Intimate Stranger

«Needing Smush» (c) Zachary Balber

«I like the idea that the viewer is implicit in the crime»

At first glance, Zachary Balber’s pictures are one thing above all: hilarious. Especially when you know how they were taken. Booked as a photographer for luxury properties in Florida, he secretly took self-portraits in those houses. Initially it was a private joke towards the absurdity of this wealth. But over time it developed into its own photo project.

Zachary Balber in conversation with Andrea Walter  — 22.05.2024  

Fotos — Zachary Balber

It's 10 o'clock in the morning in Miami. Zachary Balber, a coffee in his hand, appears in front of the Zoom screen for a conversation about his work «Intimate Stranger» – a series of 150 pictures that he took in some of the most exalted luxury homes in Florida. Officially booked as a photographer for the real estate market, he also poked fun at this glittering parallel world – by secretly staging himself in these homes.
Talking to him is cheerful and lively. He laughs and swings his arms as he explains what originally inspired him to create this work. And yet, it also has a very serious core: The overriding question of what it means to be «at home» somewhere also stems from the fact that Zachary Balber lost his own family far too early.
Hence his pictures are far more than just a boy’s prank. They contain the search for one's own place in a world full of staged identities. The desire to find out who you really are. But he tells it best himself...


«Chinchilla Surfboarding» © Zachary Balber

A stranger in their homes

ANDREA WALTER: Zachary Balber, in your series «Intimate Stranger» we see you lying naked on the bed of a luxury home in Miami. What happened? 

ZACHARY BALBER (smiles): Oh, my gosh, a lot of things happened for that to happen! I am a photographer, artist and art documentarian. But at the time I was hired to document big houses or luxury apartments for real estate agents or architects – among others in some of the most exclusive homes in Miami. And while I was doing this, I kept thinking: Wow, they just let me into their most intimate space. They don’t even know me. I am a stranger, but I am in their house, their bedroom, taking pictures. There is so much trust here! What if I was crazy? Or a thief?

«I am a stranger, but I am in their house, their bedroom, taking pictures. There is so much trust here!» – Zachary Balber


From top to bottom: «Goldilocks», «A Moment of Silence» and «Garbage Pale Kid» © Zachary Balber

From the art world into the property market

Wait – you were there because you got official assignments by real estate agents to photograph these houses in order to sell them. How come?

I started to do real estate photography to diversify my portfolio – because photographing art in the beginning was not paying all my bills. Prior to this, I was a fulltime artist. But the truth of the art world is: You're hot for a little bit and after that you are not so important anymore. So, I crashed into this reality after I had some solo museum shows and showed at Art Basel.

How did the real estate agents find you?

I allowed media like the New York Times or Wall Street Journal to use my pictures – if they were putting my name underneath. You could say, I left little breadcrumps of my photographic aesthetic here and there. That is how the agents found me. Another advantage was, that I studied with the fashion photographer Bruce Weber. I was his assistant for a few years – and this became like a black American Express card in the business: «You worked with Bruce Weber? You're hired!»
In what way did you photograph these luxury homes?

I decided to elevate the aesthetics in a new way: I took these photos like I was documenting artwork. What helped me was the fact, that when I started with photography, I was so poor, that I couldn't afford the right cameras. That’s why I became a good editor to compensate for my lack of equipment.
So, what I did was to select every object in each photo, do a mask for it and have every area under my control, so that I can change the colors, the lighting. That's why the photos look the way they do: There's nothing out of place. In some way these photos became like paintings, because the level of control and decision making for each room was crazy.

«I decided to elevate the aesthetics in a new way: I took these photos like I was documenting artwork.» – Zachary Balber

Playing with aesthetics

At one point you said: «Lies are the basis of real estate photography».

Yes! I mean, when you shop for a house or condo, you don't even believe the photos anymore. You know they are not true. Blue skies, green grass, wide angles – everything is perfect. I kept thinking: It's almost like revisiting cubism, where the saturation in the background is the same as the foreground.
Many of these homes look somehow aseptic, not real…

True. But this is the predominant aesthetic language of photography in Miami. You must bear in mind that Miami doesn't have a very old history. The only history we have, is really advertising – «Come to Miami Beach!» So, there's a certain vernacular about Miami and my work is exactly this, but poking at it.
These luxury homes became your theater, where you would secretly also create an artwork of your own…

Yes, but first of all, I kept watching the agents and their assistants, who were mostly present while I was photographing. Many times, they were taking selfies of themselves on the balcony – beautiful girls, boobs out, plastic surgery – you name it! Later on, they would be posting these pictures on their Instagram accounts. And I thought: Wow, we live in a world of fake identities, that you can make come true with a photo, in just a minute!
When did you take the first picture of yourself?

That was in a bathroom that had watermelon colors – pink and green. It was the worst bathroom I ever saw in my life (laughs). And I was going to photograph it. But then I realized: I don't believe in the photo of just the ugly room. There was not sufficient evidence to prove how stupid and unreal this interior looked. By sitting on the toilet with sunglasses, in some way, I became the proof.


«Watermelon Sun Gazing» © Zachary Balber

«I don't believe in the photo of just the ugly room. There was not sufficient evidence to prove how stupid and unreal this interior looked.» – Zachary Balber

The real estate agents were right next door

Did you, back then, already think about publishing your selfportraits?

No! When I started this, it was just a private joke – I went to these houses, secretly took pictures of myself and sent them to my friends and family. I remember how my mother once said: «Zack, you're going to get in trouble doing this!» But who was going to say anything? I did not plan to publish this work. Then, over time, it became almost like a psychological inkblot test – I walked into a room and looked around to see what kind of feeling or idea of a character it would give me. And I took the photos while the real estate agents were in another room. They were right next to me…
They could have caught you in action every second?!

That was the fun part, yes! If it was easy, it would have been boring. And it was actually only after I had finished the series that I realized, how composed the photographs looked. As if I had all day to do this. But usually, I had only one or two minutes! That’s why I learned to get naked very fast! (laughs)
And I came up with all kinds of excuses towards the agents like «No, you can't come in, because the tripod is behind the door» or «Just give me two minutes!» – in order to have a little bit of safety to put my clothes back on...

«Only after I had finished the series I realized, how composed the photographs looked. As if I had all day to do this. But usually, I had only one or two minutes. That’s why I learned to get naked very fast!» – Zachary Balber 

Staged dreams

When did you take the first nude picture?

I was in this house with an incredible vista of the ocean. The bed was covered with chinchilla – the softest fur in the world. The floor had mink rugs on it. There was a chandelier above the bed. Everything was so opulent. It was crazy! It looked like a Renaissance painting. (Editor's note: It is the picture at the beginning of the text.)
So, I took my shirt off and pretended this was my bed and the world I would wake up to in the morning. It was like a dream. And I made this dream a reality. It reminded me of something Susan Sontag once said: «Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images – one can’t possess the present, but one can possess the past.»


«Bonita Applebum» © Zachary Balber

What if I get caught?

What appealed to you about the nudity?

Just to mention it: My photos are not all nudes! Out of 150 pictures there are maybe 15. But I think, I began with them, because I started to really enjoy the risk. Because photography can be very boring once you're good at it and you know the mechanics of the camera. Besides, I started to like the idea that the viewer is implicit in the crime.
I was inspired by the idea of impressionist painters who believed that the audience completed the work. By looking at my pictures the viewer becomes part of the photo crime. Then again, I started to ask myself: Is it really a crime to take a picture? Is this something illegal? And how am I going to get out of this if I get caught?

«I started to really enjoy the risk.»
– Zachary Balber

Self-exploration experiments

Did you ever get caught?

Many times, I almost did! Sometimes I got caught putting my shoes back on. Then I said: «I took them off because I didn't want to dirty the carpet». At the same time, I was terrified because I knew: If I get caught, there's nothing I can say. I'm naked on their bed. They're going to kill me! But in the end, I think it really invigorated the series and moved it forward.
In what way?

As I said, in the beginning taking these pictures was more a personal joke – and a poke at the affluent culture, at these people who have so much money. But then, years later, it really was not about that anymore. It became an investigation of my own identity. Taking these pictures became a way to see the self. I think that's something that can happen when an artist stays with the body of work for a prolonged period of time. You start somewhere, but then you end up somewhere completely different than you imagined.
What did you do in order to investigate your own identity?

Many times, I tried on different versions of the self. Sometimes I tried different shades of masculinity, sometimes I posed like a woman. I arched my back and tried to have a little bit of feminine mannerisms. I'm a straight guy, but I think many heterosexual men are so homophobic that they don't know how to expand their wings and try on different parts of themselves without shame. And this series was really about not having shame.


From top to bottom: «Back to Back two Back», «Y Axis» and «Groundlessness» © Zachary Balber

«This series was really about not having shame.» – Zachary Balber

Traces of his own life

Apart from that, in your artwork, you also deal with a very sad part of your life…

That’s right. Maybe after six months of doing the real estate photography, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I got the news that she was going to die in the middle of a photo shoot. So, I decided to take a picture of myself in this moment. I climbed into a round chair that felt like a womb of a mother and held myself. Throughout my work there are all kind of subtle symbols that are very personal.
What else is there to find?

As my mother was going through cancer, she would go through different wigs, and she'd be like: «Zack, do you want to use them for something?» So, she would give me her wigs and at the photo shoots when people weren't looking and the situation made sense, I would put a wig on and jump into the scene. I also brought a Halloween mask from when I was a kid. And an American flag from my grandfather. He served in the army during the Vietnam War and when he died, the family got this folded flag. I unfolded it in one of the photos.
And there is also a picture of me in a room that seems like a place where people are doing cocaine. I look like I overdozed and died in a chair. I did this, because I lost my sister to a drug overdose when I was 22. When my mother became sick, she was the last close family member I had. My sister and father had already passed away.


From top to bottom: «Fuck It», «Nicotine Patch Prayers» and «Avedon Smiles» © Zachary Balber

Between Disney World and hospital

And you had to photograph luxury homes in this time of great pain and grief...

Yes, I often felt like I was asked to document Disney World. I woke up every day and tried to be in Disney World while I felt like crying and not getting out of bed. And then, after being in Disney World, I went to the hospital to see my mom having her cancer treatments.
The juxtaposition between being internally broken, in agony, and having to go back to Disney World the next day, was horrible for me. Taking the photographs of myself, I think, was a way to level the playing field. Photography was the only thing to hold on to. Like in «Charly and the Chocolate Factory» I tried to find my «Golden Ticket». Every photo became like my «Golden Ticket», my escape.

When did you decide: I'm going show my pictures to the world?

That happened many years later and it was actually other people who pushed my work into the sunlight. One day I got this phone call from a woman who said: «Zack, I know you don't know me, but somebody told me that you're doing this body of work». I got quiet. «Are you still there?», she asked –  I replied: «I am here! But how did you find out about this?» She said: «Well, you must have told the right person».
Obviously, there was a little bit of underground chatter about this. And this woman – her name is Erica Ando – at the time curated an exhibition called «Florida Dreaming». It was about artists in Miami who deal with the delusions of living in South Florida. She invited me to be in the exhibition. But I have to admit, in the beginning I was worried about showing this work.


I was still making money from the real estate photography. Besides, I was afraid that I could be sued. Nevertheless, I submitted some photos to Erica Ando and she said to me: «The brilliance of this is that you are not making art in your studio away from the world. You're seeing art in the world. You're seeing it in real life».
Also, later on I had some good mentorship to help me see what I was doing. Other curators and my fellow artist friends told me: «Keep doing this, Zack!»
What kind of response did you get on the first exhibition?

It was wonderful. Some people said: «Oh, my God, you're so crazy to show this!» Then soon another museum asked me to show my work. So, before I even showed the pictures in my own exhibition, I showed parts of them in three museums. But then I realized that with one or two photos you can’t understand what’s going on. That’s why I decided to show the whole body of work.
How did you present it? Because one needs to know your story in order to understand both sides of the pictures – the funny poking part and the serious investigation and tragedy.

That's true. The photography curator I worked with, said: «The difficulty with this exhibition is that you are inviting people to come see something that is not present». He therefore suggested to create a moment in the exhibition where people who think they understand the work were going to see it with new eyes.
So first, we let them see the photos, laugh and enjoy – «Oh look, Zack is having fun!» But then we have this other area with photos of me as a kid, my mother, father and sister. It is a place, where you realize: Something is wrong here. There is another layer. It shows what a real home feels like to me versus the homes that I was asked to document. 

«We created a moment in the exhibition where people who think they understand the work were going to see it with new eyes.» – Zachary Balber

The reactions

How did the real estate agents you worked for react to the publication of the photos?

Three of them started to laugh and said: «I don't care what you do with these. This is so funny!» Others were in shock. But then again, it is hard to get mad at somebody when you understand that this person wasn't doing this to harm you.
I didn’t want to hurt the people who gave me money to support myself. I was doing this because there was something greater asking me to do this. My curator said: «The poking part is there, but it is not the focus. The focus is you. The real estate photography is a vernacular that everybody knows, but with you being inside of it, you change the reading of real estate propaganda – from an idealized life to something else».


From top to bottom: «Stuffed Animal Friends», «Inferiority Complex», «Golden Child», «Booties and Astro Turf to Walk on the Moon» and «Admiring the Adult»  © Zachary Balber

The work remained hidden for nearly ten years

Still, you were not sure whether you were allowed to take pictures for yourself in those houses…

That was the question! Before my exhibition I actually spoke to the attorney of Richard Prince, the artist who often plays with copyrights. And the attorney told me: «Well, when we do an exhibition with Richard Prince, we keep five million on the side for the lawsuits, but we're going to make ten million, so we don't care.» And I was like: «Oh my God, you guys are playing in a different game than I».
So, the attorney, who loved my work, told me to be careful, because the owners of these houses have so much money, they could squish me really bad, if they push lawsuits at me. But I told him: «They can't sue me. Because I didn't sign anything that said that I couldn't do this». I even kept the copyrights to all the images. Then he said: «You are free!»
But in order to be safe, he advised me to wait at least five years to show this work. Because if you wait long enough, all the people who are associated with these properties have already changed. So, they cannot sue me for hurting their public image, because there is no longer an association with them. It was all carefully plotted. This work remained hidden for nearly ten years

And? Where there many lawsuits in the end?

None. As a matter of fact, some people who came to see the show, asked me to come photograph their houses. That is how much nobody cared about any of this that I thought they were going to kill me for!


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