Bil Zelman

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Bil Zelman
Portrait of photographer Bil Zelman.jpg
Portrait of photographer Bil Zelman
Born (1972-08-24)August 24, 1972
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Nationality American
Occupation Photographer, Director

Bil Zelman (born August 24, 1972) is an American photographer and director known for his powerful, candid portraiture and spontaneous, photojournalistic style.[1] Zelman developed a highly stylized form of hard-flash street photography while in art school [2] and Los Angeles Times art critic Leah Ollman compares the "psychological density"[3] of his work to the likes of Garry Winogrand, Larry Fink, Diane Arbus and William Klein- photographers that are "purposely getting it wrong in one way so as to get it right in another, disrupting visual order to ignite a kind of visceral disorder".[4] As described by David Hobby in an interview for Strobist, "His airy, moment-oriented photos are loose, honest and have an unscripted, natural feel to them… [His] work has evolved (or maybe regressed?) into a look that is almost childlike".[5]

Zelman spent his early life in Troy, New York in a "home [that] was far from functional". He began shooting and developing film at an early age and at nine-years-old he built his own darkroom with a friend– a place that would become his sanctuary.[6]

Zelman dropped out of school in the ninth grade and left home, roaming cross-country for several years and delving into heroin and other hard drugs while living on and off of the streets and shooting bands for places to stay.[6] At age 19, while still attending the University at Buffalo, he managed to get his first celebrity photography assignments with artists such as David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor. Zelman stated in a lecture at Ohio State University for the Columbus Society of Communicating Arts in 2010 that he was "terrified and made mistakes and images would sometimes turn out blurry or orange, but the magazines seemed to love the naiveté of the work and kept giving [him] more assignments".[7]

Zelman moved to Southern California in 1998 and is sought after by celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Kristen Wiig, John Legend, Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, Ozzy Osbourne, and brands such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Guinness, Apple Inc., Microsoft, Jim Beam, Miller Brewing Co., The Frye Company, and a long list of record labels. He has been named one of the 200 Best Advertising Photographers Worldwide by Lüerzer's Archive [1] multiple times.

In regards to his ability to capture such genuine moments under stressful conditions and time constraints Zelman states, "Shooting good portraits is equal parts psychology, trust and technical expertise-- with the technical part probably being the least important".[5]

Zelman published Isolated Gesture in 2013, a collection of highly stylized black and white street photography.[8] The book was chosen for an Art Directors Club award by Albert Watson,[9] and has hung or been added to the permanent collections of museums including The Museum of Contemporary Art, Fort Collins [2], The Museum of Photographic Arts [3], The Lucie Foundation [4], The Center for Fine Art Photography [5], The Oregon Center for Photographic Arts [6], the Center for Exploratory and Perceptual Arts [7] and others.

Artweek portrays Isolated Gesture as "a cross between S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders and Dutch genre painting".[10] Referencing Zelman's distinctive style, Los Angeles Times art critic Leah Ollman proclaims that Zelman's guiding principle is having an intense proximity to his subject, "He doesn't shoot in a war zone but in the realm of ordinary life--on the street, at parties, in restaurants and stores. Working aggressively close to his subjects, and rapidly, intensifies whatever is in front of the camera".[3] Ollman also points out that Zelman "revels in the burlesque opportunities of such split-second glimpses, the particular oddities that give way to general truths".[4]

Zelman regularly engages in pro bono work for selected charities around the world and describes using the camera as a tool for social change during an interview with Rob Haggard from A Photo Editor. "The positives to taking on these types of projects are endless. To improve the lives of others, to better your community, to art direct your own piece and have total creative freedom, to travel, to see and experience things you may have never thought possible- to be reminded that not everyone is middle class".[2]

Selected Exhibitions and Permanent Collections[edit]

  • 2016 "American Sand", Lucie Foundation, Month of Photography
  • 2015 Isolated Gesture, Sparks Gallery, San Diego, CA
  • 2010 Lucie Foundation, "Dusk," Los Angeles, California
  • 2010 Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, California
  • 2008 Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon
  • 2007 Isolated Gesture at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, Oregon
  • 2007 FCMOA "Interactions" Exhibit, Ft. Collins, Colorado
  • 2007 Newspace Center for Photography, Portland, Oregon
  • 2006 Isolated Gesture at Voice 1156 Gallery, San Diego, California
  • 2005 Center for Photographic Arts, Carmel, California
  • 2005 Museum of Photographic Arts, San Diego, California
  • 2002 Isolated Gesture, University of California, San Diego, California
  • 2001 "Street Work," Nicole Dintamin Gallery, Los Angeles, California


  1. ^ Hughes, Holly Stuart. Photo District News. "A Hands-Off Approach to Real-People Shoots" 17 August 2009
  2. ^ a b Haggart, Rob. "Bil Zelman Shoots Pro Bono, But Not For Free" A Photo Editor. 8 December 2008 (/) 8 December 2008.
  3. ^ a b Ollman, Leah. In `No Single Truth,' Humanity's Potential for Good and Bad Los Angeles Times. 16 November 2001.
  4. ^ a b Ollman, Leah. Saatchi Online
  5. ^ a b Hobby, David. "Hanging Loose with Bil Zelman" Strobist. 10 February 2009.
  6. ^ a b Ahrens, Chris. "Bil Zelman Has Never Been to a Pep Rally" Risen magazine. Jan/Feb 2007.
  7. ^ Zelman, Bil. Guest Lecture. "Bil Zelman: Celebrating the Mistakes and Those In-Between Moments" Columbus Society of Communicating Arts CSCA Meeting. Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. 22 July 2010.
  8. ^ Process magazine, 23 September 2009. Pg 48
  9. ^ Watson, Albert. "Art Directors Club"
  10. ^ Duford, Daniel. "Bil Zelman and Kirk Thompson at Oregon Center for Photography" Artweek. Feb 2008

External links[edit]