I Shot the Maestro
Photo of Herbert von Karajan by Tom Zimberoff
An S.F. photographer decided he’d never seen a good photo of an orchestra conductor. So he spent six years taking them his way.
By Joe Eskenazi
Tom Zimberoff likes to quip that being a portrait photographer is a little like hunting big game: You stalk your prey, take your best shot and, when it’s all said and done, you hang their heads on the wall.
The problem for Zimberoff, though, was he wasn’t very fond of some of the heads staring back at him.
“I realized that every picture I’d ever seen of a conductor had him waving a blurred baton in a dark concert hall with a grimace of rapture on his face or sitting in a bow tie and tails and looking like he just sat on his baton. They’re just really horrible photographs,” said Zimberoff, 55, who lives in the “rust zone” of the Outer Sunset.
“Nobody had ever really turned a camera on these people as human beings. So I spent almost six years doing that.”
He notes with a chuckle that he never really finished. But he did manage to get 53 world-famous conductors to pose for him, and you can see his “work in progress” (for free, no less) at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum.
If you’re ever at Van Ness and McAllister with a few moments to spare, Zimberoff’s exhibition (titled “Maestro!”) is a perfect lunchtime diversion — and though the museum will be closed for remodeling starting in October, Zimberoff's exhibit will still be up.
You probably won’t bump into too many tourists. You probably won’t bump into anyone – though a number of older Asian women have taken to practicing Tai-Chi in the hallway that houses the exhibit (They were certainly there the day Zimberoff took Sir Simon Rattle up to see his portrait).
Zimberoff has definitely captured the humanity he found so sorely lacking in the standard conductor shots. Whether it’s Vladimir Ashkenazy’s big watery eyes, Leonard Slatkin choosing to be photographed with a large, stuffed penguin, Sir Neville Marriner glaring at the camera while wearing a shirt that looks like he borrowed it from Jack Hanna or Gennadi Rozhdestvensky re-creating the “Home Alone” pose, there’s wit, vibrancy and life in these evocative portraits.
“The [conductors] themselves understood what I was trying to do. But their handlers certainly did not. I went through hell and high water getting through these people,” recalled Zimberoff.
“When I told them I wanted to get a photo they’d say ‘Oh great. There’s a rehearsal at 3 o’clock, the newspaper people will be here and we’ll stick you in the balcony.’ No, you don’t understand. I want five or eight hours with them – alone.”
Actually, some of Zimberoff’s photo shoots took even longer than that. He likes to talk to his subjects, often at length, before even taking his camera out of the bag. He wants to know their quirks, their mannerisms, their personalities. Then he shoots them.
“When people ask me how long it takes to make a portrait I have a stock answer,” he said with a laugh.
“One 125th of a second.”