A Portrait A Day 2019: Photos of Neighbors by Sam Polcer

A Portrait A Day 2019: Photos of Neighbors by Sam Polcer

About this time last year, Kensington resident Sam Polcer was making new New Year’s resolutions. The 42-year-old married father of then 4-month-old needed a creative outlet and a settled on taking one portrait of a different person every day, and post the photos on Instagram.

Polcer, a content strategist at BAM and occasional freelance photographer and writer, is quick to admit that “the approach is totally unoriginal and there are probably hundreds of people doing exactly the same thing where they live. Like, in many cases I’ll describe the project to a subject I’ve approached as ‘pretty much the same thing as Humans of New York.'”

The outcome, however, is an honest depiction of life here, in Brooklyn, in 2019 as seen through the eyes of one of its residents. The conversation snippets allow us glimpses of folks pausing to interact and to occasionally reflect on the moment.   Below are some of the images he captured this year along with a lightly edited conversation about the project.

Bklyner:  How did you get into photography?

Polcer: I’ve been interested in photography since high school – I was a founding member of my high school’s photography club. Then a friend bought me a copy of Eugene Richards’ harrowing monograph Cocaine True Cocaine Blue, and I think it left a mark. It showed me the power that a still image has to tell a story, as unsettling as the stories in that book are. (I ended up going to film school anyway.) I still have it.

Much later, a colleague gave me a copy of Jamel Shabazz’s Back in the Days, which is all street portraits of the hip-hop scene in the 80s, and I admired the way Shabazz recognized that there was something special happening around him and documented it honestly and respectfully.

Both projects required an intense amount of dedication, in very different ways.

I took pictures on and off over the years while I held different jobs; a magazine published the photos I took while working for the Big Apple Circus for a year. Much later, I became the photo editor of Hemispheres, United Airlines’ magazine.

Eventually, I was handed a contract to shoot photos of stylish New Yorkers and their bikes for a book appropriately titled New York Bike Style, which required me to ride my bike around New York City for a year, stopping strangers to take their portraits. Somehow we convinced Casey Neistat and David Byrne to provide intros and pose as well. Did some assignments for the New York Times and other publications, mainly focusing on subcultures, performance, and nightlife.

B: What was it like committing to taking and posting a photo each day?

Polcer:  I think of it as a daily practice and as a diary: a record of my year on Earth, as told through the images of the people I interacted with. Sort of a flip book. A few years ago I did one of those “One Second Every Day” videos, and this was similarly motivated.

I suppose if I had more time every day to work on it, the curation of subjects might feel more deliberate and the interviews could go a bit deeper, like Humans of New York; on many days I’m scrambling just to make sure I get somebody before the clock strikes midnight, so I’m wandering around my neighborhood.

That said, I think the limitations and occasional desperation can sometimes make for interesting, unexpected results. Regardless, I think it’d be disingenuous to ascribe any sort of motive or intention beyond its origins as a New Years resolution. I just wanted to make sure I stayed busy with something that didn’t require sitting at a desk or standing at a diaper changing station. I didn’t know what was going to happen.

B: What has been the biggest takeaway from this endeavor? What have you learned about yourself? Our neighbors?

Polcer: Oh, so much. Nearly every day there’s a period of time where my emotions go from anxiety to triumph, and in between, I get to experience a connection with a fellow human, and occasionally a byproduct is a decent photograph.

We know that there’s more to people than our fleeting perceptions of them, that that the guy making your deli sandwich is so much more than that, and every day I get to be reminded firsthand. It’s really humanizing, in a time of increasing dehumanization and isolation. And in those cases where the subject is already a friend, it forces me to interact with them in a new way, thereby adding a dimension to our friendship. It’s all a reasonable amount of work for no money, but it feels great.

I will say that I underestimated the degree to which having a very young kid and a job would put me in the same places every day. There’s a lot less variety to my life and a lot more routine than there used to be. The majority of the pictures were taken in Kensington (home) and Fort Greene (work). Fortunately, those are two of the most fascinating, diverse, interesting places in the world, and I’m happy to try to represent that.

I also underestimated how surprising people can be. I’ve had my expectations defied so many times.

B: Tell me about your most challenging shoots.

Polcer: Well, the most challenging times are the ones where it’s a weeknight, I know that I need to put my son to bed, it’s cold, raining, and dark, and that I will screw the whole project up if I don’t go out and find someone in the next hour. It’s also at those times when people tend not to be the least receptive.

As far as the shoots themselves… I guess it’s when the light is hard to work with. Bad interior lighting. But for the most part, I feel pretty good once I’ve got someone to agree to a picture. I never have much time, which means I can’t be a perfectionist. In sounds counterintuitive, but the restrictions are freeing.

B: How do you pick your subjects? Is there a particular interest?

Polcer: It’s a combination of things. Approachability and style are two typical considerations, and I’ll try to make sure that I’m being as accurate as possible when representing the different types of people I see or talk to every day.

If I realize I’ve photographed women five days in a row, for instance, or everyone’s the same age, I’ll try to switch gears.

B: How do you get people to agree to be photographed?

Polcer: By being as unthreatening and friendly as possible. Flattery helps. I tell myself that when a person turns me down, it’s not my fault—they just had somewhere to be, or didn’t want to have their picture taken. Like, prior to doing this, I don’t know if I would have stopped for me!

B: You seem to personally know a lot of the folks you photograph – family, colleagues, neighbors. How does that change -how you photograph them (as compared to folks you don’t know)? How do you think the photos are different?

Polcer: Well, regarding the choice to photograph people I know: As I said, the only rule is that I take a portrait every day. That’s it.

And if this is to be a diary of sorts, it makes sense that it would include the people I know. I don’t think it changes the way I photograph them. Maybe I’m less respectful of their time and take more pictures, because we’d be hanging out anyway?

For some reason it’s hard for me to tell if there’s a difference between the photos of people I know and those of strangers. On the flip side, I tend to forget to get quotes from the people I know, because I figure I can just pull something out of a conversation later.

B: Why posed rather than street photographs?

Polcer: More control, less creepiness/invasiveness?

Mostly, there’s an interaction involved, which is a major part of why I wanted to do this. I also like that it’s usually a new type of experience for the people I’m photographing, and allows them to express themselves. Expression and creativity can still be honest, even if it’s staged. I also think a portrait allows for a connection between the viewer and the subject, whereas a candid street photograph is as much about documenting a moment as it is a portrait of somebody. Both are valid, just very different.

B: What do you shoot with? How much and what do you edit the photographs with?

Polcer: If you’re not a photo nerd, feel free to skip to the next question! The first couple of months I used the more portable FujiFilm X100T with a 50mm adapter, and then decided that the portability was its only selling point against my workhorse Canon 5D Mark II, usually with a fixed lens ranging from 35mm to 85mm.

I only carry one camera and one lens with me most days, and I’ll switch it up for various reasons, mostly to ensure variety. Limiting myself to one forces me to get creative. I do some light editing in Adobe Lightroom, just applying and tweaking different presets. I try not to spend too much time on it.

B: How do you pick the photo to post?

Polcer: My wife is the secret weapon. I’ll narrow each day’s session down to a manageable number of selects, between, say, three or 15, and she’ll help me decide which one to post.

“Good photographs are the ones that would be impossible to duplicate,” Polcer says.

We hope you enjoy checking out the people he encountered this year, and that it may remind you of your own neighbors, events, and situations. Tomorrow, December 31, 2019, Sam Polcer’s project will be complete.