Monte Zucker – Everybody’s Mentor

September 1, 1929 – March 15, 2007

Left to Right: Clay Blackmore, John Dove, Monte Zucker, Kevin Reppenhagen

This is a special post on the tenth death anniversary of the world-renowned master of portrait and wedding photography Monte Zucker through his then protégé and business partner, Clay Blackmore.  A master in his own right, Clay introduced Monte to the two young, novice photographers (John & Kevin) in 1991.  In the years following, John toured with Monte to assist him on speaking engagements.  Both John & Kevin assisted in many events like weddings, mitzvahs, family portraits, and engagement sessions.

John and Kevin worked to help Monte to prep his newly built photography studio for a four-day class.  Monte & Clay rebuilt from a fire that would have been devastating to most people though for this dynamic duo it was only a small setback.  Kevin recalls “The fish pond in the front of the studio was the grimiest job.  It had debris from the fire and a lot of sludge too.  However, it was well worth it as we watched the area come back to life.”

An innovator in photography, Monte was able to embrace flash powder to flash drives.  His images can be remembered as simple, direct, and emotional. Each picture makes a simple statement. There is nothing in his photographs, except what should be there. All distractions were removed before he snapped the shutter. What you see is what he wants you to see. It’s usually a face or a collection of faces. When it’s a photograph of an individual, you will immediately know that person. When it’s a photograph of a group you’ll feel and experience their involvement with each other.

Based on classical tradition, Monte’s portraiture has never strayed far from his original intent – to capture a moment in people’s lives and memorialize it for posterity.  In his own words, “I don’t photograph the world as it is. I photograph the world as I would like it to be.”  To accomplish this goal, Monte seemed to always capture the moment with little or no direction. Although he basically controls all of his subjects when they’re being photographed, they appear to be completely natural.  John remembers how systematic his lighting pattern was, after years of working with Monte he decided to place the lights one time.  John recalls: “Every aspect of the lighting pattern seemed perfect for the portrait – well, until Monte came over and adjusted the main light just so slightly.  Did it make a difference?  Without a doubt.”

Monte decided to retire to Florida in the 90’s.  Kevin remembers sharing with John and Clay that Monte’s decision to retire would be short-lived simply because of Monte’s need to share his knowledge and his talent of photography was still strong.  True to form, John received a call from Monte to help him set up a studio and his office in Florida about six months after his move.  You could tell that these times were some of the most creative times for Monte, John remembers, as digital photography along with the internet were becoming a solid method to share thoughts and pictures around the word without the challenges of traveling.  He embraced both with enthusiasm and unrestricted creativity as a teenager discovering photography for the first time, and shared his experiences with others via Zuga.net, a website collaboration with a former full-time assistant Gary Bernstein who had struck out on his own in 1972 and become a recognized fashion and celebrity photographer and author.

Kevin remembers “We were with Monte for a four day class in Sarasota Garden’s when Monte got a call from Gary (Bernstein) about launching Zuga.net.  Monte was childlike with enthusiasm.  It meant a great deal to Monte to launch this site as it helped him, now more than ever, to be a world renowned photographer with an easy platform to teach.

Unusual for a photography magazine columnist, Monte mentioned aspects of his personal life in his columns, including his diagnosis of terminal cancer. Shortly after the diagnosis, he arranged a four-generation photo session that included himself, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchild, and photos from that session appeared in his Shutterbug column (the session he talks about also in the video below).

One of the most endearing tasks that Monte did for Kevin & John was that he wrote the foreword to their book “First Chance of Expression” in 2000.  Monte wrote:

“First Chance” may very well be your best chance to save countless years of trial and error building up your own photographic business.

The ultimate fact is, fellow photographers that whatever level you’re at in photography you’re going to find great, pertinent information in this book that will help you grow and prosper as a photographer and businessperson.

I’ve been privileged to watch Kevin and John grow and mature in their photographic endeavors.  I’m thrilled that they’re now ready to help others.

Kevin & John agree it was an honor knowing Monte, even more so for more being involved in so many aspects of his life’s highlighted moments.  Sadly, at the age of 77, Monte died from pancreatic cancer at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida surrounded by friends and loved ones.  Even in his passing Monte was involved in pictures.

Kevin & John are sure he would have loved this one as it was taken at his wake and digitally added.

The video below was put together by Clay Blackmore for one of Monte’s last public appearances.  We have also put the transcript to the video below.  https://vimeo.com/57858119

I never wanted people to just copy me, but of course if you are going to copy somebody it is not a bad start.  I was more interested in people having a road, setting a goal, and helping the people achieve that.  And, I think if we can get a few more people interested in photographic technique and learning the basics – Learning what posing and lighting is all about and starting to use that again Instead of just giving up and saying that I’m going to be a photojournalistic photographer, I don’t have to know anything about posing and lighting.  Then we find out what’s important.

I just had a family picture taken of me,  I am wreck talking Clay, a 4 generation of me with my children, grandchildren and great-grandchild and I look at that picture and realize that this is what we really need in the industry.  I think it’s wonderful to have pictures of the back of the dress and the buttons and the bows.  But, I can’t imagine somebodies grandchild saying “oh grandma, I’d love to see what your bra looked like. I’d love to see what the buttons on your dress looked like.”  I think that’s fine for some pictures, but faces and feelings is what it’s all about.

I decided a long time ago that I didn’t want to photograph the world as it is, I would rather photograph the world as I would like it to be.  And that’s been my goal, is to create these memories for people.  I had a teacher Joe Zeltzman that I studied with for ten years and I don’t know how many people I have influenced but the greatest student, friend, and love outside of my family is ….Clay.  Clay has taken me literally and to a new dimension and I am so proud and so thrilled that you still remember where all of this came from.  And thrilled to be associated with Canon because this is where the industry is and we are the leader’s wow. I am just overwhelmed by all the wonderful things that people have said to me over the last couple days at the show. I hope that I was able to give back to some of you who have been influenced by me directly or indirectly, and can see the world for how beautiful it is… to see the beautiful, positive things that are going around to appreciate the sunrise and sunset… and the birds and just seeing everything around and being happy for what we have…and that if you don’t have everything that you want… if you have love … and health, that’s all you need.

Thank you for staying at the show. You are completely flipping me out…as accustomed as I am to public speaking, you can stick a microphone in front of me in the middle of the night….and I stop stuttering and I can talk regular …so many of you have been a part of my life…and now that my life is drawing to a close, I can’t think of anything I would rather do than to share my life with you through photography.

Thank you for the memories then and now Monte… thanks for being our mentor and mostly our friend.

Monte Zucker – Everybody’s Mentor