Howard Zieff still remembers how he found the people to photograph in 1967 for his most famous advertisement, which had the tag line, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's."
"We wanted normal-looking people, not blond, perfectly proportioned models," Zieff recalled. The advertisements, for Levy's rye bread, featured an American Indian, a Chinese man and a black child.
"I saw the Indian on the street; he was an engineer for the New York Central," Zieff said. "The Chinese guy worked in a restaurant near my Midtown Manhattan office. And the kid we found in Harlem. They all had great faces, interesting faces, expressive faces."
Those three images and numerous other examples of his advertising photography are in "The Genius and Wit of Howard Zieff," an unusual exhibition at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in the West Hollywood-Fairfax area. Zieff (pronounced zeef), now 74, went on to direct television commercials and then moved to Los Angeles to forge a successful career directing feature films in the 1970s through the early '90s, including "Private Benjamin," "Hearts of the West" and "My Girl." The increasingly debilitating effects of Parkinson's disease led him to retire in the '90s.
Surprisingly, many in Hollywood are unaware that the reticent and modest Zieff was perhaps the most significant advertising photographer in New York in the 1960s. His work still resonates today.
"Howard was a truly special talent," said Roy Grace, a former chairman of the advertising agency Doyle Dane Bernbach, now part of DDB Worldwide. "There was Howard Zieff and everyone else." Grace was the agency's art director in the 1960s, when he began working with Zieff.
"Howard was the primary force in a certain kind of advertising," Grace said. "His photographs were a dialogue with humor, a dialogue with what we call real people, which is now commonplace."
"Then everybody in advertisements was white," he added. "Every kid was tow-haired and freckled with perfect little buck teeth. Myself and my compatriots were a bunch of guys from the Bronx and Brooklyn. That was not our background. And neither was it Howard's."
The show of Zieff's work, on view through April 17 at Hawkins, one of the oldest photography galleries in Los Angeles, is dominated by some of his famous and humorous advertising campaigns for The Daily News in New York and Polaroid, as well as Levy's. The works on display are a small part of his career, which included print and television campaigns for brands like Revlon, American Motors, Mobil, Volkswagen, Benson & Hedges and Alka-Seltzer.
The Alka-Seltzer "Mamma Mia, that's a spicy meatball" television commercial is one of Zieff's best-known. In it, a man is eating a meatball for a television spot and keeps flubbing his lines, which means he has to continue eating meatballs. The result? He needs Alka-Seltzer. At the time, Time magazine called Zieff "Master of the Mini Ha Ha."
G. Ray Hawkins, the owner of the gallery, said Zieff's work went beyond selling products. "They're witty, there's a perfect pitch to his humor, they tell a story, and they're right on target," he said. "His photographs are 100 percent American innocence. We're laughing at ourselves at the same time that we're feeling good about ourselves."
Zieff's work for The Daily News was highly stylized and funny. The advertisements in the campaign all had the same point: people were so engrossed in reading the newspaper that they did not realize what they were doing. In one scene a gas station attendant was reading the front page, so absorbed that he had put the gasoline hose into his customer's pocket instead of the car.
Zieff's earliest advertisements for magazines and for television were almost defined by their use of people with ordinary faces. He chose actors who were young and unknown at the time, among them Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss. Those three were hardly considered traditional-looking actors, much less potential stars.
Charlie Moss, former vice chairman of Wells Rich Greene and now chairman of the advertising agency Moss/Dragoti, said Zieff's well-known print ads and television commercials for companies like Braniff International Airways and T.W.A. helped define the current business. "He brought the little guy to print and television ads," Moss said. "Here were these strange people. Real New Yorkers. His vision was to show real people."
Grace recalled that those choices did not always please the advertisers. "We had a battle with clients, selling some of these people," he said. "They wanted more traditional-looking types. Howard led the charge. He had the talent to pull it off."
Zieff grew up in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles, where his father ran a club where neighborhood men played cards. He studied art for a year at Los Angeles City College, then dropped out in 1946 to join the Navy, which eventually sent him to the Naval Photography School in Pensacola, Fla.
After his discharge, Zieff attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. By the 1950s he had moved to New York in a vain effort to find work as a director of television dramas. Running out of money, he got a job as a photographer's assistant and soon began taking photographs for advertising campaigns created by agencies like Cunningham & Walsh and Doyle Dane Bernbach.
By the time he was 25, he had emerged as one of advertising's top photographers. Soon he was employing 15 people in a New York studio.
"Howard knew exactly what he wanted," said Herb Sidel, a former assistant to Zieff who now represents him and other photographers at his company, Independent Artists. "There was a humor to his pictures but also a poignancy. You could look at them for hours."
The recent opening of Zieff's show brought out a number of Hollywood heavyweights, including the manager Michael Ovitz and several directors, actors and agents. Zieff himself is married to an agent, Ronda Gomez-Quinones, who represents writers and directors at the Broder Kurland Webb Uffner agency. Although married only five years, they have been together for nearly 30.
At their home in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, Zieff said advertisements today impressed him enormously. "Some of them are smart, some are funny," he said. "The images are much stronger."
He played down his own importance: "I don't like to blow my own horn. Was it considered daring? Maybe. Everyone was blond and perfectly proportioned. I didn't want that."
Zieff said it was not especially easy to find the right faces. "Look, for the Levy's ad, I shot many photos that failed," he said. "They weren't the kinds of faces that gathered you up when you went on the subway.
"That's what I wanted, faces that gathered you up."
Reprinted with permission from The New York Times.