Monte Zucker
Master Photographer

Monte Zucker Master Photographer

In the summer of 1972 I was scanning the help wanted ads in the Washington Post and found one placed by Monte Zucker seeking an apprentice. I knew Monte was a renowned photographer because I read his monthly column "Candid Comments" in the Professional Photographers Assn. journal. I had joined PPA to as a student member while attending Knox college the previous year where I got hooked on photography to the point where I decided to drop out and find a job after my attempt to transfer to RIT was unsuccessful.

I arrived for my interview at Monte's home-based office in Silver Spring, Maryland with a stack of 11 x 14 black and white prints I'd carefully dry mounted on black 16 x 20 art boards. I taught myself the zone system at college so the prints looked pretty good technically, but while looking at my portfolio Monte used a pair of L-shaped cardboard cropping guides to show me how the composition for each could be improved. "Put your subject on a golden mean, use leading lines, isolate and simplify, have only one center of interest." He'd flip a print and move it in front of me in a blur, asking "What did you notice first? That should be your center of interest."

When I got home I made a pair of cardboard cropping guides and started cutting down my carefully matted prints prints per the simple to remember rules Monte had outlined. Things I couldn't see before were now obvious and when I was done the composition and impact of the photos was improved and my portfolio was much lighter. When Monte called me for a second interview I showed him my "new" portfolio it showed him I was able to immediately applied what I had learned. That and the fact that I was willing to work for $50 per week got me the job.

When I was hired Monte had a full-time assistant named Gary Bernstein who had worked with Monte for a couple of years at that point. Monte had been booking two weddings each Saturday with Gary shooting one while he shoot the other. Gary had started print competitions with portraits and getting recognized, but Monte cast a very long shadow and just a few weeks after I started Gary decided to strike off on his own. Gary leaving on short notice left Monte short a second shooter, so I received a battlefield promotion, a twin-lens Rolleiflex and a custom tailored tuxedo.

Monte's clients were the cream of Jewish society in the Washington, D.C. Metro area. Monte was very much in demand because he had a unique style and got great word-of-mouth referrals from everyone in the wedding business. In many ways he was like celebrity to his clients, who would use Monte as a trump card when claiming bragging rights about whose wedding or bar mitzvah party was the best. "Well, Monte took my pictures." usually won the argument.

Monte had built his exclusive clientelle by photographing the weddings of people he knew in high school, then their children's baby photos, bar mitzvahs and weddings. By 1972 he was doing the bar mitzvahs and weddings for the grandkids of some of his orginal customers. As his customers grew older and richer so did Monte. Back in the late 1960s most wedding photographers wedding photographer were taking flat single flash snapshots and getting $250 for a 50 picture wedding package. Monte's prices started at $800 and nearly every shot had studio quality three dimensional lighting.

Monte had studied with Joe Zeltsman, a classic-style portrait photographer from New Jersey, and the applied what he learned from Joe in two new and then unique ways. First he adapted Zeltsman's studio techniques to daylight portraits. Monte's "studio" was actually an 11th floor apartment with north facing windows on Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. The north windows yielded a soft and consistent F5.6 at 1/30 with ASA100. His backgrounds were an eight-foot roll-up window shades he had hand painted in vignetted pattern of in the style of Renoir and Rembrandt. The only other equipment he used was a flat silver Larson reflector on a modified medical IV stand with casters.

When possible Monte would schedule a full-dress studio session for the bride, groom, and parents if possible a week or so before the wedding. If they balked at this request he would appeal to their vanity; "These pictures will last a lifetime, so you want to look you best don't you?" He would even get them to go to the optometrist and borrow a pair a empty, matching eye glass frames so there would be no reflections. This studio was completely portable, so if the client couldn't come to the studio it came to them in the form of a north facing window in their home on the day of the wedding.

Monte's second innovation was to use two strobes at receptions; one on a flash bracket for fill and a second on the same IV stand he used for the reflector. That IV stand on wheels was the really clever thing which made using two flashes nearly as easy as one; it could be pulled around anywhere.

At the church during the ceremony we would take only two pictures: a time exposure down the aisle or from a balcony if there was one and the shot of the bride and groom coming up the aisle after the ceremony. How many times have you taken that picture only to find that the bride or groom blinked or was caught looking stupid? Monte had that one all figured out. If he would tell the bride and groom once he would tell them a dozen times, "when you come up the aisle and you see me, look at each other, not the camera." If they forgot a wave of his arms was enough to jog their memories. Monte never took a bad aisle picture. From that point on, every picture, including ones on the dance floor, were taken with two stobes.

It's not an understatement to say Monte revolutionized candid wedding photography with those two techniques. The off-camera light added depth and realism few other photographers of the era could duplicate.

I started my career wheeling that second light light around. Back in the 1970s we used Graflex and Honeywell strobes with big 410 volt batteries, so having the off camera light on wheels was a blessing. Monte taught me the distance of the second light for a perfect lighting ratio was as simple as f/stops: If the camera was at 11 feet, you but the off camera light at 8 feet; 8 feet / 6 feet, etc.... Typical Monte; simple and by the numbers but very effective.

Monte's creative talent, intuition and analytical ability led to his lucrative teaching career. When his photographs started to win state and national print competitions others wanted to learn his methods. Many talented photographers know a good pose when they see it, but can't explain why it works. Monte knows why pose looks good, and can explain how to do it with a simple step-by-step technique; much of it learned from Zeltsman.

For example, to pose a standing person angle the body to the camera then have them shift all their weight to the back foot and relax the leg in front. The weight shift angles the shoulder line in a flattering way. The next step is different, depending if the subject is a man or a woman. When the head is kept squared-off with the shoulder line and kept between the lapels of a suit coat the look will be solid and masculine. If the head is turned and tipped toward the high shoulder the body language of the pose will be softer and perceived as feminine. After seeing and trying Monte's simple step-by-step guidance it all seems very simple.

Monte the Business Genius

Most people who attend a Monte seminar don't get to see most of what I learned. His photographic talent is actually only about 10 percent of the reason why he is so successful. The other 90 percent which I saw on a daily basis for two years was his business acumen.

Between the portrait session and candids Monte would typically shoot 100 - 120 pictures for a "50" picture job. We would ship the exposed film to the lab in Dallas he used and the negatives would be returned uncut, without prints or contact sheets. Monte would then examine the strips of negatives on a backlit retouching stand. He would edit out the duplicates and few bad frames, retouching the negatives as he went along. The rejects were usually the result of someone blinking or opening their mouth at the moment the picture was snapped. Because he used a twin lens Rolleiflex he could see if someone blinked at the moment the picture exposed and retake the picture.

There would usually be about 80 negatives which would make the final cut. These were shipped back to the Dallas lab for 10 x 10 hand-dodged custom printed to his specifications and sprayed with matte lacquer. I don't recall how Monte came to use that lab but I do remember him saying that when he started with them he rejected the first batch of prints and marked them "darker, fuller tones". The second batch came a little darker and he rejected those also, again marking them "darker, fuller tones". Finally Monte convinced the lab what was then the commercially acceptable standard for color printing was really about 2 stops too light in the shadows. It was one of the managers from that lab who taught me how the spray prints evenly with a DeBliss spray gun.

When the prints arrived untrimmed the customer was called and came to Monte's home office select them. The customer never saw proofs, only the 10 x 10 custom prints which would later be bound into their album. That was part of his masterfully orchestrated selling strategy. Before these viewing sessions Monte would sort the stack of 80 or so prints and place them upside down on the table. He would slowly display each one. About 2/3's onto the pile where he would start injecting comments like, "Well, maybe you don't need this one." To which the mother of the bride would invariably say something like, "Oh we've got to have that one, Martha's cousin Phoebe is in it." Of course Monte knew that, but he would repeat the same routine several more times for effect. Monte never printed anything he didn't think he couldn't sell and most clients would pick all 80 pictures. Then Monte would say, "Well that takes care of the album for bride and groom, now let's go through them again for the parents' albums.

The first set of pictures was shipped to Custom Leather in New York where a custom bookbinder would trim and tip them into a gilt-edged, leather bound album. Meanwhile the additional prints would ordered and then shipped to the bookbinder. A few weeks later the family would come in to get their order and find the bill; usually in the $1,500 - $2,500 range. If they commented about the bill Monte would remind them, "I kept trying to get you to cut back, but you wanted them all."

He once told me that one of the "Eureka" moments early in his career was when a client asked for a 30" x 40" color photo portrait. Monte had never sold one before started to talk the person out of it because it was so expensive, but then hit him. "Never," he told me, "assume that the customer can't afford it." And this from a guy who could sell sand to the Saudis.

He way he generated referrals was also very innovative. The first thing we did at the ceremony and reception is take pictures of the food, the table setting and the cake. Two strobes, beautiful lighting. One of my jobs was to dry mount 10 x 10 custom with a thin border of gold or colored paper on a 14 x 17 black mat edged with black masking tape. These were given free to all everyone involved with the wedding. Entire walls at the offices of banquet managers and bakers were covered with Monte's pictures of their finest work. It was difficult for the potential bride and her mother to miss. I don't think Monte ever bought a loaf of bread and we were treated like kings at all of the best Washington hotels. Once when we were doing a mega-wedding at the Mayflower Hotel the banquet manager who would normally arrange for some food for us apologized for being too busy to feed us and told us to go over to the Carvery, the Mayflower's premiere eatery, and order whatever we liked on the house. The next time I was there by myself shooting a smaller wedding reception and asked for "a plate" which was code for "please feed me". About 10 minutes later I was ushered into the next room to table for one, complete with silver, linen, and flowers. My own waiter served me the same five course meal the wedding guests were having. Working for a celebrity occasionally had its fringe benefits and was an amazing learning experience.

Thanks to Monte's tutoring I nearly swept the creative category at the Maryland Professional Photographers convention print competition, the first I entered. I won first and third place in the creative category and a trophy for the most creative photograph in the competition. Monte also kick started my writing career by helping me publish an article entitled "Apprenticeship, and Education not a job" in the May 1973 issue of the Professional Photographer magazine.

After eighteen months of working every weekend the learning curve had leveled off and life as a professional photographer wasn't as glamorous or exciting as I thought it would be. So when a conversation in with my next door neighbor resulted in an offer to work in the National Geographic photo labs I left my job with Monte to pursue the technical aspects of photography. That in turn led to an interesting career in printing.

You know you have learned from a wise person years later you see the basic and universal truths behind the seeming simple things they taught. By that measure Monte is one of the wisest people I have had the pleasure to have known. The simplicity and pureness of composition I learned has been applied in many diverse aspects of my work in the graphic arts over the years. The way he distilled his knowledge into an easy to follow formula and shared it so willingly inspired me and influenced my approach to problem solving. Observing how he dealt with difficult people under stressful circumstances has also proven valuable. If you have the opportunity to take a seminar from Monte you should do it. It will be a unique and rewarding experience.

Holistic Concepts for Lighting
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