“The payment for me has always been in the doing. I didn’t get into [photography] for a job.” – Michael Zagaris, Photographer
With the Z-man before a recent 49er game
Michael Zagaris is not a household name and many might not even ever consider him to be a celebrity. Affectionately known as “The Z-man”, Michael is not just a photographer, but he’s a historian. Anyone who has lived in San Francisco in the past 50 years has seen his work and appreciated his ability to “capture the moment” although they might not even know who he is. He’s one of them. Politically active, fiercely independent and living and brieathing a job that he’s passionate about, Michael embodies the heart and soul of what living in San Francisco is about for most people. Michael moved here after his first passion failed him. Michael wanted to be a politician and was working on Capital Hill until the fateful day when Bobby Kennedy was shot. “I was right there behind him” , he has told many. In fact he has photos (then a hobby) of the Kennedys playing football in their back yard. In fact, although lean and in good shape, Michael was at one time a college football player and aspiring football player (let’s just say he would not have been anything like Gerald Ford).
Michael Zagaris pre-game
To appreciate Michael’s breadth of work one needs not necessarily look at his work as art, but as a portfolio of photos that tell a story. Michael’s photos are a combination of his relationship to his subject matter and his ability to put you there with him. At a 49er football game last week, my son poked me in the side and said look, there’s Michael waving at you. People around me laughed thinking that I was waving at the 49er cheerleaders, which wouldn’t have been bad either, but it was nice waving at an artist who has captured the imagery of my youth. Today, Michael is the official team photographer for the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland A’s. You see, any sports fan, especially one from the San Francisco Bay Area would consider him to be the guy who has a dream job. On this day, the 49ers feted their original owner, Eddie DeBartolo, who saved the team and fans from misery and created a 5-Super Bowl dynasty during a halftime ceremony. Watching that ceremony is all you needed to know about Michael. Watching Eddie DeBartolo, come out, Michael started to take his photo but this multi-millionaire future Hall of Famer signaled for him to stop and hugged him first. This was followed by hugs with Ronnie Lott, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, Hall of Famers and celebrities in their own right. That’s Michael. A friend first, historian and photographer second. His photos touch your soul and each person tells their own story of their recollection of that era when they look at his photos.
Like the great San Francisco Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, Herb Caen, Michael has captured the aura surrounding some of San Francisco’s greatest moments. Whether it was covering the great hippie culture and music scene of the 60s-70s in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, the great 49er dynasty of the ’80s or the Oakland A’s and the beginning of the steroid era of baseball in the late 80s and early 90s, Michael took you right there and showed you his unique perspective.
Michael and A's Outfielder Mark Sweeney
You see, Michael can give you the classic baseball card photo of a guy holding his bat and smiling, but he has an all-acess pass that shows you that same guy after throwing a 100 pitches and grimacing as they pour ice over his sore shoulder. On his kitchen table I found piles of photos he had just taken for the Oaklan A’s professional baseball team. I have no idea how he organizes them, so I didn’t sort through them too hard and obvioulsy was not too concerned with the subject. “Ah, a Giants fan”, he said. He nodded as we both knew what we were thinking. The 1989 World Series between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants interrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake which became more famous than the players who played in that series.
Taking more Football card photos
Sitting at his coffee table of his apartment just around the corner from Haight and Ashbury, Michael let me thumb through his archives. Just like a bookworm who might have books sitting in piles from the floor to ceiling, Michael has rows of mounted photos leaned up against the wall waiting for someone to come along and hang them up (Divorced from the mother of his grown son, Michael had just broken up with his girlfriend and asked me if I knew any hip women. I did recommend a friend but that is another story). Michael hands me one photo after I tell him I was a big Madonna fan and shows me the classic photo of Madonna from her 1990 Blond Ambition tour with her Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra that set a fashion trend for a couple years.
Blondie. ©Michael Zagaris.
Michael, a historian was writing about English Rock’n’Roll when Eric Clapton noticed his hobby and told him he had real talent. From there Michael became linked to icons Roger Daltrey, Peter Frampton and Mick Jagger. He’s was added to their inner sanctum. As he rummages around a pile of photos scattered around the floor he throws in front of me a photo of Rick James….I look at him . “It’s Rick James, Bitch”, he says in his best Dave Chapelle impersonation. Rick James is leaning over a rock along the San Francisco Bay and snorting cocaine. He laughs and tells me a story about how he was going to do a cover shot for Rolling Stone Magazine when Rick James invited him to do some drugs. Well Michael in his convincing way somehow convinced a somewhat non-compliant Rick James to get outside and take a few photos. I can just see it. He has numerous photos around that tell stories. Stories that have never been told.
On my way out of his place we talk briefly about his marriage to a top model, the mother of his acting son who lives in LA. His son’s room is a shrine of baseball bobbleheads. It is the neatest room in this Upper Haight flat. He reminds me to let him know if I know of any women who would be looking for companionship. Michael is so cool. I don’t think I know of a single woman out there who could appreciate this eccentric visual historian of some of San Francisco’s most charming and colorful history.