Zachary Balber’s Voyeuristic Romp Exposes Miami’s Grandiose Real Estate Delusions
The uncensored full series of secret performance stills can finally be seen at this new exhibition during Miami Art Week
This was so exhilarating for me, the excitement of possibly being caught at any moment,” says Zachary Balber.
This uncensored, full series of secret photographs by Zachary Balber was 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. 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. 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 requiring bleak, lifeless interiors that Balber just couldn’t resist the urge to transform into what he calls his “secret performance stills.
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. Every self-portrait was photographed by Balber himself with a remote trigger in his hand. 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. “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 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: 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. Intimate Stranger is curated by Jose Antonio Navarette, one of the leading fine art photography experts/curators in the Americas.
“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 he realized that he was looking at pictures of a stage that yearned for a performer. “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?!”
The addictive side of Balber’s personality kicked in, and he was hooked. He had discovered a way of acting out that made him feel better about his life falling apart, about the way that his own home life was being shattered. To let loose the kid inside of him so he could play. To jump up and down on people’s beds. To get naked while no one was looking.
And so, with an intense private mania, Balber became the subject of his own gaze. He felt overcome with the urge to insert himself and disrupt the way these marketing images were meant to be viewed – especially when he witnessed the realtors and their assistants taking their own selfies, for fake self-propaganda on dating sites and their LinkedIn pages. “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 uber-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. Every day I couldn’t wait to get home to show these secret performances to my friends. It felt to me like every day I would come home with the Golden Ticket from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. ”
Balber is a photography-based artist who explores identity through human connections, transparency and vulnerability. In his practice, he permeates boundaries by using photography as his password. He sees photography as a medium society uses to quantify reality, while at the same time it is easily distorted and manipulated, making it the weakest proof despite its popularity. By acting as a conduit between beauty and reality, Balber feels like he is a spy in the hive.
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.
He is drawn to the moments that unveil the truth, the humanity in imperfection and the seemingly ordinary. By trying to describe what we cannot see, Balber reveals the peripheral perception acquired through a lifetime of looking. His photography is the receipt of his reality, exposing his truth of what it means to exist.
Poking 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. He was being paraded in front of their clients by some of the biggest real estate moguls in town, they were proud of this artist they had recruited to shoot their real estate photos and to help sell their multi-million-dollar listings. “I felt like I was going on extravagant vacations every day inside these houses,” says Balber. “I was going along for the ride of these fantasy lifestyles. I relished the secret idea I was hiding, of the photographer as a performer, privy to elite information. I couldn’t believe what I saw, I couldn’t believe some people actually lived like this. People started to associate me with money and success based on my association with luxury real estate.”
In three images, Balber drapes himself in the American flag that was presented to his grandfather in honor of his service during the Vietnam War. He wears the flag in the manner of the Jewish traditional Tallit prayer.
At the time, one of the real estate moguls even offered to buy the rights to all the photos Balber had taken for their firm, but the artist refused and walked away from it all, right before the pandemic hit. “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.” There are reasons why so many in the arts community were pushing for Balber to show these works in their full, uncensored entirety. To lay it all bare. To Balber, it feels like the photographic language of Miami real estate imagery is infecting everything. He feels it has become the Hallmark card for this type of allure that is meant to only attract the wealthy. “This photographic language of our era feels like it could be a new canon for discussion in the arts,” says Balber. “Nobody trusts these fake images anymore.”
The series became a way for Balber to take some of his power back. To re-frame the way he saw himself at that time of his life. It was like a leveling up for him. He shared the images with his longtime therapist. He even showed them to a cyber-psychologist who specializes in cyber profiling for the U.S. government. They all agreed there is an unconscious element expressing itself through these performance photos. “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. When they see this exhibition, it would be fun if people think to themselves – Did Zack really portray these secret performances in people’s homes, or are these images just another example of fake propaganda?”