Amongst the 100 top selling albums last year were 8 dead singers, (Elvis Presley, Bob Marley, Roy Orbison, Amy Winehouse, and David Bowie, Prince, Michael Jackson, Leonard Cohen), 5 dead bands, (The Beatles, Bon Jovi, Abba, Queen, Oasis), and 19 greatest hits albums of music recorded in the last century.
It wasn’t always this way.
The introduction of the Compact Disc changed music buying habits from only buying the latest release to buying music from any point in history.
Video and DVD did the same thing for film.
The internet did it for virtually everything else.
The reason I drag you through this history lesson is to try to explain that there was a time when people didn’t have the ability and consequently the interest to look at back catalogues.
So, in 1988, when a super-hot director, showed me his prized u-matic commercials shot before I was even born, it was weird.
But they were magical.
The Director, Nick Lewin, laughed his way through the reel, a reel he’d presumably seen hundreds of times.
The Director of these old ads was called by Howard Zieff, and when you look at them again here it’s easy to see why.
It’s the sheer humanity.
And humanity never goes out of fashion.
Here’s what I know about Mr Zieff.
He was born Howard B. Zieff in Chicago in 1927, (October 21st.)
He then grew up in East Los Angeles, the Boyle Heights section, where his stepfather ran a club where neighborhood men played cards.
He attended the Los Angeles Art Centre.
He was enlisted into the Navy in 1946, pretty soon he became a staff artist on the Navy News, before being sent to Navy Photographic School.
Navy Motion Picture School was next where he shot his first film was ‘Day In The Life Of A Cadet’.
“I learnt the basics in the Navy; what a pan is, what a tilt is, how to strip a camera, how to print and develop film, I got an education if film opticals that was better than any photographer’s assistant could’ve ever had.
But aesthetics, the Navy weren’t interested in.”
When he left the Navy he decided to go back to The Los Angeles Art Centre to study photography, becoming a newsreel photographer for a tv station in Los Angeles upon leaving.
In the early fifties, Zieff moves to New York hoping to find work as a television director.
Out of work and knowing few people in a new city he spends every afternoon in local cinemas.
Running out of money, he takes a job as a photographer’s assistant for ‘a guy who put together Ford catalogues.’
When his boss refused to raise his $45 a week salary, he quits, investing his entire savings, $200, in a loft above the Belmore Cafeteria.
(GEEK-FACT: It can be seen as the cafeteria of choice by ‘Taxi Driver’ nut-job Travis Bickle.)
He starts shooting for local companies, specialising in people.
This leads to more prestigious advertising jobs.He starts long term relationships with magazines like Ladies Home Journal, McCall’s and Esquire.
He starts to get a reputation for shooting that most difficult of subjects; kids.
His New York Daily News campaign gains him tremendous recognition.By the time he’s 25, he’s making $100,000 a year and has his own studio employing 15 staff.
The Lipton campaign for Y&R offers him a chance to demonstrate his lighting and child wrangling skills.By the late fifties he’s shooting for the best agency in the World; Doyle Dane Bernbach.
Campaign’s like Ohrbach’s allow him to cast the previously uncastables.
Another DDB NY ad for Len Sirowitz and the Better Vision Institute.He began shooting for Polaroid in the late fifties.
A relationship that would last nearly two decades.
Spoof.The most famous work of Zieff’s career has to be Levy’s.
A radical idea, particularly fifty odd years ago, beautifully shot.
“I shot many photos for Levy’s that failed.
They weren’t the kinds of faces that gathered you up when you went on the subway.
That’s what I wanted, faces that gathered you up.
The Chinese guy worked in a restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan office.
I saw the Indian on the street, he was an engineer for the New York Central.The kid we found in Harlem. They all had great faces, interesting faces, expressive faces.”The campaign went ‘viral’ before the term viral, being referenced and spoofed across culture.The Utica Club campaign allows Zieff to perfectly replicate the America his grandparents.A Zieff Christmas card from the sixties.
In the late sixties Zieff moved in to the former Grolier Club at 29 East 32nd Street.He shot many VW ads, primarily for the station wagon.The Sony ads he shot for DDB, (yep, we’re still on DDB), are perfectly cast.
(Sony outtake.)He starts directing, unusually for photographers turned directors, his moving stuff is even better than his non-moving stuff.
‘‘I never looked at them as a commercials, to me they were mini movies.’’
This meant he wouldn’t cast his ads ‘pretty’, ‘In those days everyone in tv ads were blond and perfectly proportioned; I didn’t want that.’
Instead he wanted real people in his castings, searching not just for a look but ‘a certain quality’ the actors had.
It was reflected on his sets too, he was like the anti-Norman Rockwell, demanding imperfection.
That could mean cigarette burns on a coffee table, the plug socket overloaded or a button on a shirt that had come loose, no detail was too small in his search for realism.
It has also been said that Zieff was the first commercials director to treat the actors like actors, to let them do their thing, not the usual cliches of the genre.
Bill Bernbach said ‘he casts like no-one else, he makes you believe it like no-one ’.
At the time he was feted as ‘The Fellini of commercials’ and ‘The master of the Mini-Ha-Ha’, it meant he was getting budgets of up to $100k in the 1960s.
He told New York Magazine at the time; ‘I will only produce a commercial that solves a problem for me – for my ego, or my aesthetic needs or if they’re fun.’
(I have to give a shout out to Vinny Warren and his crew for sourcing the bulk of these ads.)
In the early seventies he switched to movies.
They were all big name productions, but aside from ‘Private Benjamin’ and ‘The Dream Team’ not films I’m aware of.
(I may try one or two, possibly ‘Slither’ or ‘Hearts Of The West’, I’m probably not going to give ‘My Girl 2’ the benefit of the doubt.)