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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I’m going to a tea party over on Avenue U.” “Interesting. Have you been to one before?” “Sort of, not really. I threw one once and it went off track.” “So, you grew up on the same block that my son will probably grow up. Do you think city kids are different?” “Yeah, I see city kids as their own thing, though Manhattan kids are also different from Brooklyn kids. But we’re also similar: As a city kid, you just become who you are a little younger.” ?May 4, 2019: Irene, who lives on my block, though we’d never met. (Turns out I photographed her dad for this project back in February.) #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #may #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #streetportrait #streetphotography #streetphoto #streetphotographer #streetstyle #brooklyn

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

”What are you most looking forward to in 2019?” “Good surfing!” ?January 1, 2019: New Year’s resolution/ new project alert: one portrait every day this year. Very exciting! (If it’s anything like my 1 Second Every Day video a couple years back, you should probably expect a lot of pizza makers and bodega dudes.) First up: @yusukemiyagawa, who I caught between sessions at Rockaway Beach on a very windy New Year’s Day. In a delightful twist of fate, it turns out Yusuke is a truly excellent photographer! Check out his website (which you can also get to from his Instagram profile): www.yusukemiyagawa.com. So good! An auspicious start. #resolutionportraits #portrait #portraits #portraiture #portraitphotography #portraitphotographer #environmentalportrait #oneportraiteveryday #1portraiteveryday #portraitproject #portrait_perfection #2019 #newyearsresolution #surf #surfing #surfer #surfboard #rockaways #rockawaybeach #rockaway #wintersurfing #winter #january #wetsuit #beach #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #newyearsday

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I’m bringing some stuff to my girlfriend’s place in Windsor Terrace, and then moving up to The Bronx later tonight.” “It’s already 5:30, that sounds like a lot.” “I’m also looking for a second job because my teaching gig doesn’t cover it. And I’m looking at grad school.” “Holy moly. School for what?” “Well, I was getting a Phd in theater, but decided I cared more about helping people, so I want to get into systems-involved mental health counseling. Foster care, or to help people who are in and out of detention. I want to create spaces where people—girls, especially—can feel honored.” “Wow. Do you get to relax at all?” “Tonight we’re going to meet up with friends to watch The Bachelor. I’ve never seen it, but I hear that’s what people do.” ?January 7, 2019: @jarule.ft.ashanti waiting for the G train in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. #oneportraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portrait #portraits #portraiture #portraitphotography #portraitphotographer #environmentalportrait #1portraiteveryday #portraitproject #2019 #newyearsresolution #winter #january #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #fortgreene #subwaystation #subwaytiles #nycsubway

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I almost made it to Whole Foods!” “And then I stopped you. Do you live around here?” “Actually I’m here for one week. I live in London for now, but I’m here placing in a modeling agency.” “Of course! You’re a model! How did I do?” “You gave good instructions… you were easy to work with… you have a good energy…” “… and I’m fishing for compliments, obviously.” “Facts!” ?March 12, 2019: @eelainekwok, obviously a model, in Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #winter #march #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #model #streetstyle #street #streetportrait #streetphotography #streetphoto #streetphotographer #style #fashion

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“My fingers are getting cold, so I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to play today.” “When did you start playing the recorder?” “When I got into paganism—wiccanism—around 1970. I was listening to Margot Adler on BAI a lot. She’s not around anymore. I was a graduate student for awhile at NYU, studying philosophy.” “As you’re a pagan philosopher, I have to ask if you can tell me one of the more important things you’ve learned.” “I guess it’s: Stay alert. Don’t take anything for granted.” ?March 16, 2019: Pierre, playing some Bach on a recorder in Prospect Park. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #winter #march #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #streetportrait #streetphotography #streetphoto #streetphotographer #prospectpark #park #nycpark #senior #recorder

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“Before I turned 30 I went back to the gym and started working out. I wasn’t feeling happy at the time. After two years of convincing, I started teaching spin classes, and now I’ve been an instructor for 18 years. It’s funny, a lot of the things I’m good at in life are things I was afraid of. It’s like, ‘I don’t want to tell people what to do, I want to honor their intelligence’—but I’m a fitness instructor and a mental health counselor.” ?May 2, 2019: @nathaliepilates, on her way to Crunch Fitness in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #may #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #streetportrait #streetphotography #streetphoto #streetphotographer #streetstyle #streetfashion #camo #camoflauge #brooklyn #fortgreene

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I’m going to meet my husband for dinner at Junior’s before going to a show at BAM. We’re having a real Brooklyn evening.” “What will you order?” “The onion soup. He’ll probably have a big sandwich.” “You must be going to @markmorrisdance’s ‘Pepperland’. I work at @bam_brooklyn. Are you a member?” “Of course! I’m a Brooklynite, after all.” ?May 8, 2019: Susan, near Grand Army Plaza, Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #may #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #internship #BIAC #streetstyle #streetphotography #streetphotographer #streetfashion #streetphotographer #advancedstyle

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I’m originally from Manhattan. I moved to Windsor Terrace for love. We met 12 years ago on a blind date at his restaurant.” “I don’t know much about blind dates, but that doesn’t exactly sound like neutral territory.” “I remember he was holding in his stomach behind the bar, in his black chef’s apron.” ?May 12, 2019: @robinita13, at @werkstattbrooklyn, a great Viennese restaurant that she runs with her husband, on the Prospect Park South/Kensington border. I thought it’d be fitting for @sonji_b (and Cove) and I to have Mother’s Day dinner there, as it was the last restaurant where we ate before becoming parents. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #may #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #werkstatt #prospectparksouth #kensington #kensingtonbrooklyn

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“We’re heading to a friend’s place to celebrate Eid.” “What does Eid meant to you?” “Eid is the end of Ramadan. It’s about starting afresh. At the end of Ramadan, you make a donation, called Zakat, to help the poor and hungry. We fast during Ramadan to know what people struggle through during poverty, to know what it’s like to not have food or money, so we can more fully understand why we are giving.” “And how do you feel now that the fasting is over?” “I feel cleansed.” ?June 4, 2019: @farhana_nana_bee (right) and Munni, on Ocean Parkway in Kensington, Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #june #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #kensingtonbrooklyn #kensington #yellow #humansofnewyork #streetstyle #streetphotography #streetphotographer #streetportrait #streetportraiture #eid #eidmubarak

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I have a day off, so I skated from Bushwick to Coney Island, and I’m on my way back. I love it, I get to see the whole city, or at least a lot of Brooklyn, which is pretty magical. There’s so much going on here.” “Can you tell me about your shirt? What is ‘human inside,’ a band?” “No, it’s just a reminder to people. That we’re all human, and that we’re all connected. It’s also my only tattoo—I gave it to myself.” “Do you think that message is becoming increasingly important as technology enables us to remain disconnected from others’ humanity more or more?” “Sure, but not in New York City, where generally people have the attitude that you can share a smile or a connection with a stranger, because we’re living on top of each other. It’s in other places that people need a reminder. They’re going from home to car to work to car to home and that’s it. I love it here. And what’s funny is, the more I travel and see other places, the more I love it.” ?June 5, 2019: @thesewergators, in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #june #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #prospectpark #prospectparkbrooklyn #skateboard #skateboarder #skateboarding #skater #humansofnewyork #streetstyle #streetphotography #streetphotographer #streetportrait #streetportraiture #humaninside

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I started riding a year ago. I love it. Worth every penny. It beats the train. At night and on weekends it takes me 20 minutes to get somewhere when it would have taken 45.” “And I’d imagine it’s fun, too.” “Yeah. Dangerously fun.” “Have you gotten in any accidents or fallen?” “I’ve fallen about four times.” “What’s the hardest part?” “Stopping.” ?June 19, 2019: @blazethesmoke, with his @onewheel in front of @BAM_brooklyn during a heavy rain. Hard to see in pic: entirely gold grill (with fangs), to match the outfit and the board. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #spring #june #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #brooklyn #humansofnewyork #streetstyle #streetphotography #streetphotographer #streetportrait #streetportraiture #oneweel #preferredmode #gold #goldgrill #brooklyngohard #brooklyngoeshard #brooklynwegohard

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I’ve been doing this for 25 years; I started one year after I came here from Guinea.” “How’s business?” “It’s ok. I don’t make as much as I used to. People are buying online.” “Where do you get your merchandise?” “Midtown Manhattan, near 34th St. I go every three or four days.” “You could probably buy it all online, no?” “Yes, but I like to see what Im buying. That’s better.” ?July 3, 2019: Abdul, in Kensington, Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #summer #july #newyork #newyorker #nyc #newyorkcity #streetportrait #streetphotography #streetphoto #streetphotographer #brooklyn #streetmerchant #kensingtonbrooklyn

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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!

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“I used to be a teacher, but it was too stressful, and now I’m trying something new: selling products on Amazon. I gives me a more flexible schedule, and I think the extra income will allow extra freedom. I’d like to not think about money so I can do what I want to do.” “And what’s that?” “I want to develop a video-based curriculum that will allow teachers to teach mental health in their classrooms. When I was growing up, no one talked to me about how to regulate my emotions. I suffered a lot and would not have had to if someone had taught me how to understand my internal experience.” ?July 15, 2019: Guiane, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #summer #july #brooklyn #streetportrait #streetphotographer #streetphotography #streetstyle #fortgreene

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“This neighborhood has changed; the summer is bad for most pizza places, but here it’s very empty. Now, most of my customers are very rich, with good jobs, and they are away on vacations for the summer, so it’s very slow.” ?August 5, 2019: Syed, at Mario’s Pizzeria in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Back when I was out all day shooting New York Bike Style (@preferredmode), this ride-up window was a frequent pit stop. A sidewalk slice and a cold can of Coke, with no locking up necessary, is a treat. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #summer #august #dance #streetphotography #streetphotographer #streetphotograph #nyc #newyork #newyorkcity #brooklyn #fortgreene #pizza #pizzajoint #pizzaplace #nycpizza

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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?

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“When I came to New York I had a list of three places I wanted to work: @BAM_Brooklyn, @apollotheater, and @brooklynmuseum. And I’ve done two out of three. Not bad, right? What’s next? Actually I really admire @ava and what she’s done. She started as a publicist, like me. And now I’m taking classes at @bricbrooklyn and want to get into making films. I have so many ideas.” ?August 26: I won’t tell you what @cynttate’s ideas are, because they’re really good and I don’t want you to steal them (before I do, anyway). But I will tell you that my brilliant @BAM_Brooklyn coworker, who started maybe a week before me, is a top-notch publicist, and one day she brought a King Cake in for Mardi Gras (she’s from New Orleans and is very patient with my undeserved nostalgia for her hometown) and it made my week. #1portraiteveryday #resolutionportraits #portraitproject #portrait #portraits #environmentalportrait #environmentalportraiture #2019 #newyearsresolution #summer #august #streetphotography #streetphotographer #streetphotograph #nyc #newyork #newyorkcity #brooklyn #fortgreene #streetstyle #stylephotograph #stylephotographer

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

 

View this post on Instagram

 

“We’re almost like psychiatrists. We’re definitely in that realm. People come here and they just talk. Whether they’re whispering just to their barber or talking to everybody, they’re able to get it off their chest. And that’s a big part of mental health, which is a big thing nowadays, especially in black culture. I feel like it’s super important. Since I’ve opened up the shop, I haven’t seen so many grown men cry out in public, but sometimes they’re, like, literally bawling in here. It isn’t a bad thing—sometimes you just need to get it out and move on and move forward.” ?November 21, 2019: @quanslife_, co-owner of @thestoopcuts in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Thanks to @akornefa for conducting the interview!

A post shared by Sam Polcer (@sampolcer) on

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.

share this story
Avatar

Liena Zagare

Editor of Bklyner.com. Tips? Complaints? Suggestions? Email me at Liena@bklyner.com.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *