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Zachary Balber’s photo series exposes Miami real estate secrets

|   Gallery Blog

by: Queer Forty Staff | Dev, 7, 2023

The uncensored full series of secret performance stills can be seen at this new exhibition during Miami Art Week.

This uncensored, full series of secret photographs by Zachary Balber were kept under wraps until now – understandably so, until a sort of statute of limitations for these works had safely passed, allowing the artist to show these to the public – just in time for Miami Art Week and Art Basel Miami Beach, and on view now at Artmedia Gallery through Feb. 23

Several are nudes and semi-nudes done in seconds while he rushed to get naked as the realtors were momentarily distracted in the next room. None of the realtors knew he was taking these clandestine, anti-art photos at the time, and they would not have allowed it if they knew.

Aptly titled Intimate Stranger, the new exhibition is luring the curious over to Miami’s Little River Arts District, on view now at Artmedia Gallery located at 350 Northeast 75th Street. Every self-portrait was photographed by Balber himself with a remote trigger in his hand.

“This was so exhilarating for me, the excitement of possibly being caught at any moment,” says Zachary Balber. 

This is the first-ever showing of all 150 photographs in this series, taken between 2013-2019 when the artist was hired by some of Miami’s biggest (and most notorious) real estate moguls to photograph over-the-top celebrity houses that were for sale at the time.

Sales photos that required bleak, lifeless interiors: Balber couldn’t resist the urge to transform them into what he calls his “secret performance stills.”

“This was so exhilarating for me, the excitement of possibly being caught at any moment,” says Zachary Balber. “To be able to add a degree of personal risk to these otherwise blasé real estate photo-assignments was a real turn-on for me. I liked the feeling of danger, of what could possibly happen if these realtors suddenly came back into the room and caught me with my pants down and my balls hanging over an expensive pillowcase.”

These secret performance stills were created during a time in Balber’s life when he was confronting painful losses. Not all of the self-portraits are raunchy, many of the images reflect Balber’s dealing with the deaths of three family members during a compressed period of time: his mother, his father, and his sister all passed away five years apart.

“At the time, my Mom was undergoing cancer treatment and I would ask her to give me some of her cancer wigs so I could wear them for the self-portraits,” adds Balber.

The show is years in the making, up until now a whisper-campaign by a select few in Miami’s art scene who were in-the-know, many of these art influencers encouraged Balber to finally let the cat out of the bag.

The long-awaited reveal coincides with Miami’s reckoning for local artists who are being squeezed out because they cannot afford to rent places to live, and many are losing their studio spaces too.

“I felt like I had to find a way to hack the system,” says Balber. “I hope that by seeing this series, people remember to take risks while making art and not just decorate people’s homes. And when they see this exhibition, it would be fun if people might think to themselves, Did Zack really portray these secret performances in people’s homes, or are these images just another example of fake propaganda?”

“When I showed these to my friends and fellow artists, they were shocked. They said to me, ‘You really did this? Are you out of your mind?’!”

“Lies are the basis of real estate photography, to project a fictitious lifestyle” says Balber. “I was asked to create hyper-exaggerated images, with extra-extended wide angle lenses to elongate the way the rooms would appear.”

The realtors asked Balber to “anesthetize” these interiors, to make them look so “perfect” that it seemed no one had ever lived there. To take all the life out of them. This is when the photographer realized that he was looking at pictures of a stage that yearned for a performer.

“Everyone I saw around me during these real estate photo-sessions was portraying a false persona,” adds Balber. “At the time, I was going back and forth between being ushered in to photograph these wealthy mega-listings and visiting my Mom in the hospital while she was dying, so this became a way to lift my own spirits. To re-enact my childhood fantasies of growing up to be a movie star or a famous rock star.”

Poking fun at Miami’s exaggerated hyper affluence and real estate circus developed into a way for Balber to delve deeper into his own personality and identity, via these impromptu performances inspired by outlandish surroundings.

“Artists can’t afford to live here anymore, rents are skyrocketing, it’s not the same as my parents’ generation,” says Balber.

“Every week I hear from an artist friend who lost their studio space because the rent increases are too expensive. There are not the same opportunities for my generation to create wealth the way my parents did when they were my age. There’s a terrible choke hold that artists in Miami are feeling now, every day there are more and more messages telling us You Can’t Live Here.”

Balber’s work has been exhibited at the Frost Art Museum, the Jewish Museum of Florida, Spinello Projects, the Frederic Snitzer Gallery, and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, among others. His work is featured in the permanent collections of UBS Art Collection (New York); the Joseph M. Cohen Family Collection (New York); the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum (Miami); the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City), and more.

Intimate Stranger is curated by Jose Antonio Navarette, one of the leading fine art photography experts/curators in the Americas. The photographs are presented as archival fine art prints on Hahnemühle Hemp paper, in three editions/sizes.

Intimate Stranger is now on view now at Artmedia Gallery located at 350 Northeast 75th Street, Miami until Feb. 23