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Harry De Zitter

“I think the pictures should do the talking”


Harry De Zitter: Photographer Sans Frontières

An exhibition at The Baker Museum

April 16 –
July 31, 2016

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For decades, photographer Harry De Zitter has been one of the go-to shooters for commercial work.  His images have sold booze (Carlsberg, Budweiser, Molson, Chivas), apparel (Nike, Wrangler, Timberland, Rolex) and cars (BMW, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz). He’s convinced you to fly in a Boeing plane, ride a Harley Davidson and play a Taylor guitar.

These jobs have taken him around the world several times over, from his native Belgium to his formative years in South Africa and to Naples where he lives currently. A new career retrospective Harry De Zitter: Photographer Sans Frontiéres at The Baker Museum explores his work both commercial and personal. It runs through July 31.

Silvia Perea, Curatorial Associate at The Baker Museum, sat down with De Zitter to discuss his career, his inspirations and the changing landscape of photography in a digital age.

So tell us a little bit about how you became a photographer.

Harry De Zitter: I went to art school in Port Elizabeth, in South Africa, and one of my subjects was studying photography. And it sounds very cliché and maybe even corny but when I developed that first black and white print in the darkroom it was magic. I just got smitten, and I took off from there. I just stayed focus and left art school onto Cape Town and started by doing magazine work and slowly got into advertising.

Were there any photographers at the time that were a reference for you?

De Zitter: Yeah, what comes to mind is, primarily, Irving Penn. He bridged the gap between advertising/commercial and fine art, and I just liked the way he did that. Even when he shot something for an ad it could hang in a museum. I really liked his work.

How did you become a commercial photographer?

De Zitter: It started when I moved to Cape Town, primarily, with magazine, editorial work; I think most people start there. Then slowly, slowly doing advertising, you get the exposure in the magazines, and then you move into advertising if that’s the way you want to go.

How were you introduced to the international sphere of commercial photography?

De Zitter: That started in New York. When I was working in Johannesburg, I met an American gentleman, an art director, called George Radwyn, and he said to me  “You should move to New York; I think you’d do well there.” And it was always in the back of my head, always, and, yeah, I decided to move to New York to basically where the book was written on advertising, on Madison Avenue. And in 1983, I set up a studio in New York. It was amazing. And then I wanted to get some exposure in Europe, and I got a studio in London, and I worked both sides of the Atlantic because the work was very different.

How do you define your approach to photography?

De Zitter: I think the pictures should do the talking. Obviously there are stories to some pictures, but the picture itself should talk.

You have worked in both commercial photography and fine art photography. How are these two practices different for you?

De Zitter: Basically you are making an image for both. Commercial photography, by nature of being commercial, has a brief. You are not constrained, but you have to honor the brief and at the same time get as much freedom as possible. Personal work, fine art, is me. You are on your own. And, of course, you are your own worst critic. So that’s basically it.

How many photos do you have to take to take one, a good shot? What’s your process?

De Zitter: You get it when you get it. You know when you got it. You may do six, ten frames, but maybe in those frames there may be a good one, like a bird flying framed at the right place. For example, the last shot in the show, Ann Marie Wolpe’s Hands; we set it up very quickly; we were having a coffee. And the light was perfect. It was outside; it was overcast, and I got it in two frames, and the sun came out. So I stopped. And the second frame was the best one because in the first one the fingers were too close to the edge. Yeah, I got two frames. And there are times when you have to get it and only have one frame; if you are lucky, two or three. It depends on what you are shooting.

So it’s chance and necessity at the same time.

De Zitter: Correct. Every approach is different; the disciplines are different. You just have to get that shot.

How was the shift from the old days of photography to this new digital era?

De Zitter: To be very honest, I fought it at the beginning, primarily because I wasn’t getting the file sizes I needed that I could get on film. Now it’s all caught up rather quickly, and I have put film behind me, and I am really loving digital. It’s opened a whole new approach and avenue. It’s so deep, and there’s so much to learn. As I say, Ancora imparo, I’m still learning, and I really mean that.

When did the switch happen?

De Zitter: I’d say about seven, eight years ago. And it’s very exciting! It really, really is. I say to people, ”I barely have begun!” Because there’s so much you can do; so much still to learn.

How can a photographer leave an imprint in such an image- saturated world as the one in which we live today?

De Zitter: It will be through social media, but everybody’s approach is different.

What would you say to a young photographer? What type of recommendations would you tell him?

De Zitter: I jokingly say: “Don’t talk a good picture, take it!” But besides that, “Believe in yourself, believe in what you do,” If it’s your calling and you really believe you want to be a photographer, let’s stick to it. The world is flooded with photographs now;, everybody is a photographer. So to be separated from that, everybody has an individual approach that will make the difference.

You’re on Instagram. How does that influence your work?

De Zitter: I put my toe in the water, and I felt that Instagram was the media that I wanted to be with or in, and I just show images there. It’s not what I have eaten or this bottle of wine I just drunk. I don’t partake in that. It’s just my images with a little story.

How do you see photography in the future?  

De Zitter: Some people say it’s going to reach a saturation point. I really don’t know. I am curious though how all ends up.

May 3, 2016

Harry De Zitter

An exhibition at The Baker Museum

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