will be putting a lot of energy toward.
I will have to do a bit of CPR on my commercial studio business and wrangle my clients back into the fold. The commercial work supports my personal work and several more years of college tuition for Camille. It will be a relief to have that consistent income again and not have to put all of the pressure on my personal creative endeavors.
The itch to travel is always there and I long to get my eyes on unfamiliar vistas but I will not be foolhardy with my desires. I have to keep myself and my family safe.