Syd's Photography 9:29am, 3 June 2006
The Paul Zollo Interview

I had been a member here at flickr for little over a week when I was made happy to discover that one of my pictures had been added as a favourite by one P.S. Zollo. I also received notification that the same P.S. Zollo had added me as a friend and I was intrigued...., I had only just joined and didn't quite know how things ran in flickrland, and wondered who was this Mr. Zollo. I clicked on his buddy icon which took me to his wonderful world.

I saw his photographs first and the one that jumped out at me most was his shot "Doc in May". I clicked on the picture and read the commentary. I was hooked from that moment on, and so armed with a cup of coffee and a pack of cigarettes I sat up and went through Paul Zollo's photographs reading each commentary, savouring every word like a hungry man who's found a three course meal cooked to perfection.

What unfolded to me was a vision of this remarkable dude amongst dudes (camera in hand), running here and there with his son Joshua (ice cream in hand) capturing glimpses of those around him. The relationships he forms and the trust shown by his willing participants is a testament to his nature. Many of us here at flickr have become familiar with his photographs and commentaries of the people living in Los Angeles and particularly those who dwell in and walk the streets of Hollywood, L.A.

P.S. Zollo has over four and a half thousand friends/contacts in flickrland, and a casual stroll through his world of images and commentaries will leave you in no doubt as to why he and his photographs are loved so much. His photographs of stars, starlets, the ordinary, the extra-ordinary, musicians and artists, and those that simply shine regardless of any conceived status or non-status tell of the human beauty that is all around us. He has this remarkable gift of bringing a smile to all those he meets, and what is more, he captures those smiling faces and delivers them to our door.

Paul is also an accomplished writer and singer of songs, author and interviewer extraordinaire. He kindly agreed to be interviewed for flickr.

What follows is the conversation between me (Steve - AKA “Syd”) and Paul via e-mail exchanges that took place over the last few days . . .

You have a varied and interesting career Paul. What were you early influences?

Musically, my first influences were Paul Simon and the Beatles. Dylan came a little later, as I didn’t really understand him or appreciate him as a kid, certainly not to the level I did when I got older. I was entranced with the Beatles – their words, music, image, philosophy, humor and spirit. I didn’t understand many of the later lyrics, but would imitate their abstract imagery in my first songs, which I started writing at ten. And I absolutely loved Paul Simon, and identified with him. My first song was not a real song but a set of lyrics to his song “Sound of Silence.” Mine was “The Look of Absence.” Masking my influences at that age was evidently not a concern. I loved Simon’s music – romantic, beautiful, rhythmic and great. And his words were everything I aspired to – both poetic and conversational. A great mix of what he told me many years later was his “enriched” and “ordinary” use of language. As I got older, two Chicago songwriters meant a lot to me – I was in Chicago, as were they – the late great Steve Goodman (who wrote “City of New Orleans” and other classic songs) and John Prine. I also loved Michael Smith – not well-known, but one of America’s great songwriters – he wrote many songs such as “The Dutchman” and “Spoon River” which Goodman and others cut. Smith’s mixture of achingly beautiful melodies with specific, detailed, sometimes historic lyrics, was something to which I aspired. Then I discovered Waits and Randy Newman – both huge influences. I loved Joni Mitchell very much and also James Taylor. In college I delved into the heart of Dylan – and have never stopped. In the long run, he’s probably had the biggest influence on me. I also love Leonard Cohen, Laura Nyro, and others. Folk songwriters like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie played a big part in my life – as did classic American songwriters like Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwins and others. Later I fell in love with Elvis Costello and The Clash.

Photographically, my main influence is Diane Arbus. Her work means a lot to me – that which I can see, anyway – there is so much that has never been published. And I agree with her on so much of her philosophy of making photographic portraits. Though her aim and mine is also radically different in many respects. I also like the work of Weegee much, and my friend Henry Diltz.

Tell us about the legendary Henry Diltz. Has he been a major influence or more of a friend?

Henry’s both a good, old friend, and my photographic mentor. I first met him back in the 80s when I was editor of SongTalk, a songwriters’ journal. I did interviews with scores of songwriters – really famous ones, some not so famous – and Henry would accompany me on these interviews to take photos. This was great for me, because not only did I get great photos for my stories, I got a better interview since almost everyone is a friend of Henry’s, and would be so happy to see him. Leonard Cohen, Lindsey Buckingham, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Tom Petty and many more all lit up when Henry entered. And I always had fun having Henry there, and then going over the interview with him after. He also made the many music events I went to in L.A. more fun, as he was at every one, pretty much. He’s a tremendously affable guy – very warm and funny and sweet and smart – and artistic - he’s a fine musician as well as a great photographer – and he’s interested. He’s come to many of my gigs, which made them more special.

I’ve also learned a whole lot about photography from him, as he is one of the greatest portraitists alive. I’ve learned from studying his happy, relaxed, vibrant photos, and his many iconic photos, as well as seeing him in action, and then poring over the results on contact sheets and prints. The most important thing I’ve learned is how to take photos without being intrusive, without being pushy – but quite the opposite, making the subject feel happy, funny, relaxed, natural, cared for. I used to team up with a photographer prior to Henry time that would do just the opposite. He would aggressively pose people, he would put lights and makeup on them, and he tried to contort them into his concept of what the photo should be. And people looked formal, stiff, unnatural. Henry’s style is the antithesis of that. He talks to people while taking their picture. Henry doesn’t impose his vision onto a photo as much as he creates an amiable, loving ambience, and then captures the natural sweetness and happiness of that moment. And I have tried to do the same thing. I have also emulated his great focus on the face, and on natural expression.

You've interviewed a lot of interesting people from Dylan to Donovan, what was your most memorable?

Every one of them has been extremely memorable, truly. I have done hundreds of interviews with great songwriters – and okay, not all of them were great interviews, or great people – but the ones I collected into Songwriters On Songwriting, The Expanded Edition are truly all songwriters whose work I love, and who were tremendous people to meet and get to know.

It meant the world to me to meet and interview Paul Simon. I had long idolized him, and knew his work and everything about him very intensely. And we connected strongly, and spoke through many interviews on both American coasts. I will never forget that.

And sitting and talking to Bob Dylan is an unparalleled experience in my life. It really was not unlike sitting face to face with Shakespeare. Here is one of the great poets of his age (though he said he wasn’t a poet – “poets drown in lakes,” he said) whose work had shaped our culture. And he was as brilliant and funny and expansive and poetic and enigmatic as his songs. About one of his expansive songs he said, “It’s too much and not enough.” That has been one of my mottos in life – too much and not enough – and applies to this answer.

Leonard Cohen. So brilliant and wise. “If I knew where the good songs came from,” he said, “I’d go there more often. It’s like the life of a nun. You’re married to a mystery.”

Randy Newman. A unique, sardonic, amazing man. One of the warmest guys I’ve met, too. And probably the funniest songwriter I know. His contribution to songwriting is profound.

Laura Nyro. She resisted for years doing an interview with me – and then when it was time, she said, “What if I have nothing to say?” I laughed. It wasn’t a problem. We talked for hours over two days. It was a tremendous interview – she was so full of love and passion and wisdom. And she loved it, too. Told me how much it meant to her, and used it in her songbook and on a CD boxed set.

Zappa. My first big interview, and the first time I’ve met a true genius.

Pete Seeger. A living legend. An honor to share any time with him. “All songwriters are links in a chain,” he said, and that is the foundation of all of this. As Dylan said, Pete is a living saint.

Willie Dixon. Another legend. “All blues are happy blues,” he told me. So many classics. “Seventh Son” alone is a reason to retire, but he never did.

Townes Van Zandt, Tom Lehrer, Van Dyke Parks, P.F. Sloan. All secret heroes in a sense – all brilliant, mysterious wonderful men. I am lucky to have my life intersect with theirs.

Rickie Lee Jones. So spiritual and amazing.

Tom Petty. An astounding and prolific songwriter, and such a sweet and humble and serious man.

Jimmy Webb, Burt Bacharach, Sammy Cahn, Dave Brubeck. All American treasures.

Harry Nilsson. A beautiful soul, and a man who understood better than anyone how to celebrate life every day.

Yoko Ono. A very special artist, and the most misunderstood songwriter I’ve interviewed

Madonna. So famous, and yet so real. After that talk, I walked out on Hollywood Boulevard and saw the countless posters and signs with her image on them, and reflected on how surreal the world had become. People are in one place and in one time, and yet their music and words – and image – can be everywhere at once. It’s a hard concept to hold.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. It’s too much and not enough

Can you tell us about your moving song "Being in this World",

Yeah, I’d be happy to. It was inspired by the books of John Fante, the great Angeleno novelist. I think the specific book that inspired it was Wait Until Spring, Bandini. But I loved all of them, and they spoke to me. I was house-sitting for a good friend over the Christmas holidays in her beautiful mansion right near the beach in Santa Monica canyon. It was an amazing old house – built by Mae West for her sister. It was inspiring to be there, and near the beach. And it was her – Jean Stawarz, who is a screenwriter (she wrote Pow Wow Highway with the late Janet Heaney) – who turned me onto Fante. The phrase “being in this world” was from the book, and I connected with it, as it analyzed what being in this world means, and works on two levels – ‘being’ being both a verb and a noun. One is a being in this world, while one is also being in this world, and the song uses both meanings. It exemplifies that understanding that underscores all of my photos and my songs, that human beings are not finished, we are a process – a human being is literally that – a human being human. A person is a journey, an expedition, never static, always moving, changing, living. And the song looks at what this ‘being’ is – the main character is a kid in 1933 who is dreaming of being a major league baseball player. His parents are always fighting; his father is drunk and violent when home or he’s gone at work, and this boy’s being in this world consists of escaping surface reality into fantasies about the future. His father escapes reality by drinking, and his mother turns to religion – to patron saints, her rosary, and the rituals of her religion that comfort her. And there’s a verse about his grandfather, who has no money, and makes a living by sharpening knives from town to town. And he is a happy man – happy with hardly anything – like Buddha, content and in bliss with no belongings.

When I recorded it for my album Orange Avenue, I wanted to be careful not to overproduce it and overwhelm it, as musically it’s a simple and folky song. So I recorded it with no drums, just two acoustic guitars, fluid bass, accordion and cello. And I invited Art Garfunkel, who has always been one of my favorite singers in the world, and certainly one of this planet’s greatest masters of vocal harmony, to sing on it. He honored me by spending hours in the studio working out harmony parts, and he even sings the bridge alone, adding harmony to his own voice on it. Having Artie’s tremendous and famous voice on this song means the world to me, and has made my own journey of being in this world more joyful.

When did you start taking photographs?

I have been snapping photos on and off my whole life. But not to any great extent. I was always drawn more to instant arts – arts that would respond immediately, like music and drawing and making photo collage. Photography always frustrated me because of the delay between taking a photo and seeing the result. And that result would be distant from the moment of creation, and wasn’t often what you wanted. It was out of control. And it cost money to buy film and get film developed. I took Polaroids, too – but the quality and focus wasn’t what I wanted. I went to Europe, and took hundreds of photos with a good camera that I liked – but I wanted to crop them even then – and didn’t have a dark room or any notion how to use one – so I literally cut them up – and pasted them into a book like a collage. Many good photos – and I can see now that I wanted the control to crop them, and to darkroom them.

So years later, when digital photography became real, I had everything I always dreamed of. You could take a quality photo – and see it right away – and have that immediacy, and closeness to the work. And you could darkroom the photos yourself, which is vitally important to me – the crop and the colors and the contrast – and also a total joy. I had a point-and-shoot that I did a lot of good work with. But there was a lack of quality and focus – and also a slight trigger delay when you would take the photo. I graduated to a Canon SLR and have been in photo heaven ever since.

Could you run through a typical day for you - out taking pictures. Is it a matter of always having your camera handy for when the moments arise or do you go out looking for subjects?

Both. There are many times I go out on long walks with camera in hand, both to get a good long walk in, but also looking for photos to take, for people to meet, for new faces. I often drive to parts of town to take photos – central Hollywood is my favorite place. But I also take my camera along everywhere I go – out for ice cream with my son, as you mentioned, or to other parts of town for meetings or work. Wherever I go, I take advantage of being in a different place, and exploring it visually, from downtown LA to Venice Beach.

What brought you to flickr and how do you see it evolving?

I was brought to Flickr by a friend of mine – she’s an old friend of Henry’s, too, but everybody is. I had been emailing her photos every day, and I know she was getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of them. Her friend, Nurit Wilde, who is on Flickr and is a fine photographer, told her to tell me about it. And I loved it immediately, because one can display one’s photos in a clean and dignified way, and share them with an international audience. And an audience of people who care, fellow photographers and artists. It’s fantastic to connect with people around the globe –friends in India, China, England, Italy, Brazil, Chicago and countless other places. And these aren’t just shallow connections – this is an artistic union. And the way Flickr is organized, I think, is brilliant – in that you can have sets, you have friends and contacts, you have groups and conversations. I love it. Like the Internet itself, I find it to be miraculous. Some see the Internet as cold and crass, and too fast in a world where everything is crass and too fast. But this is not crass at all – it’s the opposite. It brings people together in a productive and creative world community. And I like speed. There are only so many hours in the day, and there’s a lot to do.

Do you have any plans to publish your photographs and commentaries as we've come to know them here?

Yes, though I don’t have a publisher yet. The book is just a vision at this point, but I’ve been able to turn my other visions for books into real books, so I know this one will happen. It’s presently called Caras de Los Angeles: Faces of the Angels, and will contain many of these portraits of Angelenos, the famous and the unknown, the rich and the homeless, young and old, energized and weary, all connected by this vast city that contains Hollywood and the beach and downtown and the valley, a city that once belonged to Mexico, and was named for the Queen of the Angels.

You wrote your book Hollywood Remembered (Cooper Square Press) in 1999, could you describe for us what fascinates you about this legendary place. Is it the wonderland we all imagine?

Hollywood is not the wonderland people imagine, though it warms my heart that people do still have imaginings about it. It is precisely this contrast between the Imagined Hollywood and the Real Hollywood that fascinates me, and which is the heart of Hollywood Remembered. Hollywood is a real place – a geographical location – and it is also the name for a vast entertainment industry that extends far beyond the borders of the real town. It’s the only town I know of which is both a metaphor and an actuality. My book is about the place itself.

It is very beautiful in some places, and always full of energy, a manic edge, but also tranquillity and dreams and magic. To me it’s a pretty benign place – it doesn’t seem to have the sense of danger that other big cities have. Maybe downtown L.A., but not Hollywood. But it
is also quite dark, and not glamorous at all in places. In early decades of the 20th century, it was a place of glamour and magic and stardom and wonder. But Hollywood was allowed to fall, and I never understood why. It has since risen and been reborn in many respects since I arrived in 1981. I lived in the heart of Hollywood for twenty years – now I live in North Hollywood, which is on the other side of the big mountain that has the Hollywood sign on it. But I would find ruins of old mansions – literally – and spectral and beautiful old office buildings and theatres and restaurants – and wonder and obsess as to why Hollywood was allowed to fall. That’s why I wrote the book. It’s primarily a series of interviews with old-timers about what Hollywood was – and why it changed. The reasons for that change are many, and are all in the book. I wanted to preserve those memories before they fell away, and before all these rememberers were gone. And I feel I did what I wanted to. I also wrote what started to be a brief history of Hollywood – the town, not the entertainment industry – which became a very expansive history. There is also a final chapter of the book which is a veritable tour of all important places in Hollywood – those still standing, and so many – such as Ozcot, home of L Frank Baum, creator of “Oz” - that fell to the wrecking ball. Hollywood Remembered was very much a labor of love. I’m hoping there will be a soft-cover edition sometime soon.

Can you enlighten us more about Doc. He's become quite a celebrity here in flickrland. How is he doing?

Doc seems to be doing well, from what I can tell. To be honest, he is an enigma to me. He’s like Bob Dylan – you ask him a question, and his answers are like cubism. They exist on many levels at once. Sometimes it seems like he hasn’t even answered your question at all, until later when you reflect on it, or write it down, and you see the answer is in there, embedded in poetry. Though he’s not a poet. He’s a man on the street. But he’s a mystery to me. He is a very sweet, amiable guy. He’s always been very kind to me – allowing me to photograph him abundantly – and talking at length, and expressing love. He never seems hungry or yearning – he never asks for money or food – he always seems to have a haircut and a place to sleep. But there’s much about him I don’t understand and probably never will, chiefly why he lives where he does. He is centered around a somewhat dismal intersection of North Hollywood. If one lives on the streets of LA, and can live anywhere, why not at the beach? Where it is beautiful? Or in downtown Hollywood, where there is energy and more people? There’s probably a reason, but I don’t know what it is. I love the guy, though. And he is a tremendous visual feast – as he has such an expressive beautiful face and hands – and is covered all over with tattoos.

Do you have anyone in mind that you would yet like to photograph?

Oh yes, of course. There are so many. In some of my books, like Songwriters On Songwriting, and Hollywood Remembered, it’s been important for me to include famous people – stars, if you will – with people who are great but are not famous. And that is what I want to do. In Caras I want to include the faces of famous people, like Al Pacino, who I have photographed, but also the photos of great people who are not famous. To put them all together. SO there are a lot of people I have yet to meet that will be great for the book, and those chapters will unfold in time. There are so famous – and near-famous people I am arranging to photograph in the near future, like Jerry Maren, who is in my Hollywood book, and is a little person who is one of last living Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz. He’s been sick, and I’ve yet to get to him, but I hope I will. And I’ll bring my son, Joshua, who is dying to meet him. I want to photograph Karl Malden, Evelyn Keyes, Jonathan Winters. A.C. Lyles. Jackson Browne. Gregory Peck. Van Dyke Parks, Jack Nicholson and many others. I would love to photograph Mark Twain, Scott Fitzgerald, Woody Guthrie, Buster Keaton, Harpo and Groucho Marx, Marilyn Monroe, Bogart, Hitchcock. But I don’t think I’ll be able to. I did meet Hitchcock once, but that’s another story. I’d really like to photograph the young Chaplin – in and out of his Little Tramp makeup. His image fascinates me probably more than anyone’s – except Marilyn – and the two of them are the most beautiful and iconic images of Hollywood I know. But I know that won’t happen. At least I can linger in Chaplin’s old studio, which still stands at La Brea and Sunset in the heart of Hollywood. But I’ve gone out on a tangent here and never came back…

What camera do you use and could you run through your processing methods?

I am now happily using a Canon Rebel XT. I started taking digital photos with a Samsung Digimax, which had amazing quality and potential for a point-and-shoot. Before that I used a Pentax and an old Polaroid.

I have used Photoshop in the past, but don’t anymore, although people often assume I do, and use that word as a verb, as in “Did you Photoshop her eyes?” No, I didn’t. I used to use the Digimax software with my Samsung, and now use Canon Zoom Brower to organize my shots and archives them. And for processing I use ArcSoft Photostudio 5.5 – with this I can crop, and adjust the contrast and color and tone in so many amazing ways. I totally love it. It’s one of the best parts of this process.

What do you see for the future of photography and its expression?

To me the future of photography is unbound and unlimited. We don’t really know where it will lead. It has the power both to preserve the greatness of the past, and the links to our rich human heritage, as well as to capture some essence of the vitality and action and wonder of our modern times. Photography, like songwriting and other arts, freezes time. It does so maybe in the most explicit way of any art. Whereas people are always in the process of being, as I said before – never finished, always in medias res –– a photo can freeze that moment in the midst of the human expedition. Dylan told me that he didn’t feel the world needed any new songs, that it had enough songs already. Petty told me Dylan was joking. I’m not sure, but I know the world does need new songs, and it needs new poems and books and paintings. And certainly photos. The modern world is very crass and cold and terribly ugly and dirty and awful in many ways. But I find it miraculous that here in the 21st century, in the year 2006 – which is WAY into the future that we imagined back in the 60s and 70s - and before and after – that there is still so much beauty in the world – natural beauty, genuine splendor – beautiful people, beautiful expression and emotion. There is such depth and richness in every day, in every city and town and country. We envisioned the future as a place of steel and glass towers and plutonium and monorail systems and immense urban monoliths. And yet here it is, and there much that is certainly futuristic about it, but to me the most surprising thing is that there is still so much that is unchanged, so much of the collective past that still resonates. There are still the old buildings of our old cities. Sure, many have been demolished – an obsession of mine – but so many still stand. We never leveled our cities to construct new ones. They are still here, like families that have expanded, with children and babies but also the octogenarians who remember the past, and hold it inside. There is still a lot of heart and soul. There are still trains and bicycles. There is still a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater and there are still white chickens. There is still poetry. And circuses, even traveling ones. Carnivals. And flowers and birds. Whoever thought any of the natural world would be left this far into the future? Rivers. Lakes. There’s still grass, and it’s still green. The ocean, the beach. Trees. Sunsets. There is still baseball. The Beatles are as great as ever, if not better. Same with the Marx Brothers. There are still symphony orchestras with real musicians playing real instruments, and they still play Beethoven. There are still acoustic guitars and pianos. Jazz. Coltrane and Satchmo still matter. There are still birthdays with birthday cakes and candles. Christmas eves and mornings. Thanksgiving. Halloween. Strong coffee. Oranges, lemons. Apples. Pecan pie. People still read books and love libraries. The red, white and blue. Movies in movie theatres. There’s still snow and rain, and the wet sidewalks. There are still children going to school and coming home. There are still T-Birds from the 50s, which I adore, and Corvettes and Mustangs from the 60s. There are still radios. There are still people coming to Hollywood every day hoping to become stars. People still read Fitzgerald, and love Chaplin, and Marilyn, and Bogie.
Sandra Tsing Loh, a humorist here, said, “Whoever thought we would get into the future and there would still be Kentucky Fried Chicken? Only they call it KFC now.” I think that says it all. It’s miraculous to me how we embrace this future but never release the past. It all exists at the same time, like time itself. It’s not really linear, I don’t think. It all happens at once. It’s like an album of music – you have to listen to it from beginning to end, like a lifetime. But you can hold it in your hand all at once. It’s like a great song. It’s timeless, and it’s everywhere at once. And that, I know, is too much and not enough, but that is how I feel about photography. It brings it all together. And it holds it in one place, inside a frame. It’s a little miracle.

And what plans and aspirations do you have for the Future yourself?

To be a good father and a good husband and a good son and a good uncle and a good friend. To write better songs and make great albums. To write songs alone and with others. To write more books. To get my novel published. and maybe write another some day. To take lots of photos and stay in touch with the joy of taking photos. To compile at least one book of my portraits. To be happy, generous, engaged and energetic. To keep hope alive.

Paul, thank you on behalf of everyone at flickr for allowing us into your world, sharing so much with us, for touching our hearts and giving us such sweet inspiration.

Debbie C.B.'s PRO 11 years ago
thanks for posting this in my pool
all hail rock and roll
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