Spotting Traces of Life: An Interview with Zack Vitiello

Being a creative director, Zack Vitiello leads quite a busy professional life. But Zack always ensures he grows with his personal passions and that is with film photography. Unlike most photographers, Zack prefers capturing what he would describe as ‘traces of life‘. Instead of capturing people themselves, he'd opt for signs and indications that people have been inhabiting and existing the empty space.

We've got to talk with the artist himself for an in-depth conversation of his art.

Hi Zack, welcome to Lomography Magazine! Firstly, what's the first thing you notice about a place when you're traveling?

Thanks for having me! Let me jump right in.

When I’m traveling, I tend to search for a ‘feeling’ rather than a specific ‘thing.' I’ve always been drawn to places where I feel completely out of my element, or somewhat alienated. That feeling of disconnection changes the way I interact with my surroundings. It creates a heightened sense of awareness that helps me notice coincidences and oddities. For example, I was raised in Toronto, but I barely ever take photos here — I’m too comfortable in this city to notice what’s happening around me. But I can drive an hour north to a rural space and be completely floored by what I find, even though it seems so ordinary to the residents of that place. And by the same token, I can go to somewhere much further away, like China or India, and have that exact same feeling of displacement. That feeling is what inspires me to create images.

Your street and travel photography oeuvre are rather different from other photographers, focusing more on markers than people as with Long Time No See and Roadside Attractions, like 'outdoor still life'. What makes inanimate objects beautiful enough for you as a photographer? May you tell us more about this?

I prefer taking photographs of ‘things’ or ‘scenes’ rather than people because I’ve always had a fascination with photography’s ability to live outside the clearly defined lines of space and time. That sense of timelessness is also the reason I choose to use 35mm film for most of my personal projects. I’ve always felt like the easiest way to date a photograph is to put a person in it — their clothes, hairstyle and even their posture can ultimately define that photo as being of a particular place and time. This gives away the mystery that I much prefer to keep in tact. So instead, I try to show traces of humanity without ever depicting the person — a lipstick impression, an empty restaurant chair, a motel room door left slightly ajar. There is always life in my photos, but it exists ever-so-slightly out of frame.

There's something restless, energetic but also frightening with the series Poster Boy. What interested you to photograph torn, worn out posters and ephemera pasted on the streets?

The Poster Boy series was actually taken on my first trip ever, when I went to India on my own for five months. I had never really taken photographs in any meaningful way before that, but I was very focused on taking portraits of the people I met there. It wasn’t until I got to Kolkata, which was the last stop on the trip, that I even noticed the posters. Presumably, they had been present in other cities I had visited, I just hadn’t noticed them because I was so preoccupied with the portraits. But once I noticed them, I became quite obsessed, purely from an aesthetic standpoint. I took photos of over 300 posters during the two weeks I was in Kolkata, but I did absolutely nothing with the images until I rebuilt my portfolio this year (eight years after the trip).

Poster Boy series by Zack Vitiello

Seeing them again, after spending the better part of a decade growing as a photographer, was interesting because by then I had developed a sense of focus. Truthfully, I had never noticed the recurring themes of violence and machoism present in the posters until I looked at them with more experienced eyes. So in a way, the series is much more about curation than it is about the photographs themselves — if I had included all 300+ images they would have meant nothing to anyone, but by narrowing it down to the eleven I eventually used, the menacing quality becomes quite palpable.

Did you feel certain emotions while you working on these projects?

I’m actually a very happy-go-lucky kind of person, and I do tend to have a big grin on my face whenever I’m taking pictures. It has happened before where people who get to know my work before they get to know me are quite shocked because it does seem like a lot of my work comes from a dark place. But I’m not really like that at all. I do, however, chase that feeling of alienation and disconnection that I mentioned earlier. Those two words may seem quite negative to some, but I think people who travel often can attest to the fact that feeling disconnected in a new place is in fact very freeing. So, maybe, the emotion I feel most when I’m working is ‘free’?

Where do you draw inspiration from?

Like most of the creative people I know, my main source of inspiration these days is Instagram — not very romantic, I know. But I’ve always been very glad that I started out in photography before Instagram launched because I was able to develop a sense of style without thinking too much about what other people were doing around me. Quite a few of the images in my Roadside Attractions series are actually from the first five rolls of film I ever shot — so, for whatever reason, I had an idea of what I wanted to take pictures of before I was ever exposed to the canon of photographers who had already built legacies shooting in a similar way. I worry that if I had seen the works of veterans like William Eggleston early on in my career, that I may have shied away from doing what I do now, simply because it had already been done. So, I think there’s something to be said for not being too inspired, especially when you’re just starting out.

Nowadays, with Instagram, the inspiration is literally endless and it can be quite overwhelming at times. So, I set little rules for myself that keep me focused and prevent me from chasing that inspiration too much. Those rules could be something as simple as sticking entirely to 35mm film for a particular project, or not including people in a set of images. There are lots of photographers who shoot digital that I love, or incredible street photographers who include people in their images, but if I start to chase that inspiration too far, I may lose my own sense of focus. These rules keep me true to my own style even as inspiration creeps in from the edges.

If you could spend some time with any photographer or artist, dead, alive or fictional, who would it be?

I’ve actually only recently started to become a big fan of photography as it relates to art history, and unfortunately, I don’t know many names off the top of my head. But I think I’d really like to travel with someone like Eggleston — it would be quite fascinating to watch his eyes dart from one scene to another, to try and learn how he sees the world. It may be impossible to ever figure out how he does what he does, but I think it would be a rewarding experience none-the-less.

Describe to us — what's a day in the life of Zack Vitiello?

Like most full-time creatives, my days are pretty busy. I’m the creative director of a Toronto-based fashion brand called Vitaly, which means I have a hand in all creative elements, from product design to social media and branding. I also do all of the brand’s campaign photography, which has opened me up to do a lot of fashion and editorial work. The images we create with Vitaly are quite cinematic — big, crisp shots filled with an intense atmosphere. It's very different than what I tend to shoot on my own time, but building a ‘commercially-friendly’ body of work has ultimately meant that I am now able to take pictures for a living, and I couldn’t feel more lucky to be able to do that.

Any on-going project, or other plans you're keen to work on?

Lately, I’ve been feeling more of a pull to create photographs that blend the style I use at my day job with the style I’ve developed in my personal work. So, in the future, I do plan on shooting more fashion editorials that weave in elements of space and setting, using ‘scenes’ alongside models to paint a detailed picture or tell an engaging story.

Aside from that, I have always planned to continue my Roadside Attractions series until I have enough images to compile a book. Truthfully, I could probably fill quite a few books by this point, but I think I have a hard time finishing things. So I think I’ll just keep the series going for now, and see what happens!


Visit Zack's website, Film Diary, and Instagram for more of his works.

2018-07-28 #film-photography #zack-vitiello

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