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Sonoma Photographer Ron Zak: A Life in Pictures

Posted on April 24, 2008 by Sonoma Valley Sun

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Like many a 1960s happening, the trippy scene at Nicholson Ranch earlier this month was a mixture of merriment and purpose. The steady flow of wine made for a jubilant afternoon, but a keen desire to bring about social change was well expressed by a number of placards, one of which read: “Make Wine Not War.” The beautiful people present were a colorful blur of Pucci print mini-skirts, purple velvet dandy suits and exploding tie-dye. The same wind that created gentle waves in the lofty spring grasses of the surrounding hills whipped bulbous Afros and blond backcombs into a hairy frenzy.
Above the fray, a sturdy guy with a bullhorn was determined to capture the attention of the dozens of denizens. The call to action on that particular occasion was not one of protest against an unjust war or for civil rights. Sonoma photographer Ron Zak was trying to get the members of the somewhat unwieldy group to stop fussing with guitars, surfboards and dogs and to start focusing on his whirring camera.


“It’s like being the director of a movie when taking photographs like this because you need to come up with enough light, tell the characters where to go and always keep the energy level up,” Zak said a few days after the hectic shoot. “I want to see everyone’s eyes, because it’s the best way to tell if everyone is involved in the process.”
Zak was at the Nicholson Ranch Winery on the breezy day to capture on film the very essence of that latter-day be-in. The resulting photograph will act as the centerpiece of the marketing campaign for the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, which will be Aug. 29-31. For 16 years, Zak has taken the wacky photographs that appear on the event’s posters. The collection has been displayed in numerous locations, including The General’s Daughter Restaurant in Sonoma.
The flashback to the Summer of Love will make for a wild and woolly Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction at Cline Cellars on Aug. 31. The evening is renowned for its outlandish themes, hilarious winemaker skits and fabulous food and wine. Since its inception, $7 million has been raised for worthy groups like Boys and Girls Club Valley of the Moon, Sonoma Valley Hospital Foundation and Vineyard Workers Services.
The event’s groovy tagline proclaims: “You’re not hallucinating, you’re in Sonoma Valley!” said Zak with a hearty chuckle, “I was at Woodstock and what those of us who were there like to say is: ‘If you remember, you weren’t there.’ What I tried to capture in this photograph is the notion that when you’re present and fully engaged time just seems to whiz by.”
Zak’s own long, strange trip has taken him from blue-collar Pittsburgh, where he was raised by a steel worker father and stay-at-home mother, to the bloody war in Vietnam, where he found himself as a 19-year-old soldier, to Left Coast college life, California-style.
“As an undergraduate, I started studying chemical engineering but it was a beginning photography class I enrolled in as an elective that truly changed the direction of my life,” Zak said. “Mine is a story similar to those I hear from my students all the time about creativity not being supported early on. All creative people need to make the choice concerning what it is they’re really passionate about.”
Armed with master’s degrees in art/photography and psychology from California State University and his impressive portfolio, Zak was ready for his first major show. He was asked to exhibit at a gallery connected with the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute. Zak named his collection “The Human Situation.” That theme would serve as inspiration for both his fine art and commercial work.
In 1979, Zak moved to Sonoma and started doing photography for newspapers and magazines. He went on to start Zak Photographics, which specializes in advertising, book illustration, fashion and portraiture work. After the resounding popularity of Zak’s innovative and whimsical photographs used by Gundlach Bundschu Winery for its ad campaign, he became the local wine industry’s favorite photographer.
Zak has also committed himself to teaching others the joys of photography. He teaches at Solano Community College and is the International Education Coordinator at Napa Valley College. Every year since 1992, he has led credit courses with 15 to 20 students to such far-flung locales as China, Cuba, Greece and India. Zak even returned to Vietnam, where he was most impressed with the beauty of the country’s landscape and its joyous people. This winter, he will travel to Indonesia with another class.“
The key to taking good photographs, whether it be at home or in a foreign country, is being present and connected to your subject,” Zak said. “Every photograph I take represents a memorable relationship, each with its own set of dilemmas and joys. I have always found the human element to be the most important.”




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