Visual Art

Photographer Zachary Balber Haunts Wealthy Homes in ‘Intimate Stranger’

Written By Douglas Markowitz
February 25, 2024 at 10:21 PM

“Whistling in the Dark to Keep Up My Spirits”  is one of the photographs in Zachary Balber’s gallery exhibition “Intimate Stranger” at artmedia GALLERY, 350 NE 75th St., Miami. (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

Zachary Balber, known across Miami for photographing the city’s museum and gallery shows, took almost a decade to assemble his gallery exhibition “Intimate Stranger.” It wasn’t because the photos took ten years to make – according to the artist, if he had showed them sooner, he probably would have been “buried in lawsuits.”

“I thought to myself, am I gonna risk my place in Miami?” he says. “Everything is very small. Everybody knows everybody. Many artists said to me, ‘Zach, you got to be careful.’ This is like a breach of trust.”

But what makes these photos so dangerous? Put simply, Balber took them surreptitiously, without permission, in various private homes around Miami. In some, he’s partially or fully nude.

“Bathing in Mapplethorpe” (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

“Intimate Stranger,” completed during Balber’s time as a real estate photographer, puts the artist in plenty of compromising positions. He makes himself at home everywhere he goes, lounging in children’s bedrooms (“Desperately Seeking Susan”) and in soaking tubs (“Bathing in Mapplethorpe”). In others he’s on a vintage Terrazza sofa in a red, ‘70s-inspired home theater watching “Austin Powers” (“Whistling in the Dark to Keep Up My Spirits”) and stands at the top of a stark white staircase as nude as Michelangelo’s “David” (“Crush On You”). He haunts these wealthy spaces like a mischievous gremlin, a surreal, Lynchian figure like the Mystery Man from “Lost Highway.” He’s at your house. You invited him. It is not my custom to go where he is not wanted.

The photos in “Intimate Stranger” imitate the glossy, space-enhancing style favored by real estate photography, which Balber started doing for a Chicago-based firm to make ends meet. “I learned about, you know, basically bad real estate photography across the United States and how much money it generates. And I was in shock. It generates, like $10 or 15 million a month, and you guys edit photos that look like crap!”

Nevertheless, his work gained him access to some of the most valuable properties in Miami, palatial estates and condos with bay views. As he photographed their interiors for listings, he would get asked by real estate agents, assistants, even architects for photos of them in the expensive houses. Or he would watch them take selfies in front of the homes for social media, all to create the illusion that they actually inhabited those posh homes. That got him thinking.

“Don Bailey Special” (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

“We all live in this sort of fake identity world now where all of us are promoting this idealized version of us that’s not really true. And I thought this is a brilliant idea for a photo series. I could use all these people’s interiors, and I could do the same thing.”

The risqué quality of many shots extends to the titles. In “Showing Ass,” he boldly displays his own behind next to a tower of pelvic ceramics, and in the suggestive, yet ultimately tame “Don Bailey Special,” referencing the iconic local carpet salesman’s nude advertising, although Balber wears clothes in his imitation. Balber was very aware that the owners of these houses might not take kindly to him swanning around their homes in the buck, which is why he consulted the likes of Richard Prince’s lawyer in New York.

“The attorney told me you have to wait at least five years. Because usually at the five-year mark, all the people who are touching these homes, or are in association with them, have been overturned,” he says. “I waited another couple of years just to make sure, because my objective was not to harm the people who gave me the opportunity to be in these places.”

Indeed, Balber describes “Intimate Stranger” as a therapeutic project, a way to make sense of the contradictions in his life. There was the element of class and aspirational living: Balber grew up working class in Pittsburgh before moving to Miami when he was 14, and his father, who Balber says served prison time for financial crimes, would tour him around wealthy areas like Aventura and Golden Beach to see the types of homes he would eventually photograph. Then there was the immense personal tragedy he faced at the time. All three of his immediate family members died during the making of the series: his mother from cancer, his father from hepatitis C, and his sister from a drug overdose.

“Golden Child” (Photo courtesy of Zachary Balber)

“My mother was simultaneously going through cancer treatments during part of this,” he recalls. “I would go to the hospital, and then the next day, I’d go back to another $10 million house. So I think the split between going to the hospital and seeing my life, and then going to see how everyone else lives, was pretty jarring.”

But it was the support of Miami’s art community that saw Balber through and friends like Loriel Beltran whom he met while attending the New World School of the Arts on scholarship. He began photographing art while working as a gallery assistant for New World professor and art dealer Fredric Snitzer. At the gallery, watching the boss pay expensive photographers with lots of lights and equipment to shoot his artists’ work, he realized he could create images of the same, or better, quality with the help of digital software – and he could do it cheaper.

“I thought this was a great idea,” he recalls. “I can take their images and make them look like (mega-gallery) Hauser and Wirth or some of the big guys. I would edit them so that they looked perfect.”

“Booties and Astro Turf to Walk on the Moon” (Photo courtesy of Zach Balber)

Since then Balber has become a fixture of Miami’s art world over the last ten years, though not necessarily for his own work. Instead, he’s celebrated as a photographer of other people’s art, shooting museum and gallery shows. I’ve run into him taking pictures at MoCA North Miami, the ICA, David Castillo Gallery, and other institutions around town.

“My art family saved me,” he says. “Sometimes, I could barely get up in the morning, but at least I could go to Loriel’s studio, photograph his new work and talk with him about artwork. And that was enough to get me going through the day. And eventually, it turned into taking portraits in people’s houses. But the art world really gave me my life back.”

WHAT: “Zachary Balber: Intimate Stranger”

 WHEN: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Closing reception Thursday, March 14 from 6 to 9 p.m.

 WHERE: artmedia GALLERY, 350 NE 75th St., Miami

 COST: Free

 INFORMATION: 305-318-8306 and is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at

latest posts

In ‘Multitudes’ at Frost Museum-FIU, Kacey ...

Written By Douglas Markowitz,

New York City-based photographer Kacey Jeffers gets his debut museum exhibition at The Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University.

MOCA North Miami Outdoor Art Series Returns with Focus ...

Written By Jonel Juste,

Art on the Plaza at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, began during the pandemic. Now it's become a must at the museum.

Miami MoCAAD museum sees the future as it unveils virtu...

Written By Sergy Odiduro,

At Miami MoCAAD’s, a project finds a link between two local communities not often paired.