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MAGICIAN IN FRONT OF AND BEHIND THE CAMERA
Kathrin Ebenhoch

von Kathrin Ebenhoch

March 05, 2024

MAGICIAN IN FRONT OF AND BEHIND THE CAMERA

Portrait of extreme climber and mountain photographer Heinz Zak

Many stories could be told about Heinz Zak from Scharnitz - about his first ascents of the world's most difficult climbing routes, his pioneering spirit on the world's highest slacklines, and his impressive winter crossings in the Karwendel. Here and now, however, on the occasion of his receiving the ITB Berlin Book Award for his photo book "Tirol - Magie der Berge" (Tyrol - The Magic of the Mountains), the photographer Zak takes center stage. With a look or two behind the camera at the man who is known to so many in the region and yet always surprises us.

Since his first book about the Karwendel in 1990 at the latest, Zak has been regarded as the local photographer of our region. Many, whether locals, businesses, or guests, have one or two of his photographs of the high plateau hanging on their walls. The fact that Zak came to Tyrol's high plateau and that it is now his home, not just photographically, was actually pure coincidence.

A coincidence with immense influence

Zak was born in Wörgl in 1958 and moved to Axams with his parents when he was in primary school. He later studied to become a secondary school teacher in Innsbruck. As such, he secured a job at the private secondary school in Scharnitz. That was the moment that would have an immense influence on his future life. "I actually only wanted to live and work in Scharnitz temporarily," recalls Zak. "But I particularly liked the workplace, and then I discovered the Karwendel and the climbing area in the Wetterstein and stayed." At first, he was fascinated by the climbing opportunities, but over time, the moods that surround the mountains and nature here became the focus of both him and his camera.

Zak has always been a photographer: even when he started climbing seriously at the age of 15 and later became one of the best extreme climbers in the world, he always had his camera with him. The hobby became a passion when he met the legendary landscape photographers David Muench and Ansel Adams on his climbing trips to the USA. "Their way of photographing just the mountain, nature, and the surrounding atmosphere was new." Zak began to photograph like them, trying to capture special moods on the mountain. In doing so, he followed his nature and his passion for the mountain. "To this day, there is nothing better for me than spending the night on the mountain and photographing the moods at sunset and sunrise," he enthuses. He considers himself fortunate to be able to do this. "I have the best life there is."

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Seven years of pleasure

The seven years he spent on his current masterpiece "Tirol - Magic of the Mountains" have brought him happiness: countless hours on the mountain, thousands and thousands of meters of altitude with 30 kilos of luggage, consisting of camera and bivouac equipment, on his back, and hours of waiting at all times of the day and year have been his greatest joy. "That's why I postponed the publication three times; I wanted to have a little more fun," he says mischievously, but then admits more seriously: "I was also afraid that I wouldn't enjoy being outdoors and taking photos as much once the book was finished." Even though Zak photographs out of his own passion, he draws a lot of strength and motivation from the fact that his pictures are seen. "That helps tremendously to stay in the bivouac on the Grossglockner at minus 20 degrees."

Staying out on the mountain at night is something he will probably continue to do, as he never runs out of projects. "We're working on a second version of the 'Klangwelt Berge' music evenings, and I'm also constantly making changes to existing things like my lectures." So you can be sure that the 300,000 photos that Zak has taken since 2016 for the Tyrolean photo book will not be his last of the local mountain world. He is too fascinated by capturing the right moment, the right light. The vast majority of photos are therefore preceded by a long planning process: "I visit almost every location several times and often have a picture in my head that I want to take." The right moment is then planned with the help of maps, weather reports, locals, and a lot of mountain knowledge. And yet it often takes several attempts, many hours of patience, and sometimes a bit of luck. As with the cover picture of "Tirol - Magie der Berge," Zak's declared favorite picture: "I was up there all day, and for a long time, it wasn't clear whether a photo would be taken at all, and then suddenly this light came." The light that makes the picture so magical and completely captivated Zak. "Being able to experience an atmosphere like this and capture it photographically fulfills me. These are magical moments."

Heinz Zak mit seinem Opus magnum

The incredible diversity of the Tyrolean mountains

However, the Scharnitzer found these not only in the changing sunlight. The variety in "Tirol - Magic of the Mountains" is astonishing: from classic mountain panoramas from a new, unusual angle to breathtaking nighttime images, artfully staged flower meadows, and autumnal plays of color, everything that Tyrol has to show in terms of beauty is there. Even some insider tips. It's okay for Zak to "give them away." "My book should also be an inspiration to take the time to discover our precious nature with open eyes and a wide heart." The man from Scharnitz deliberately chose the book medium because it is not so fast-moving and has a different mental framework than social media. Zak does have an Instagram account, but only fills it sporadically. Nevertheless, he is open to influencers: "I don't begrudge anyone the freedom to organize their lives the way they want to. I was allowed to do that too." The fact that some posts trigger a huge rush to certain areas is certainly unpleasant. But Zak himself is not affected by this. "Because at the time of day when I go there, there isn't a soul even on the famous bridge in the Zillertal."

Other perspectives, special points of view

He would probably not photograph them, and if he did, it would certainly be from a different, very special perspective. Although there are some classic motifs in his photo book, all the pictures bear Zak's very personal, artistic signature. The Kalkkögel (p. 186) look like the Himalayas because they were photographed from a perspective in which the mighty "Habicht" sits enthroned behind them, wrapped in a wall of foehn wind. The Großer Ahornboden not only shines in its golden yellow color, which has been photographed millions of times, but also in lush green or blurs impressionistically in the thick snow (p.111 ff). At night, its trees become extras for the starry sky, just like the Grossglockner (p. 249), which seems to bear the North Star and countless starry orbits as its crown. For this picture, Zak spent two nights on the mountain after a long period of planning, restlessly hiking up and down hundreds of meters in altitude for the perfect viewpoint in the first, but only found it 24 hours later in the second attempt. He returned fifteen times to capture the colorful splendor of a glacier cut on the Großvenediger (p.41) in perfect light. Only very rarely is a photo a lucky coincidence, like the one of the path to the Stüdlhütte on the Großglockner (p. 30), in which snow and rock form a bizarre pattern, the photographic qualities of which can only be recognized in passing by Zak's trained and artistic eye.

His view has evolved over the years, also thanks to the viewfinder of his camera. In contrast to many prophets of mindfulness, who today advise us not to distance ourselves from our experience with the omnipresent mobile phone camera like Max Frisch's 'Homo Faber,' Zak finds the camera to be the best companion: "It helps me to focus fully and immerse myself one hundred per cent in the moment." He likes to pass on this experience in his photography workshops, where he also benefits from the perspectives of his participants. "They have helped to significantly broaden my way of seeing and my horizons." And, as he writes in the foreword to his book, they have made Zak realize the most important objective of his photography: "I want to portray the beauty of nature in the most diverse ways." Everything, from the smallest flower to the mightiest peaks.

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On a level with the world's best

With this diversity of his photos, Zak has managed to put himself and Tyrol on a par with the works of the world's most famous travel photographers. This is why he received the ITB Berlin Book Award in the travel photo book category for "Tirol - Magie der Berge" in 2024 at the world's largest tourism trade fair, ITB Berlin. And thus ranks among the best landscape photographers in the world. It is particularly noteworthy that this is probably the first time a purely regional photo book has received this honor, which is impressively demonstrated by Zak's statement in the foreword to his book: "You don't have to travel halfway around the world to find magical places in nature. It is enough to go outside your front door with open eyes and a broad heart."

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Hand-signed copies of the illustrated book "Tirol - Magie der Berge" can be purchased directly from Heinz Zak. Further offers such as lectures, the music evenings "Klangwelt Berge," or photo workshops can be found at www.heinzzak.com

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