Amir Zaki

Amir Zaki

Work from Relic.

“With the advent of the digital age, deception in photography has never been easier, and Amir Zaki makes the best possible case for its artistic benefits. His brilliant and compelling portraits of retro-chic lifeguard towers in Southern California are the product of nearly as much image manipulation as actual documentation, and the result is that we see them with entirely fresh eyes.

Many photographers of the manmade landscape play it fairly straight, using careful composition, lighting, and large-format printing to lend drama to their matter-of-fact subject matter. Bernd and Hilda Becher, the German couple whose deadpan pictures of early industrial architecture gave rise to an entire school of photography, are entirely literal in their depictions, allowing their gritty subject matter to speak for itself without technical intervention. More recently, some of their followers have embraced various types of editorial alterations, choosing subtle techniques that are not always obvious in the final result.

Zaki, on the other hand, is much more upfront about using any and all available tools to bring to life his much more stylized version of reality. An earlier series put individual LA houses on a diet, distorting entire structures into impossibly skinny slivers, which were then printed in an extreme vertical format. In another set of images, Zaki replaced all the existing signage on older or abandoned commercial structures with an invented symbol system of highly suggestive, but completely mysterious pedigree – Mayan or Martian, perhaps. What was surprising was how weird such a simple substitution made his ordinary structures seem – are our cities really that odd?
The lifeguard towers in Zaki’s current exhibition aren’t so much odd as they are atmospheric: back-to-the-future cockpits for cultural time travel. They’re also virile and sexy in a very streamlined sixties way; seen from below like statues or monuments, they stand out against perfect California skies like symbols of progress achieved through order and vigilance, like the tractors and tanks in Soviet propaganda posters.

The show is much more impressive in person than online, with the high-focus clarity and elegance of the imagery greatly heightened by the huge scale of several of the prints. Two of the very best tower pictures in the exhibition have been printed in this large format, and they demonstrate what’s so striking about the series. Untitled (tower 30) is a portrait of a sky-blue guard tower against a sky-blue sky, the dominant monochrome only interrupted by the silvery sheen of the truncated safety rail on the tower’s deck. Unoccupied, shuttered, stripped of all identifying detail, the structure shares with the others in the show no visible connection to place – it could be anywhere. In its perfect, digitally amped-up color and smooth lines, it is control made seductive – unthreatening, cooly mechanical. Untitled (tower 42) is a skinnier, mustard-yellow version, with the sleek lines and dramatic angles of mid-century ocean liners, transcontinental trains, and pin-up girls.

It’s fascinating to compare pictures found online of actual California beach towers to the Zaki versions. Besides removing signage, fasteners, and any other interrupting blemishes, Zaki has also eliminated the access stairs, nearly all of the guard rails, and most of the supporting structure. Most crucially, his upward view exaggerates the size and height of the towers, which in reality are only ten feet or so above the beach. Zaki’s imposing viewpoint and monumental treatment also heightens the subliminal connection between the boxy, heavy-browed structures and a gigantic, robotic head; we imagine a race of protective (or oppressive) sentinels, rugged, implacable, and all-powerful.” – Gary Falgan for

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