When the subject of “regulars” comes up, I think of folks who visit a given place in a habitual way. After reading Sarah Stolfa’s photobook The Regulars, perhaps the immediate context is of a favorite club, tavern or bar. That probably arises from the series of photographs she made while running the bar at a downtown joint in Philadelphia. But on reflecting how we spend our lives, there are haunts that we continually find ourselves returning to, otherwise why would there be those who discuss things with you as though it was part of a continuous conversation?
You become e a “regular” when you frequent the same bar (they pour your drink before you even ask), as well as the same grocery store, tavern, pizza joint, hair salon or perhaps even a cosmetic counter at the one of the mall boutiques. From the other side of the counter they seem to know about your kids, your recent vacation, problems you had with the car and what your likes and dislikes are for their particular shop. They seem to know you want your pizza with extra black olives, or at least the Italian restaurant down the street from us seems to remember that for me. Regulars start to build personal relationships that are not so much deep friendships, but become closer than being outright strangers. This is what Stolfa seems to have tapped into.
In a technical photographic sense, Stolfa’s project reminds me of the style of Diane Arbus, that of a direct frontal photograph of an individual using direct flash. The lighting is somewhat harsh and flat, with Stolfa’s images captured in color rather than Arbus’s black and white images. Arbus became known more for photographing a segment of society’s called “freaks”, but I really don’t want to try and venture how to characterize a group of individuals who repeatable frequent a bar with a reputation for cheap booze.
Perhaps a segment of Susan Sontag’s essay on Arbus’s body of work is equally fitting for Stolfa’s Regulars…”In the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait, facing the camera signifies solemnity, frankness, the disclosure of the subject’s essence. That is why frontality seems right for ceremonial pictures (like weddings, graduation) but less apt for photographs used on billboards to advertise political candidates….What makes Arbus’s use of the frontal pose so arresting is that her subjects are often people one would not expect to surrender themselves so amiably and ingenuously to the camera”.
Stolfa lives on the other side of the counter from the “regulars”, she sees them from a unique vantage point as she tends the bar. In many of these portraits, there seems to be a quite resignation in their features and domineer, that maybe this is not the first time that Stolfa has photographed them. They seem to show no shock or aversion to the camera and flash, perhaps this has become a “regular” event, in an addition to their “regular” attendance. The patrons seen to have an acceptance that this photographic event is but one more thing to accept (tolerate?) in the evening along with a drink or two.
It is tantalizing to try to categorize those who continually return to a favorite watering hole and perchance we notice a little of us as well. We see similarities amongst the patrons of this bar, most of course with a glass or two. We see the cash on the counter top and summarize that there will probably be at least one more drink served. The cash is within easy reach, and an indication to the bar-keep that they should keep an eye on their glass to ensure that it will be quickly refilled.
Likewise, many of the patrons have on the counter their cigarettes, matches and ash trays. They have the appearance that it took awhile for them to make it through the day and that they are not in a hurry to be heading out the door to their final destination. They appear to be comfortable in their own skin and take what comes their way, including a pain the ass bar-keep who wants to take their picture. It appears that they are trying to say, “just try remember to keep my glasses filled”
We see David Scott Smith, keeping his chin propped up with his hand, his elbow securely grounded on the counter top. He continues to wear his top coat and hat, maybe he plans to leave soon after momentary refreshment, or does he realizes there is not suitable place to hang them in this joint? I sense that he does not take off his coat and hat often when he plops down for his regular drink. Like many of the others, David feels no compunction to strike a smiling pose, but has a look of quite resignation. Almost as to be thinking, “Just take the damn picture”.
Georgia Russell appears to be really too tired from a long day of doing what ever it is she does. Her shoulders are slightly stooped, her eyes have an appearance of fatigue and a look of passive acceptance to being photographed. Is she mellowing out after just having finished her “regular” glass of wine? Her purse is perched on the counter top, maybe she is preparing to leave, or maybe ready to buy another round. We don’t know. Another story in the making.
Robert Fleeger on the hand appears alert, prepared for something yet unknown to happen. His eyes are bright and alert, his jaw firmly set, although it appears that he has already consumed the shot to back his beer. His cloths are well arranged, the tie has yet to become unknotted and loose, he does not appear ready to relax just yet. Maybe this is his regular stop during lunch or is he between appointments? We see the cash still perched on the counter top, so this may not be his only beer before heading to where ever he needs to be next.
The camera is positioned at the subject’s eye level and we don’t know if Stolfa is a short woman, but she has photographed the sitting subjects in such a direct way as to create a feeling of equality. If she had photographed them from a higher camera position, it would have implied that she is looking down on them as a person or if from a lower camera position it would have distorted their features. As a result, from Stolfa’s framing of her subject, I feel an increased intimacy, and believe that Stolfa has created a sense of trust between herself and her subjects.
Stolfa began this project while re-starting her photography degree and in the process she states that she also re-established her own humanity. The bar’s “patrons”, a kind of non-person terminology, soon became acquaintances because she wanted to know more about them. As they became more human, so in turn did she.
by Douglas Stockdale