Zack Arias is working on his bucket list. Recently, the Atlanta-based photographer checked off one item when he went to Hong Kong for the "cheap camera challenge" sponsored by the social media network DigitalRev. "They give you a really horrible camera," he says. "I had no choice of my subject material. They handed me a flash that wasn't really made to work with that camera. And then I was set loose in a market, in a place where I don't speak the language, to try to make the best photos I can." Yet Arias prevailed: His portraits of butchers, textile workers and new-wave teens are compelling and intimate. He was well-prepared for this challenge.
Arias, who's been teaching in Missoula this week, got hooked on photography 15 years ago when he took an intro class at the University of Georgia in Atlanta. To jumpstart his career, he bought massive amounts of equipment, which led him down a dangerous path. Financial problems led to personal unraveling.
"I was buying a lot of stuff on credit cards and going heavily into debt," he says. "By the end of 2001, my whole life had come crashing down. And I had to walk away from photography for about two years."
When he returned to shooting, he came to it simple. He had one flash, one lens and a camera body, and he vowed never to go into debt again.
"That's all I have and I have to make the most out of it," he says. "And it was the greatest thing for me ever as a photographer."
In the last decade, Arias has taken that tough life lesson and turned it into technique. After frequenting online photography forums–the water cooler for freelancers, Arias calls them–he was asked to teach a workshop in Tampa, Fla., to show how, with just an old umbrella and an old flash, a person could still create striking photos. That workshop led to more One Light workshops.
"My One Light workshop is built out of all the mistakes I made, all my failures," he says. "We can really do a lot with one single light source and it doesn't have to be expensive or the coolest or the nicest. It just matters what you do with it."
Arias has used the one-light method to shoot press photos for Atlanta bands and independent labels and to do other freelance editorial and commercial work. This week in Missoula, he's teaching students at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography the one-light method. Getting Arias is a coup for the RMSP school and, likewise, Arias has a soft spot for this place. "The people [at RMSP] are great," he says. "They've built this amazing community of photographers from all over the place. And this is a gorgeous town with really good beer and good coffee."
His first time through Missoula was in a VW bus on a cross-country trip. It was 1995. Arias was in his rough patch. "I was at a point where it was either take a trip or take a bullet," he says. He stayed in a truck stop and attended a rave at a community center in Lolo. His second trip was last year, when he came to teach his first RMSP workshop. Everything was different. Having survived the dark collapse of his life, he was now being touted as a photographer on the rise.
At 39, Arias is ready to tackle more bucket list items. He wants to shoot portraits of singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (He already has Hansard's cell number. "I have to work really hard not to drunk dial him," he laughs.) He wants to shoot Willie Nelson and Jack White, whose minimalist style parallels Arias's. He wants to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone.
In the meantime, he's putting his workshops on hold–Missoula is only one of three he's teaching this year–to build his portfolio.
"My stories were starting to get old," he admits. "I want to stay relevant and bring in new material. And so far it's been worth it. I'm happy. I'm shooting again."