This month, in our continuing coverage of the Louisville Free Public Library’s artist-in-residence program “Collider,” Insider spoke with Zed Saeed, an art and documentary photographer who works with large-format film and digital cameras.
Saeed is a transplant from the coasts who now lives in Old Louisville with his spouse.
“Most of my upbringing was in New York City and Los Angeles — mostly in L.A. That’s where I met my wife,” he says.
The move to Louisville came when Saeed’s in-laws, who live in Lexington, started needing a little more attention. Saeed decided to go to graduate school, and he’s now in his second year at University of Louisville’s Hite Art Institute.
His bachelor’s degree, from Hampshire College, is in film studies, and Saeed has spent the majority of his career working in the film industry. But his first love has always been photography.
“My father was an amateur photographer. He was a civil servant, so he was a bureaucrat, but he loved photography, and I grew up playing with his light guide. He had this light tree, I have pictures of me somewhere, I was 3 or 4 years old, and I’m holding my father’s camera,” says Saeed.
One of his biggest influences as a photographer came from his father’s subscription to Life magazine.
“He would finish the magazine and give it to me,” says Saeed. “I was very inspired by that, by the tradition of photo essays. Those photo essays were amazing.”
Saeed often uses a large format 8×10 camera, with analog film, for “fidelity, clarity and realness,” and when he’s working on a project, he gets to know his subjects before he photographs them.
For a landscape project he worked on, he made multiple visits to a site to get a feel for its light and sense of place. With portraits, he conducts interviews.
“I did a series on the refugees that have settled in Louisville … you really spend time, you talk to the person, make them comfortable, find out who they are. And then you click the shutter and get your shot,” he explains.
Saeed has had a good deal of success as a photographer, receiving grants from the Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project and the Kentucky Arts Council, but he’s excited to work on his craft during his residency at the library.
“There’s a really significant difference between a grant and a residency,” he says. “In a grant, you have a lot of pressure to create work and justify your existence and the grant you got. A residency is different. The people who give you the residency understand that part of that time will be spent on your development as an artist.”
Saeed notes that another feature of a residency is interaction, and he’ll be making contact with library patrons in a couple of ways, including offering two free workshops.
“I’m doing a workshop on how to take better photographs, (and) I’m doing a workshop about better design, working with composition,” says Saeed. “Everybody has a smartphone. Everybody takes millions of photographs. They may not think of it as ‘photography,’ but in my mind, that is the most egalitarian, democratic photography there is.”
He’ll also be offering a photography session open to the public, where anyone can come in and get her picture taken.
While that session will be published and listed on the library’s website, Saeed notes it won’t be the only time he’s taking pictures of the library’s visitors. He’s been doing it a little bit every day.
“I try to interact with people and take their photographs,” he says. “It’s a little trickier. I’m not a candid photographer, and even if I were, I wouldn’t just sneak through the aisles and take pictures of people.”
Instead, he starts conversations and asks if he can take pictures. Sometimes that process works in reverse.
“Sometimes people will just see what I’m doing, see me in the back, with the lights, and they’ll walk up to me and start talking to me,” he says.
When he takes those pictures, he uses a digital camera so he can print it out a little faster than with film, and he hangs up the photos so people can see them. With so many people carrying smartphones, people have become accustomed to mostly seeing pictures on a small scale, made by a digital camera.
“For them to see a large-scale digital camera, and then an 11-by-14 print? People, when they see really exceptional portraits, it affects them differently,” he says.
Saeed’s next workshop is titled “International Day Portraits,” and he’ll offer free portrait sessions during the library’s second annual International Festival. It’ll be held on Saturday, Sept. 22, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
And on Saturday, Sept. 29, he’ll host “Foundations of Art & Design,” and talk about the seven elements of Western art and their application in photography. It runs from 1 to 2 p.m.
All sessions are held at the South Central Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library, 7300 Jefferson Blvd. They’re all free, but it never hurts to register by emailing [email protected].
You also can see Zaeed’s series “Finding Home: Refugees and Immigrants in Louisville” in the Bernheim Gallery at the Main Library.