Childhood Unplugged Features Zalmy Berkowitz

I remember scrolling past an image on Facebook of a little girl skipping along the sidewalk and her shadow reflecting against a wooden fence. I remember the image caught my eye and I clicked on it. From that first image, Zalmy Berkowitz has captivated me with his film photography. His art and passion for Documenting The Chaos is the real deal. I am beyond thrilled to have him as our guest for the month of August.

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Welcome Zalmy to Childhood Unplugged! We are excited to have you as our featured guest. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Oh man. Having no clue what you meant by this (if you wanted a few pithy lines, or a complete autobiography), I checked out some of the previous featured guests. Holy eloquence! (I’m looking at you Amy Grace, you ruin it for all of us!) I’m going to sound like the total Neanderthal here. That’s okay I guess. 

I was born and bred (to an extent) in Huntington Beach, CA, where my father was (and still is) a communal rabbi. Growing up in a Hasidic household in the middle of Huntington Beach was a bit of a clash of two worlds, and it took me a while to realize that the point is to reconcile the two, that one doesn’t exclude the other. Until 10 or so I just spaced out. Seriously. I read everything I could get my hands on and ignored the world. Went through all the Hardy Boys, much of the encyclopedia, all the ingredient lists on everything in the bathroom, even Nancy Drew when no one was looking. Early on I went to a Jewish Day School, and for 6th and 7th I went to a “Yeshiva” (Jewish school, focusing much more on Jewish studies than they do secular studies) in Los Angeles. That was my last year of any formal secular eduction. When my parents split I moved with my mother to Brooklyn and spent the next three years in a hardcore Yeshiva there. Then three years in Israel, another in New York (where I was appointed “official beer buyer” at 18 because of my beard), another in Israel, and than got my rabbinic degree in Pretoria, South Africa. 

Freshly rabbi(ed) and looking to change the world, I married the amazing Estee at 22 or so and we moved to a little ancient mountain town called Safed in Israel, home to wanderers and mystics, where someone (not a mystic), somehow downloaded Photoshop to our iMac (back when no one knew what an iMac was). That started my journey in the visual arts, though I didn’t know it back then. We came back to Southern California to run some programs for Jewish teens. I was designing our fliers and such and got a bit into it, started designing for others etc. Then we had baby number one. Then two. At this point I was getting annoyed at the lack of Jewish stock photography available for my designing so I bought some sort of Canon Rebel and figured it couldn’t be too hard. I never ended up taking those stock images but I did start shooting my family. 

I like learning, so I spent months at the library reading up on photography. The how-to books, the why-to books, the where-to and what-to. I tried this lens and that lens, and this camera and that camera. At some point I saw a Hasselblad in my local camera shop and thought it looked cool. So I bought it and a roll of film. The film didn’t fit, and that’s how I learned about medium format. Some 20 cameras later I know a bit more. Then came number three. At number four we moved into a slightly dilapidated house with a humongous yard (for our locale). Then five.  At which point we decided to move to Berkeley, (I just looked at the question and saw that it says “Could you tell us a LITTLE about yourself?” …oops) and have been working on that for the past year or so.

Your photography is just captivating. It pulls you in and leaves you wanting more. To do that as a photographer is hard, but to do it with film is just downright talent. It takes a keen eye (and a bit of luck) to know the precise moment to push the shutter button. Tell me why you decided to shoot film as your medium in a digital world. Do you ever shoot digital?

Hmmm, first of all, thanks! I think I answered a bit above. Film made me think much more before I took the shot. I would move the extra inch or foot to get a better angle. I’d clear that garbage, or climb the fence. I’d pay more attention to the light. And I’d put the camera down more often. With kids it’s always challenging where and how to draw the line between documenting and being in the moment. With film, you take your shot and move on. You finish your roll and put the camera away. I love the way the older cameras feel. They are so darn simple. An aperture ring and a shutter speed. What else do you need? They do their job and get out-of-the-way. Film cameras are also much simpler to make as the most complicated part, the actual film, was made by someone else. So there are all sorts of wonderful quirky cameras. All sorts of formats. I really enjoy shooting with a waist-level finder (especially kids), and I’m addicted to squares. Film just makes that easier. And the main part is that film just looks pretty darn awesome. 

Besides all that, as I grew with photography I came to realize that “perfect” and “clean” wasn’t only overrated, it (for me) was totally off point. We live in a messy, grainy, messy, and beautifully imperfect world. With digital I was always making sure my images were “tack sharp” etc. And I didn’t even know why. Why should an image be tack sharp? Why should it be clean? Film allowed me to escape that obsession, and focus on making images that emote, not just images that speak.

What are some unplugged activities your family enjoys together?

Sleeping. Well I enjoy that, the kids maybe not as much. You caught me at a challenging time as we’ve been out of our house (with our huge year and friends) and not yet in Berkeley with all it’s parks and homeschooling options. We read a lot. I’ll tell stories from Jewish history (ancient and recent) or the Bible. We try to get out to parks, the beach is right nearby so we hit that a lot (though it always freaks me out). We play catch and frisbee and all that normal, not exciting or exotic at all stuff 🙂 Once in a while I’ll take a kid on a hike, or bird watching. When in Berkeley we would go to the Lawrence Hall of Science like twice a week or so. That place is amazing. Adventure playground on Sundays… man we miss it there and can’t wait to get back.

Saturdays are completely unplugged as it’s our Sabbath, and we’re pretty strict about it. It’s so nice to not only have a day where we unplug, but a day where plugging is so completely out of the question that it stays out of mind as well. 

Your children are still very young, do you have rules for things like television, computers or handheld devices?

We try. Sometimes their watching gets a bit out of hand so we ban it for a few weeks. Generally we’ll do maybe a movie a week and a show or two in between. Curious George for the young ones, Wild Kratts or something for the older (the oldest is 8). My oldest likes building stuff so he watches a lot of how-to videos. I’m fine with that. The only game they play is Minecraft, maybe an hour each a week. There are a lot of good educational videos out there. We do let them watch Jewish videos that teach good values and morals, history, etc., though we do believe that videos are generally an inferior way of educating, and that (again, generally speaking) any moment glued to a screen is a moment lost to a better, healthier activity. It’s so easy to use the iPad or whatever as a quick babysitter when we need to get stuff done, but we always pay the consequences. Our recent move has been a little challenging for the kids as well so we give in a little (or a lot) sometimes. But there are always trade-offs and being an imperfect parent is part of being a perfect one.

If you and your family woke up one morning and had no agenda other than to spend the day together, what would that day look like?

Wake up to screaming kids that have been up for two hours (though they would have already taken the baby out of his crib and gotten him dressed, and honestly would have been playing nicely for the vast majority of those two hours), make breakfast that three want and two don’t. Try to fix that. Hide in the bathroom and breathe a bit. Come back and talk to the kids about the day. They’ll probably have already done some reading (hebrew and english) on their own, and the older two do their prayers on their own as well, so that’s cool. Then we’ll pack up some snacks and throw everyone in the car (that sounds quick but those two things together take an hour). Maybe we’ll head to the beach, or a park. Maybe we’d have called a friend to meet up with us. The kids will have fun, then fight, then have fun… more fun. We’ll laugh at some hysterical thing my four-year old says. Fight some more. We’ll go home, and I’ll shove a beer in the freezer, begging it to hurry up. Then I’ll relax a bit with the kids, play some ball in front. Forget about the beer because I don’t need it anymore. Then we’ll eat supper, after which the kids will freak out about going to bed. At which point I remember my beer, but it’s frozen… Or something like that. Sometimes the kids don’t fight 🙂

Unplugging is just as important if not more important for adults as it is for children, what do you enjoy doing when you have time for yourself?

Time for myself? I’m not sure that computes 🙂 If possible I’d spend it with my wife. Go out for a walk, a drink, or just to sit somewhere and talk. Maybe learn a bit together. If it was just me, well, I absolutely LOVE learning. If I have the time and mental capacity (i.e. I’m not exhausted) I’ll get lost in some book about Jewish mysticism, law, morals, or history. If I have less energy maybe a good biography, history, or a good book of stories. Other times I’ll go for a walk, a jog, a bicycle ride, nothing too exciting 🙂 but it does wonders for the soul.

Do you have a favorite image? Tell me a bit about this image.

This is hard. I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s the Polaroid of my oldest walking off a table. A good image to me is something that’s both a meaningful memory to me as a parent, and at the same time has a universal message. It’s a good image of my kids goofing off, but I feel like it encapsulates that wonder of childhood. Before we are all jaded adults who know the outcome of everything and have left nothing left to wonder. We all know that we can’t fly, but children aren’t so sure. “Yeah I usually fall when I walk off a table, but maybe this time…” There’s also the brotherly support holding him up, or maybe pushing him down, or maybe both… 

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So much is going on in your photographs. It’s like eye candy. I love how you capture things as is, the mess, the movement, etc. Do your children ever get bothered by your photo taking or are they pretty much immune to it?

I rarely ask them to do anything so they usually don’t mind. Once in a while I overdo it and they get annoyed that I’m not in the moment. And they are totally right. 

Twenty years from now, what do you want your children to remember most about their childhood?

The freedom. The wonder. The memory of trying hard to do something new and finally succeeding. The idea that learning is and can be fun, and that we are always shaping who we are. Irrespective of what society tells us. I want them to be unique and weird and proud of it. 

Children remember more than we think they do, thus why spending time together and creating memories is so important. If you were to ask your children to share one of their favorite memories what would they say? 

Probably going to New York, which was a crazy trip for us. Or maybe just playing elimination in the front yard. Or if there was a really good breakfast that day maybe that… I’m not sure 🙂 I think in 10 years the answers will be more revealing.

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3 thoughts on “Childhood Unplugged Features Zalmy Berkowitz

  1. chossid

    Mazel tov! 😉 I like your photos. I suppose my favs are walking off the table, backyard fun, mama and baby, glass sliding door, mud, dead bird, plaid shirts/laughing, recycling, thumb in mouth, car seats, flying on the beds I.e. most everything… 🙂

    http://www.photoblog.com/chossid

    On Facebook as chossidphoto – in 52frames…

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