Zachary Balber – his mum was beloved

Intimate Stranger: His Uncensored Photo Series of Secret Performance Stills

Exhibition: Zachary Balber: Intimate Stranger (the Uncensored Series), on view until February 3. Curated by Jose Antonio Navarette. On view during Miami Art Week and Art Basel Miami

Zachery is articulate, polite and insightful. He knows his craft and is not afraid to shake it up – quite a lot, if posing naked in multi million dollar houses on the sinking landmass that is Miami counts as outrage. Other artists have done the naked protest, typically women such as Pussy Riot, and often the public display of nudity has ended up in arrest, but not on this occasion. Better to challenge Miami high end realtors than Putin, perhaps.

It happened over a nine-year period and I have no idea how he managed to keep it secret. Some genius in the realtor game came up with the idea – why not hire a leading fine art photographer to shoot some of the most expensive homes on the Miami coastline. They chose Zachary Balber whose fine art photography is legendary. He has been tasked with capturing some of the biggest names in art and his secret is to capture the art as it is – not how a photographer might interrupt it. Over the years, his talent in the post production has also been exemplary to the point he often doesn’t light his subjects – person, art or home – as he can work magic after the fact. The news of Balber shooting high-end homes spread like whispers at a seance and all of the other luxury realtors could not get enough of him

Back to the real estate. These houses are owned by big names and cost millions, despite the fact that Miami is scheduled to be 60% underwater by the year 2060, even ahead of known sinkers such as Vienna and Rotterdam. While Balber was engaged to shoot these fragile buildings, the real estate personnel were often taking selfies of themselves in the homes to feed their own property porn Instagram profiles.

Over this period, he was going through a number of tragic personal issues, losing his father, mother and sister in quick succession, and the ridiculousness of these houses and his role in shooting them felt disconnected and out of touch.

That’s when he started posing naked in these rooms. He didn’t dream he dwelt in marble halls; he saw his naked presence there. Hiding, sometimes on furniture, sometimes concealed by it, tea-bagging kitchen tables and sofas, and shimmying into closets large enough to host designer outlets. And nobody knew. No one.

Balber believes most of art is politics but not necessarily in a good way. He likes to question stuff in his art, this in a good way. Identity politics is challenging the world according to him and we are all fighting for what it means to own an identity. Money politics, hacking, crypto is all around and he is seen as the photography hacker – even before he came out of the realtor closet.

“I was documenting two heads of state at Web Summit a few years ago but the photographs weren’t good enough so I staged another shot of two men shaking hands and used that instead. Photoshop can do that and it made the front page of some papers. That’s why I am sometimes called the photography hacker.

“Susan Sontag says that to be photographed is to matter and we don’t photograph things that don’t matter.”

According to Balber, the world has taught us to commodify our everyday existence like the commercials and we’ve all bought into this concept.

“Now, if it’s not photographed it doesn’t exist – but only significant shots remain.”

Balber flip flops between artist photographer and photographer for hire. He sees his camera (and his almost Irish-white looks) as a password to other worlds.

“I see photography as a password, a secret password, like a hacker. And who would suspect me when dressed, a sweet ginger (that irish look) with a buttoned-up shirt, and that I might get naked on your bed when no one is looking?”

This nudity is not frivolous.

“The impetus was from the pain of losing my entire family.”

His parents were both hippies from Woodstock. One treated the resultant Hep C, the other didn’t. Either way it didn’t work out. Then his sister died from an overdose when he was just 23.

“That kind of grief is considerable. It doesn’t just bring clarity it brings urgency. It made me want to question the locus of home – is it located in someone, someplace, somewhere?”

Balber’s secret password has opened doors to new people, including an actual Irishwoman, the famous cyber psychologist, Dr Mary Aiken. They met at MoneyConf 2020 and had drinks, quite a few. At one stage she asked him (apropos of the photographs) – ‘Are you mad at your mother?’

Dr Aiken also pointed out that her profession includes doing assessments and profiles for the US government. Identity came up and she did not think the naked images would help any assessment in his case.

And she also asked: ‘why would you jeopardize your income to make a statement for society that you’re poking fun at’

And Balber replied that it was very much because he is an art photographer. In Miami he sees a shift to where successful artists are making ‘things’ for rich people and that does not sit well with him. He quotes the American artist Theaster Gates whom he heard in a lecture. Gates said he hoped his life was not to make objects for rich people to buy.

“And I never forgot that.”

It is also important to note that despite the nude images being most striking, there are a total of 150 images of which many include Balber in clothing. It is not just the nudity – although that is of course most stark – but he was trying out as a heterosexual man looking to explore his femininity, his inner child or even the juxtaposition of class and photography as a password rather than a printed image.

Back to photography – Balber now questions how he can make a photograph in 2023 matter – given the ubiquitous amount of photography in the world. The rich would have used painting as propaganda, now he sees photography as the homeland for the middle class.

“It’s the same as the internet – information is now easily in the hands of the proletariat. Photography is the champion medium of the proletariat donating equality to all.”

Balber considered the possible impact of his shooting these multimillion-dollar homes. Would people view his Instagram and congratulate him for making it by sheer dint of being there? As a child his father had taken him for drives around the posher areas of Miami and he wondered, if like Cinderella, he might gain access.

Funnily enough, some of what he does is born from his Jewish heritage (the real cause of his whiteness) where he was taught to acknowledge a higher power in his work. Going from the celebrity homes to visit his mum, who was beloved, in hospital was jarring to him.

“A booming real estate market, the city sinking, house prices going through the roof, artists having to flee the city because of said house prices and my mum dying all got muddled up together. The resulting photographs are like postcards of places ordinary folk will never see, but now no one can see those places without my naked body.

“It’s a montage of destinations, vacations, identity, home, aloneness and my personal propaganda.

“I thought, I need to make a body of work that no one’s going to forget that I’m not going to forget. And I think borrowing the aesthetics of wealthy people, of places that will soon be underwater, that in some ways my images will be more permanent than that reality.”

What next for Balber and his guerilla photography? He half fantasied about doing a California series but the cat is well and truly out of the bag.

“I like the notion this collection might live on in the minds of people. That if asking some guy to photograph their home, they might just think – could he do a naked shoot? No way, really?

“Or maybe they might question the actual photographs – are they real or just photoshopped. After all, I do have a reputation as the photography hacker.”

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Journalist, Broadcaster, Writer, Speaker, Law Changer, Dreamer

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