Interview by Jan Kedves
JK: What do you see when you look at your own pictures?
MZ: I certainly do not see myself. What I see in my pictures depends on their subject and the situation. There is no formula. I take pictures very intuitively and quickly. I get involved in a situation, I wait for the moment of surprise. I’m not shooting with a planned image in my head.
JK: Still there seems to be a common thread to your pictures: In most cases they depict a certain type of personality in extreme situations.
MZ: But sometimes I shoot just atmospheres. Last year for instance I took some very dismal pictures of city landscapes, without any people in them. I took them at the site of the Palast der Republik, the building of the parliament of the former GDR in East-Berlin, when there was nothing left of this monstrous monument but a ruin. While it was torn down, there was for a few months the most spectacular, ghostly and dystopian scene I have ever seen in my life. This huge torn up wasteland right in the middle of Berlin, only a few steps from the old cathedral. I guess generally speaking one could say: Whether I take pictures of people or atmospheres, whether I shoot a film or write fiction, I’m a hardcore-realist, radically subjective and very lyrical at the same time. Brutal but beautiful.
JK: To what extent is the black and white aesthetic important to your dark gaze?
MZ: Colours tend to produce an effect of superficiality; often they distract a viewer from the essence of a photograph. Black and white has more mysticism to it. That becomes my dismal gaze. And gloom is essential to my attitude. Though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I’m a pessimist, dark atmospheres attract me much more than the dominant optimism that people seem to be injected with everywhere today. That’s my character. I’m melancholic but also very relaxed.
JK: You took pictures in West Berlin and London in the 70s, in New York and Los Angeles in the 80s and in Moscow in the 90s, today you are shooting again in Berlin. Are historic continuities better expressed in black and white?
MZ: Absolutely. My pictures seldom reveal the time of their making. Sure, when one sees a car in them that clearly belongs to the 70s or 90s, then the period is obvious. But I have taken pictures in Lourdes in France in 2000 and pictures in Russia in the mid-90s – they all look as if they were from the 50s.
JK: This timelessness doesn’t evoke nostalgia though, on the contrary: Your pictures seem to demonstrate that the world hasn’t changed that much, contrary to popular beliefs. It still looks as dismal in your pictures as it looked 50 years ago.
MZ: Exactly, and it does so although today we live under completely different circumstances. For example, there is no reason anymore why people should starve on the streets. Today there are many different ways of helping the poor and the homeless. But obviously nobody wants to better their situation. That’s what my pictures of Moscow show first of all. When I was there in the mid-90s I took many pictures of poor street bums who were lying helplessly on the streets. Sometimes I was their last living contact before they died.
JK: You mean you were forced to decide whether to take a picture of them dying or to help them?
MZ: There was no way I could help these people, I couldn’t call an ambulance nor do anything else. All I could do was maybe slip them a last cigarette, that was all. Nobody cared about these bums. They were lying at the same spot for days with pissed pants. It was winter, they were suffering to the very end, they were slowly dying away. But the people of Moscow just walked on by. Even when they were dead they often were lying there for hours before somebody took notice or cared to put a plastic bag over their heads. What I’m saying is, my pictures show that the world will never change. There will always be rich and poor, there will always be a caste of privileged people and others who got nothing. I’m not a crusader though, I’m not that presumptuous. I’m not jumping the barricades saying: I want to change the world with my photography. All I do is draw people’s attention to certain conditions, without judgment.
JK: The people you take pictures of: Are they crusaders?
MZ: Not at all. Often they are very lonesome, lost and sad creatures. Many of them have commited suicide, some of them have died from an overdose, others have ended up in the nuthouse without making any headlines. Sure, sometimes it’s only the situation that’s sad and the people amazingly manage to defy their situation in a kind of apotheosis.
JK: Is it this motif of apotheosis that joins the pilgrims who you photographed in Spain and in Lourdes in 2000 with the gay cruisers you photographed in New York in the early 80s?
MZ: There is a continuity, yes. People need a release. In this respect there is no difference between a person lying in a corner high on heroin dreaming of God and a poor old blind woman who goes to Lourdes and listens to sermons for hours, hoping that this will affect her personal crisis in any way. We’re talking about loneliness and misery – and individual ways to deal with them. I’m as much interested in a person who masturbates publicly in New York as I am interested in people who in their misery feel the need to turn to a God. I find the latter more tragic though. Because in fact it can be very funny when a gay guy in New York pulls down his pants at the Fuck Piers and says: I might be the ugliest black queen in town, but fuck you, I’m having a fabulous time!
JK: You are talking about one specific picture from 1982. How did you as a photographer get this black guy to present his naked ass and cock to your camera out on the open street?
MZ: He was an exhibitionist who I guess was turned on by my presence. Of course in a situation like that the chemistry has to be right. I’m not sure how exchangeable I was in this moment, maybe he would have done his show for every random Tom, Dick or Harry. But it may well be that he felt an erotic tension that he projected onto me. When I was living in New York in the early 80s I used to wear tight leather pants and I shaved my head. Most people took me for a gay man. But I also had totally different experiences at the Fuck Piers: Sometimes I was attacked by people or somebody would shoot at me. There were not only drag queens or poor gays, who were usually quite welcoming, but also lawyers and other people from the so-called respectable society. They wanted to stay anonymous while they were blowing off their sexual steam and they didn’t like it at all that there was a photographer stepping on their toes.
JK: What was your impression of New York in the early 80s? We are talking about an era that has been rediscovered only since a few years now.
MZ: I came from West-Berlin and had also spent some time in London in the late 70s, which means I had already witnessed the aggression of the punk and skinhead movements, their absolute will to transformation. This Zeitgeist was actually even stronger in London and West-Berlin than in New York. But what was so striking in New York in the early 80s was the individual freedom. At this time you could buy crack, cocaine or any other drug on every street corner. In every ruin – and there were thousands of ruins – there was something going on: S/M sessions, parties, performances, whatever. People had created their own possibilities of retreat in public spaces. For example the West Side Piers, the so-called Fuck Piers, these dilapidated halls that were taken over by the gay cruisers. At this time New York saw an unbelievably self-confident outbreak of homosexuality that became very visible publicly. The whole city seemed to be proud of its self-confidence – as if there were no borders left to tear down.
JK: Then came AIDS.
MZ: Exactly. AIDS was one of the reasons why the Fuck Piers were closed. They started to get disassembled already in 1983. Today there is nothing left of them – like in Paris there is nothing left of the old pavillons of Les Halles. At the time I was working at the club Danceteria as a bouncer, and I can recall exactly the first AIDS benefit party that happened there. It was in 1983, the party was for Klaus Nomi whom I had also gotten to know personally. This unrestricted joy, the unprotected sex, the pride, which the gays had fought for in the 70s – all this suffered a severe setback through AIDS.
JK: In this sense a number of your pictures have the same ghostly quality as some of Nan Goldin’s. In 1979 she photographed gay life on the beach of Fire Island, and when one looks at these pictures today, one thinks: A lot of these men must already have been infected with HIV, but nobody knew about it.
MZ: Yes, it’s very likely that 80 percent of these men were no longer alive a few years later.
JK: How did you get this bouncer job at Danceteria?
MZ: I knew a guy who was working as a booker, he invited all kinds of British Bands to play at Danceteria. His name was John Baker. He knew about my photos because in 1981 the Village Voice had run an article about my work under the headline „Teutonic Phenomenographer“. The article was about my pictures from the Fuck Piers. That’s how I made my name in New York. John proposed me at Danceteria because I was young, strong and big. I could defend myself. The owner of Danceteria, Rudolph, was also a German. Or to be precise: He came from South America, his father had been a Nazi who had fled to Argentine after the war. Rudolph made a career as a club owner in New York at that time.
JK: Did you get to know Madonna at Danceteria?
MZ: Of course. I knew Madonna as a little punk when she was dancing at the club every night. Back then she hadn’t released a single record yet. I even cast her for one of my short films. But my producer from Vienna didn’t manage to scratch up the last thousand dollars for the budget so the film couldn’t be made. Otherwise I would have been the first director to do a film with Madonna. I could have discovered her! (laughs) Same thing with Billy Idol: I came to a party, there was a guy lying on the floor snoring. Total drug knock-out. John Baker goes up to him and says: “Billy, Billy, wake up, I want to introduce you to Miron.” Billy Idol gets up and says: “Miron, your pictures are so great, I want you to do my next cover.” He keeps on babbling for three minutes, then passes out again and falls flat on the floor. That must have been in 1981. Shortly after that Billy Idol went to Los Angeles where he signed a contract with some big major company. After that he had no say whatsoever anymore in his career. He couldn’t choose his producers, and he couldn’t choose who was taking his pictures.
JK: Do you still have the tapes of Madonna’s audition for your film?
MZ: There was no audition. I knew Madonna from Danceteria and there I saw how much talent she had and how ambitious she was. I just asked her whether she wanted to participate in my next short film and she said yes. I think I would have just let her improvise in front of my camera. I also recall a conversation I had with her back then, about drugs. I was standing at the door at Danceteria, she came in, “How do you do?“, then we started talking about cocaine. She said she wouldn’t do coke – because of her voice.
JK: What “voice”?
MZ: Exactly! (laughs) And I thought: Don’t all musicians do coke?! All the people whom I knew back then were taking every shit drug there was. But Madonna already knew exactly what she wanted and she was very principled. I also remember that when I was having my exhibition at the Danceteria – on the fourth floor which at the time was called the »Congo Bill« – she showed up half an hour prior to the official opening. She walked around in silence and looked at every single one of my pictures very thoroughly.
JK: So even back then she was already hunting for inspiration for her programme of adapting subcultural aesthetics to the mainstream?
MZ: Exactly. Around that time she also started a fling with Danceteria’s DJ, Mark Kamins, who then in 1982 produced her first record. That’s how the tables turn: I was already known when Madonna still was a total nobody, now Madonna is the biggest Star and I’m completely forgotten! (laughs) Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arrogant. I never was. I just think it’s interesting how Madonna became so successful while I still live on a shoestring.
JK: What’s your take on subcultures today?
MZ: Good question. As far as I’m concerned all we get these days is untalented wannabe-popstars and minor celebrities from reality shows. They have driven out subcultures completely, at least from being represented in the media. That’s why nobody from a subculture seems to have a chance of breaking into the mainstream anymore. And the people who used to be involved in subculture, all they do today is sit in front of their computers, write e-mails and figure out ways to increase their Google name search results. I think if there still are subcultures out there somewhere, they must definitely be happening offline.
JK: Coming back to your aesthetic: In what way has post-war Germany shaped your photographic gaze?
MZ: Post-war Germany has influenced me more than anything else. I was born in 1953, right after the war. I have haunting childhood memories of crippled veterans, of mutilated widows, of total nutcases with foamy mouths. And all those ruins! The first six years of my life I was growing up at my grandparents’, in a very small house. The old woman living opposite the street had snow white hair, allegedly it had turned white the very moment her husband fell in Russia. Whether that was a myth or the truth I don’t know. But that was the atmosphere I grew up in. We lived in a desolate province in Southern Germany, in a small hicktown. The man who had been the district superintendent under Hitler was still living there unbothered. Nobody was upset about his presence. My grandmother had supported Hitler. She was a good-hearted woman, but totally naive. She didn’t see further than her own front garden. Her husband, my grandfather, was a communist. Think of that! When the Nazis came parading through the village, my grandmother shouted “Sieg Heil!” and my grandfather lifted his fist. He was sent off to Russia rather quickly.
JK: This all sounds like from a book.
MZ: I know, I always say it was like in a Kafka novel. When I read Kafka as a teenager, it reminded me instantly of the time with my grandparents. That was also the time when my obsession with literature started. When I was 13 a student who lived with in my parents’ house gave me a copy of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”. And a few books by Sartre. I got acquainted with all of world literature as a teenager. I wanted to read it all – although I was a total failure in school. When I was 17, I read Nietzsche’s „Thus Spoke Zarathustra“. Think of that: Nietzsche went as far as nobody else dared, he wrote about euthanasia and megalomania. Every sentence an imperative and a paradox! Nietzsche’s smart-assing was unbearable, but at the same time he was grandiose and brilliant. I guess I could say that this freedom – the freedom to feel what one feels and to express what one needs to express – determined my whole life. Most people have no use for freedom, they prefer to adapt to all sorts of constraints and behavioural codes. They are totally happy to be marionettes. But I can’t live like that. And as long as I can’t live like that, I’ll be having a hard time.
JK: You are also talking about your artistic career?
MZ: Of course! Most of my photos are way too crass, I seem to always go too far. Why am I not in the Guggenheim collection yet? Because there are too many swastikas in my pictures. Why haven’t all the gay museums in the world bought my pictures yet? Because I don’t make homosexuals look beautiful enough – and because I’m not gay myself. Take Alvin Baltrop for example, another photographer who took a lot of pictures at the Fuck Piers in Manhattan in the early 80s. In the last two or three years he’s been rediscovered. He was gay. And there’s another difference…
JK: Alvin Baltrop is dead.
JK: You mean you’ll be famous once you’re dead?
MZ: Maybe then I’ll get my big retrospective, who knows! I think that’s cowardly – the museums, the galleries, the magazines, they’re all cowards. They always wait with the big retrospectives until the artist is dead. But that of course provokes me to come up with even harsher attacks. Next for instance I’ll be flying to Sofia und Bucharest – I’m sure I’ll find a lot of miserable people there living on the streets surviving under the breadline. That’s the Europe I want to show in my next pictures. Look at me, I’m 56 now. I have been a drunkard, I’ve been taken to jail and a policeman tied my hands so tightly they almost had to be amputated – I have been through so much I could as well be lying on my sofa and be kaput. But I have always kept in shape. Which means I still have a future ahead of me. In the next ten years I want to be able to finally live off my photography. After all I can’t be sure if with 66 I’ll still be strong enough to say: „Fuck you all!“