Ambling through Prospect Park in Brooklyn with a cart full of photographic gear in tow, Bruce Polin is an unusual sight—and yet, he explains, the curiosity he sparks with his unfamiliar equipment can lead to powerful portraits.
Polin’s series Deep Park features all kinds of people: the only constant being that they have chosen to spend time in this common space. The series captures the remarkable diversity of New York and its boroughs, and Polin has a particular knack for capturing strikingly emotional gazes and tender moments between friends, lovers, and families.
I discovered Polin’s work in our Portrait Awards 2018, where Deep Park was awarded the third place, series prize. Curious to learn more about how he made these portraits and the inspiration behind the images, I reached out for a chat about this compelling series.
LensCulture: What first inspired you to pick up a camera?
Bruce Polin: Actually, my original love was theatrical makeup. I like prosthetic makeup design. My heroes were people like Jack Pierce—he did all the great monster movies for Universal Studios in the ‘40s. And, of course, Dick Smith—the genius makeup artist for The Exorcist (which came out when I was 13) and countless other classics. I bought my first camera when I was 14 to document my creations, my transformations, and that was pretty much it.
LC: When I was in high school, I was obsessed with the “behind-the-scenes” from The Lord of the Rings movies.
BP: Yes, exactly! That kind of transformation is really incredible, isn’t it? And then, for me, there was something appealing about transforming myself and seeing it captured in a print—almost bringing it to life, in a strange way.
LC: So, you bought the camera to document your creations. Can you pinpoint what about the medium appealed to you, even in those early days?
BP: You know, I like the solitude of photography. It’s a process that I can start and finish myself. Also, it’s a process that I have complete control over, which is very satisfying. I love the transformative nature of lighting. I love faces. They hold so much information.
I’ve found that walking around with a camera enabled a certain acute hyperawareness of my surroundings and the people around me; it honestly feels like being on a weird sense-enhancing drug. You witness relationships form and change around you. It feels very human on a basic, essential level.
LC: You often work in public spaces, and you frequently approach people you’ve never met before. I’ve found that I can sense when people are more receptive to a conversation. I’m curious—how do you tell if someone is open to you approaching them about a photo?
BP: There’s so much psychology involved in photography. As someone who has been working like this for many years, I’ve trained myself to pick up on little details and nuances of an interaction. There are cues you pick up on. Does someone turn their body to face you when you approach, or do they stay turned away? Are they making eye contact? Are they fidgeting with their bag?
Also, I use these huge cameras for my photographs. It’s a very slow process because it’s a mechanical large-format camera. That’s a conscious decision, by the way, because I am forced to work slowly. I have to set up, adjust the focus, use a light meter, insert a film holder…and all of that is done in front of the sitter, so they see that I’m working to achieve something that must be worth all of the effort.
A lot of patience is required on both parts. At some point, though, my subject becomes invested in the process and it becomes more of a collaboration—I never want to feel like I’m running up to them to steal a snapshot. Instead, I want them to feel like I’m building something, and I need their help. When someone agrees to be photographed, it’s a mutual agreement to spend time together, and I find that it isolates us. It’s like an invisible room takes form around us, and it all happens in a public space. I’m fascinated by how we construct very private spaces in public areas. I look for people or couples that are in that space, so I approach with care, trying hard not to break what they built. It’s all quite calm. In the best moments, there’s a real communion. It’s like cats touching noses.
LC: That’s a wonderful image. Can you give us an idea of what your day looks like, and how you decide who you’d like to approach?
BP: My day goes like this: I pack up my gear and walk to Prospect Park, which is not far from where I live. Sometimes I’ll walk around for hours before I’m compelled to unpack and set up. But sometimes I’ll see someone right off the bat who I find interesting for whatever reason. Maybe it’s something in their face, their choice of attire, or how they hold their body…their geometry. Or I’ll get a sense of some outward manifestation of an inner quality…loneliness, sometimes. Or Peace. Curiosity. Or it may be a quality I cannot pinpoint at first.
If I’m intrigued, I have a choice at this point. I could either approach them directly and explain what I do, or I can set up nearby with the hope that they approach me. That’s always the better of the two; they’re interested in my camera and my project, and we get to talking naturally.
But of course, sometimes people are simply walking by or in transition from one place to another, so I have to approach them. You just know that some people have no interest. I’m always grateful that they even take the time to engage with me, and often I’ll give them my card in case they change their mind.
Most people don’t know why you want to photograph them. They’re afraid of being taken advantage of, or of looking stupid. So there’s a bit of seduction involved, for lack of a better word—I mean, in getting someone to spend time with a person they’ve never met before and to trust me to take a photo of them. Once we’re engaged, it becomes a dance: I make a move, they respond; they shift to the left, I react. It becomes a collaborative thing, and it feels very natural, organic.
My main camera uses 8x10 film, and, once loaded, you can’t see through it. So I’m not behind the camera looking down, I’m off to the side, directly engaging with the people I’m photographing.
LC: Do you think that positioning is important to your practice?
BP: I think it’s important for the subject. The idea of someone looking at you through a machine could make them feel as if they’re a bug being scrutinized through a microscope, you know? So it’s an interesting process. I use this mechanical machine to engage with people—to get them interested in my process—but then I try to make it disappear.
I’ve also taken to using wide-angle lenses, which allow me to get in closer to my subject. I feel that they’re fitting for the intimacy of the exchange.
LC: I’ve often heard photographers talk about a “give and take” in portrait photography. Is that important to you in your practice?
BP: Yes, absolutely. It’s important that they don’t feel I’m only taking from them.
LC: Do you approach each interaction with a vision of the image in mind?
BP: No, I like the element of surprise. I like watching the transitions happen. I’m not interested in being clever. I’m interested in just letting the thing unfold in front of me and walking away with a worthy picture. I try to not begin a project with an overly defined and restrictive concept. It’s more instinctive than that. I’ll let the work amass and then step back and look at it as a whole, see what’s happening. Like, “hmm, so that’s what I’m doing!”
LC: Can you think of a time when you approached someone expecting something and then it grew into something completely different?
BP: I think there are times when you approach people and you’re bringing things to the session that have more to say about you than anything else.
LC: One of my favorite images is your portrait of Dominique and Stephan [above]. I noticed that you have two versions of that image, and I find them both powerful. What do you like about each image?
BP: Thank you for saying that. I really appreciate that. It was hard for me to choose between those two shots.
Their hands are completely different, and I find that part so interesting. In the first image, he’s wrapping his arms around her. To me, that’s about possession. He’s looking off into the distance, but he’s making a claim.
In the second picture, I love how her hand is wrapped around his finger. For me, that subtle little change made a completely different picture, but one that is equally compelling.
LC: I am so taken with her. She’s so strong—she’s her own person. She’s comfortable in that space.
BP: Yes, she is. She’s aware of her power and very present in those photographs.
LC: How long did they need to hold those poses for?
BP: I was shooting pretty quickly. I think I shot about six or seven different frames. I also changed position between these frames, as you can see—the bench changes. So there’s time between those shots, right? Because when you move an 8x10 camera, you have to recompose, refocus, take another meter reading, load your film.
So, the time between the images is probably a couple of minutes. If they happen to fall into some position or juxtaposition that I like, I’ll ask them to hold it. Then I’ll take a few frames in quick succession, because sometimes something very subtle happens…a tilt of the head, or a rearrangement in the geometries in their bodies that I particularly like. And that makes for a great photograph. With this couple, there were a couple of things that I found particularly telling about their relationship, too.
LC: Can you share?
BP: They just seemed so comfortable in their relationship, and so comfortable with me witnessing it. It’s really an honor when people just let you into their space. It might have to do with being in the park, actually. Why are people drawn to the park? Some people go to collect their thoughts, to empty their heads, to shed the layers of bullshit we’re always asked to wear. In the park, you can just be. I think people go to the park to be alone with other people, if that makes sense.
Maybe it connects us to some memory of being free or in control of our destiny or connected to nature. I don’t know. People seem more comfortable in their own skin.
LC: What do you hope your viewers take away from looking at “Deep Park?”
BP: I would hope that people would relate to some of the feelings that the images capture. I would hope that my viewers would see these people as people, no matter where you are from or what your background is.
From my perspective, there are a lot of bad things going on in the US right now. I want people to take away the thought that there is so much potential for us, as humans, occupying the same space. I would hope that my photographs could conjure something in my audience so that they make a connection with my subject.
LC: The wonderful thing about your format is it democratizes the people you photograph—they’re all photographed in a similar way, which is a powerful statement about what we all have in common.
BP: Very true. I think there’s something in the multitude of the different faces that I photograph. There’s a lot of power in that.
LC: You also capture a spectrum of ways that the viewer interacts with the camera. For me, that reveals a lot about a person’s emotional state. For example, your photograph of Sandra—I see someone who is caring, but unobtrusive…conscientious…
BP: Yes, shyness, too. And so much warmth. Look how she’s holding her head. So vulnerable.
LC: Definitely. Tell me—how did you come up with your title, “Deep Park?”
BP: Well, it’s a play on the term “Deep State” that became particularly popular during the 2016 presidential election in the United States. The series is an organic reaction to the polarization taking place in this country. I needed to go out and connect with people. There’s also the fact that I’m exploring the deep corners of the park (quite literally), but it’s also a nod to trying to create photographs that reach deeper, that (hopefully) delve beneath the surface.
When I’m photographing, I could not care less about where someone comes from, or their religion, or the tone of their skin. Really what I try to capture in these photographs is what it means to be human in environments where we are unthreatened.
—Bruce Polin, interviewed by Coralie Kraft