March 27th, 2011

Mr. Zulli

The first time I came across Michael Zulli's work was in 1990 when my friend Karen gave me a copy of "The Dolls House", the second Sandman graphic novel, but the first time I really noticed him was in 1996 when the 10th Sandman graphic novel "The Wake" came out. The Wake was really unlike anything I'd seen in comics before, the art was more like a collection of Pre-Raphialite paintings. The art wasn't simple, it was complex, everyone looked like Helena Bonham Carter -- it was just a step in a whole new direction. It wowed me, it floored me, he became only the second comic book illustrator who's name I recognized. (The first was Cracked magazine's John Severin who's depiction of Princess Lea with a flat head after being used by Chewbacca to try and prop open the walls of the garbage masher in Star Warz remains in my head to this day.)

When trillian_stars and I went out to New Orleans for Neil's wedding and birthday, one of the events was a brunch at a cafe owned by freaking Poppy Z Brite (whom I did see, but was, believe it or not, too shy to introduce myself to). Sometime during brunch while everybody was lolling around having desserts and cakes, I went off with Icelandic singer Hera Hjartardóttir to take the photo that's on her Wikipedia page. We were gone maybe half an hour and when we got back, Trillian said "There was some guy here, and everybody was very excited. He must have been famous because he was wearing a red velvet frock coat and had the fanciest mustache I've ever seen."

Later in the evening I found out that was, in fact, Michael Zulli. We ran into him at a party where he stunned me by recognizing me (he may be reading this very blog post right now!) and we started talking about lomography. I was a bit heartbroken as I had in my mind a portrait that I desperately wanted to take but I didn't have any of the proper equipment with me. (I took this photo of him with my phone, but it was a far cry from what I wanted to do.)

Ah well I thought, perhaps some other time.

It was either that night or in an email later that he mentioned he was having a gallery show in LA and it would be nice if I could make it out (and, in case you were wondering, it is a little weird when messages from your childhood idols show up in your inbox -- weird in the most wonderful way -- but I always feel like I'm supposed to act like it's not weird and wonderful but right and normal). Anyway, this seemed to make a great deal of sense to me since I had this vague photography project brewing with Fairuza, and I was really itching to do Zulli's portrait properly. So with my friend Mario, who's a huge Zulli fan and actually owns 19 pieces of his art, we headed out West.

The show itself was in an opulent gallery fronted by a beautiful art-book store with a generous gallery space in the back (I posted photos from it here.) The place was packed, so much so that we actually didn't see much of Zulli -- he was constantly signing books and bric-a-brac at the center of a squirming knot of fans that looked something like one of those bait balls that anchovies get swirled into by pods of dolphins -- so we enjoyed the art and talked to some of the cool people who'd come, like photographer Brian C. Janes and his wife Alison, an actress currently playing an assassin in something not released yet.

When the show was over and people were packing up Mario and I set up to do the portrait that I'd envisioned back in New Orleans. I used a small Pho-Tek Softlighter II with an sb800 as the main light, held in place by Voice Activated Light Stand Mario, and an sb-80 as a hair light, held in place by Voice Activated Light Stand Cartoonist / Animator bluejeanius. Outside the venue there was a collection of rather uninteresting signs, but at the end of the block were a series of trees wrapped in Xmas lights, it seemed a more suitable background. And as I positioned Zulli, and the lights and turned my shutter speed and aperture to numbers that my head knew, the sky opened up and I had a little bark of an epiphany; like a matter-of-fact hairball of enlightenment plopped on the carpet of my mind without ceremony by the Great Celestial Cat.

One of the things Zulli had said earlier in the day, when we were all lounging on bean bag chairs at Cat Mihos' place was -- and I'll paraphrase because I don't remember exactly -- "One of the keys to being a successful artist is to learn everything, and then forget it." Which I took like a Zen koan, I wasn't sure what it meant. It didn't make any sense -- why learn something if you're going to forget it? But standing there on the street corner I realized that's exactly what I was doing. I'd studied and practiced so much that I knew what one particular shutter speed would do with the lights on the trees, and how it would react to the light from the flash, and how the light behind the umbrella would treat the eyes of the subject and where the hair light needed to be -- I'd learned it and then I'd forgotten it, I wasn't thinking about what things needed to be set to, my brain already knew it and wasn't bothering the rest of me with it.

I had learned something very real from the master.

Clickenzee to Embiggen!

So here's Michael Zulli the way I wanted to show him to you four months ago which is, really, the way he looks when he walks into a room -- like someone who must be famous -- like someone who could tell you in one sentence how to be an artist.

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