Photographer and documentarian Bob Zahn relocated from New York City to Calipatria, California to pursue his series American Gothic II, which focuses on the people and landscape of nearby Slab City. Zahn studied film at NYU and participated in the making of Street Scenes (1970) with director Martin Scorsese. From 1980-2010, Zahn owned Broadcast Video Rentals in New York. Zahn has written, produced and directed his own films, including Miracle on the Waterfront. www.bobzahn.com
Julia Dean is a photographer, educator and the executive director and founder of the Los Angeles Center of Photography. She began her career as an apprentice to pioneering photographer Berenice Abbott and as a photo editor for the Associated Press. She has traveled to more than 45 countries freelancing for numerous relief groups and magazines and now concentrates on street photography. She is the author and photographer of the award-winning children’s book, A Year on Monhegan Island.
An off-the-grid community in California’s Sonoran Desert, Slab City is 156 miles northeast of San Diego and miles east of the Salton Sea. Slab City is both decommissioned and uncontrolled, and its population varies from about 150 more permanent residents in summer to several thousands of ‘snowbirds’ in winter. The site derives its name from concrete slabs that remain from the abandoned WWII Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap.
When Bob Zahn showed me his latest project, American Gothic II, a fine art photography collection of Slab City, I looked at him and said, “America needs to see this.” Slab City is in the Sonoran Desert in California. According to Wikipedia, it “is used by recreational vehicle owners and squatters from across North America.” Because the temperatures in the summer can easily reach 120 degrees, only around 150 people live there year round. They choose to live there mostly due to poverty, to learn to live off the grid or simply just to be left alone. There is no electricity, running water, sewers or garbage removal.
Zahn was drawn to these residents from the minute he discovered Slab City. He gained their trust by making visits with his camera. In 2014, he moved to Calipatria, a town of 7,095 residents just 13 miles away from Slab City. There is no better way to document a place than to be in the middle of it, which Zahn has done for several years now. The project is far from over.
This body of work is a true documentation of a unique American place. The portraits are real, and the words meaningful. Zahn talks to each person at length about why they choose to live in Slab City. Take a look. Something in this body of work is bound to move you.
Julia Dean: What led you to photography and how long have you been doing it?
Bob Zahn: I’ve been involved in the arts since I was six years old, and I’m a visual thinker. At 18 I got my first camera, then at 20 I bought my first Nikon, and that started it all. I’ve always been a portrait photographer for many reasons, but basically as I went to film school at New York University I realized that the close-up is the most important part of the movie. How you take that close-up really reflects on the person and the story.
I was at NYU during the era when Martin Scorsese was a teacher and Oliver Stone was a student. And I saw incredible clashes between the two of them because he was just back from Vietnam and Marty was not into that whatsoever, but I could see Platoon and Wall Street right there in class.
“I love to give, and what I could give
people was a portrait of themselves.
It felt very intimate.
I enjoyed that enormously.
— Bob Zahn
JD: Wow, that is amazing. From film school then, did you proceed to have a career in film?
BZ: The last day of registration for my senior year, I received a rejection letter from the American Film Institute (AFI) as a film fellow, and there was a job that became available in the industry at a very famous rental house. So I had a choice: go back to school for only liberal arts classes, since I had taken all of the film classes, or there was a job. So I took the job. I began working for a company, eventually running their video department and progressing through there. I saw so many things about to come in the future but also saw so many things they were doing wrong, so I took the opportunity to start my own company in 1980.
JD: How do you identify as a photographer?
BZ: I’m a portrait photographer. I also tell stories with my photographs. So I would describe myself as somewhere between a portrait photographer and a documentary photographer.
JD: Did any one photographer or one moment or one time in history spark your interest in photography?
BZ: Well, this is what is so unusual: the answer is no. But I love to give, and what I could give people was a portrait of themselves. It felt very intimate. I enjoyed that enormously.
JD: Speaking of intimate, all our lives as photographers we’ve always looked through the camera. Someone looks back into the camera and you have that very special moment between you. Even though there’s a camera in between you, you still feel it, and you’re waiting for this great, candid moment to happen. How do you feel about taking pictures with a digital camera, where you have to look at the back of the camera and they’re looking at the front. Do you find that more difficult?