Over the past 35 years, Sally Davies has photographed the streets of New York City with a mix of anthropological endurance and high style. But, despite her encyclopedic vision of the city’s exterior face, Davies became troubled by the thought that future generations would know nothing of the people living inside all the buildings she had pictured. Her resulting quest to photograph and interview New York residents in the spaces they call home “had wings right from the first day,” as she describes it—with people of different races, genders, incomes, and ages inviting her into their individual domains like a vibrant game of telephone.
In the Q&A below, Davies shares a handful of portraits and anecdotes about her recently published book, New Yorkers, a project that has taken on new meaning during the past year of lockdown. As she mentions in her intro to the book, “The days of inviting people into our homes is over, and in the blink of an eye these images have become souvenirs of another time.”
Photographs © Sally Davies
Jill Waterman: When did you start making pictures of New Yorkers in their apartments, and what inspired you to do so?
Sally Davies: I started photographing these people in early Spring 2019. I wanted to switch things up and dive into something altogether different than what I am known for. I have done portraiture in the past, and always loved doing that type of work. I thought it would be a good next step to add to all the exterior stories I have been telling about the city. The idea of home is such a huge part of our psyche. Hopefully, it’s where we feel safe and comfortable. Like the old saying goes: “Home is where our stuff is.”
You are generally known for your New York street photos, often shot at night, rather than for indoor environmental portraiture. Was this subject matter a stretch for you initially, either technically or aesthetically?
Shooting portraits is not new for me, my portraits are just not as well known in the art world as my street work—they are mostly gun for hire—album covers, book covers, etc. This is the first time for my own project.
What camera and lens did you use for these environmental portraits, and what did you do for lighting?
I used a Sony a7R III and a ZEISS Batis 18mm f/2.8 lens. I brought some Alien Bees lights with me to the first person’s apartment, and I knew pretty quickly that this wouldn’t work. The person got uncomfortable watching me set up lights, and maybe I did, too. It felt intrusive and the people felt powerless, which was the exact opposite of what I wanted to capture in the photographs. The second person I shot with natural light, and as beautiful as that image ended up being, I knew I couldn’t rely on that going forward, so I bought a Godox VING V860IIS flash, and that solved the problem. I didn’t shoot with a tripod for the same reasons. I wanted to use the absolute minimal equipment, so it was more just a personal exchange.
Given that many New Yorkers live in small spaces, what were the biggest challenges you faced in composing and photographing the interiors?
I bought a super-wide 18mm lens, and that solved the spatial issue. Composition was never a problem as there aren’t a lot of choices in tiny spaces. In fact, the occasional huge space was much more difficult to work with. While trying to get close enough to the subject to call it a portrait, I would lose the enormousness of their space, and that giant living space was part of their story.
What kind of parameters did you have for selecting your subjects and how did you find them? How many were subjects you knew versus referrals from others?
It was a mix of mostly total strangers and a few people I knew. I said yes to every single person and edited later. I wanted to get a real mix of people who live here and not have a personal agenda. I wanted New Yorkers to tell its own story. I felt that randomness really represented life in New York City.
Did you find there to be much difference between the vibe of the people and spaces you photographed in different neighborhoods?
No, not really. People’s income was reflected in their spaces and what they could afford to collect, but the emotional connection to their stuff felt the same no matter where they were.
Did you choose the interior setting where you made these portraits, or did you have the subject pick the setting and pose themselves?
I might suggest a place for them to sit or stand within the area that they preferred. Occasionally someone would mention an item or a situation in their Q&A, and if there was something in their apartment that connected to that story, then I would be sure to keep that item in the photo. Usually, I knew in 15 seconds where the best photo would be.
How much and what kind of direction did you give to the subjects in these pictures?
Not much at all. My only request was for them to not smile. I quickly understood how ridiculous the book would be with 75 smiling people. It’s not easy getting people to stop smiling. They’ve been told their entire life to smile for a photo. It usually results in a fake posed portrait and I was after something deeper and more revealing than that. Smiles hide a lot.
Did you ever do any styling to subjects, their wardrobe, or environment before making pictures or was the subject solely responsible for that?
I did not style anything. Some people got dolled up and others answered the door in their pajamas. The idea of this collection was to reveal people in their homes, as they really live. Some people gave more thought to their clothing than others, and that was fine with me. Keep in mind that, mostly, I didn’t know these people, nor did I make a visit to their homes ahead of time. I would arrive sight unseen with my camera, flash, and my dog in a bag and that was it. Usually, I was in and out in half an hour or less. My photo of Gerald DeCock at the Chelsea Hotel took five minutes. The magic was there, waiting for me, all I had to do was click the shutter and be on my way.
What aperture did you use in these portraits for a preferred depth of field, and did you keep this consistent throughout the series? And what was your ISO setting? Did you keep that consistent, too?
Most of the photos were in this range: 1/60 second, f/7.1, ISO 320. Settings are pretty easy to keep the same when shooting with on-camera flash. I always try to keep ISO as low as possible. If your ISO is too high, everything still looks great on your camera screen, but can fall apart when you make large prints.
What, if any, editing or post-production work did you need to do to these portraits?
The biggest issue was color correcting skin tones in Adobe Photoshop, something I never have to worry about when I’m shooting street work outside. I tried all kinds of tips and online tutorials, and did figure it out in the end, but it was a stressful challenge. I had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of lovely, stressed-out portrait photographers. Many had decided early on to go black- and-white and avoid the skin tone issue altogether. According to online groups, Sony is notorious for magenta skin tones right off the camera.
In addition to the photographs, you asked each subject to respond to questions about their family background and life in New York for use in the book. Did information that people provided ever influence the pictures you took?
It surprised me how people were so happy to have their photo taken, and how nervous they were to tell me about themselves. At the beginning, I got the photo first but found myself chasing people for the bio information later. Eventually, I started getting that part out of the way before I arrived at their home. I had to move quickly through this project and didn’t want to keep going back to people and nagging them for the information.
The resulting texts accompany each portrait in the book, and are presented in two parts, a third-person biographical overview and a short quote from the subject. Was this presentation style with two separate texts envisioned from the start, or was it arrived at through an evolutionary process?
It was the plan right from the start. I wrote the story about them from information they provided in a Q&A, from phone calls, texts, and voice-recorded conversations. I wanted them to have a chance to say what they wanted about their life. It was more difficult than it looks. I had to take each story and reduce it to a very, very brief synopsis of their entire life, while trying to retain the essence of the person. The goal was to compose a written snapshot to accompany a photo snapshot.
Was there a single person who edited the biographical texts, and did the subjects have any involvement in the editing process or get to approve the final copy?
I wrote all the text in my own voice and made sure no one changed that. People tell the truth right off the hopper, then in hindsight get nervous and want to change things. The subjects did not read anything until the book was published. It was so difficult getting the information from them, that I knew if I engaged them in the writing process I would never have finished the book. No one is ever satisfied with their own life story.
While all the photography for this project was done before the pandemic, book production was held up due to COVID. What, if any, impact did this have on the final product?
That this book actually got made and is out in the world for sale remains a miracle. I had a really short time to photograph everyone, write everything, and hand it in, because the publisher (Ammonite Press UK) wanted it out for first possible holiday sale season. I handed in the finals, and about a week later COVID descended on New York City. The book was immediately put away on hold until everyone knew what would happen with COVID. All the book fairs were closed and retail was very quiet. Honestly, at that point I had to let it go and just move on. Then last August the publisher decided to dust it off and finish the book! So we all got very busy. It was released in April and was sold out in a few days. Maybe a photo book of people at home was appealing to everyone because we had all been locked down in our homes for so long.
Please talk about the selection process for the images that made the final cut. The considerations included balancing age, gender, as well as the types of rooms that subjects were shown in. Did elements like color palette or whether an environment was busy or stark also factor into the selection process?
I photographed about 125 people and the publisher decided they would only use 72. Everyone was amazing, and it was really hard to cut people. It was personal—those people all let me into their home and trusted me enough to tell their story. Ultimately, choices were made based on the photos; too many people in the kitchen, too many couples, too many yellow sofas, too many people of a certain age, etc. It was a book of photographs, and it had to work visually.
Did the written texts or the notoriety of the subject factor in as well?
No, not really. There are a few better-known New Yorkers in the mix, but that was never my goal. I just said yes to everyone who said they would do it. The editing came down to the photos—were they engaging, and did they tell us a story about the person? Famous people can be boring, too.
Ultimately, how involved were you in this decision-making?
I had final say on the editing choices, and not much say on the cover photo. The publisher has to sell books and work with marketing people, so they had different things to consider for the cover than I would have.
Do you have a favorite portrait in the book? If so, what makes it special to you?
No, I don’t have a favorite. There are so many images and taking each photo was very emotional for me.
All of the portraits in the book were made in 2019, except for the portrait of Charlie Romanofsky, made in 2015, two days before he passed away. Why was it important to include this picture, and did you encounter any resistance from the publisher since it is somewhat different visually and it’s not accompanied by a quote?
Charlie was my neighbor and friend, and was the quintessential eccentric New Yorker—born and raised in the projects of Coney Island. He took his own life two days after I took that photo. I walk by his building every day and wish he was still here. Although the photo is unlike the others and is shot with natural light, there was no way I could have done this book without him in it. Charlie didn’t like having his photo taken, and how I even got that photo, with no idea what was coming, will remain a mystery to me forever. They say we are not forgotten as long as someone says our name.
So, how did you find yourself in the men’s room of Odeon restaurant in 1985 when you received this advice from Andy Warhol: “Decide what you want to do and just do that. Don’t pay any mind to what the art world is talking about. Just get really, really good at what you’re doing and by the time they come around to what you do, you’ll be the very best at it.” What was it like to meet him?
It wasn’t unusual back then to see Andy here and there. We were all very social in those days and everyone’s haunts were well known. We all worked in restaurants and bars—my roommate Billy Berman worked at the Odeon, and we would all meet there late at night after our various shifts were over for the evening. I think the bigger question would be, what was I doing in the men’s bathroom at 3:00 a.m.?
In 2018, you made arrangements to have your archive housed by New York University’s Fales Library as part of the Downtown Collection. Please tell us more about how this acquisition happened and the process involved in preparing the work for submission there.
I turned 60, and like most artists, started worrying about my archive. What will become of my work when I die is every artist’s dilemma. I contacted a few museums and even the ones that were interested wanted to know there would be money to support the collection. Not having any, I had to move on. A couple of art dealers suggested I contact Fales Library at NYU—that perhaps they would want to include me in the Downtown Collection. I called, and it all happened very quickly and smoothly, unlike most things in the art world. The director of the collection was already familiar with my work and was keen to add me to the collection. Within a few days he came over to see my hard drives and look at my files, and then said yes, great, let’s do it. I had already edited my entire archive of photographs a few years back for a gallery that had taken me on. Fales gave me the chance to edit one more time, before it was logged permanently forever. This is something I advise everyone to do a couple of times in their life. It’s an overwhelming project but worth every swear word and sore computer back. It gives us some control over our final story, the one that people will see for years to come, long after we are gone.
You’re currently in Los Angeles, where you’re photographing people in their environments in a similar manner to the New Yorkers book for the follow-up publication California Dreamers. Please elaborate on any differences (or similarities) you find between New York and Los Angeles residents.
LA has a slightly different vibe than New York. Californians are more media savvy than regular people in other places, constantly living in the shadow of fame. There is a faint cultural promise here that you will somehow be discovered for something. My challenge is to see through all that and try to photograph the essence of the real person. Hopefully, the world will be as interested in California Dreamers as they are in New Yorkers.
I did a first trip to California last fall to shoot for about six weeks, and I’m back now for more than two months to finish the book. Not knowing many people here, I thought it might be difficult to find what I was looking for, but I was wrong. Much to my surprise, I'm getting amazing subjects. As I tried to do with New Yorkers, I want to tell the real story of California, and not just shoot actors and executives in the entertainment business. These photos are going to surprise people. They are not just the sun drenched huge, cliche homes that people will expect to see.
Finally, do you make portraits on commission and, if so, how can people reach you?
Yes. I can be reached through my website.
For more on Davies’s photography, and to view her photos of man’s best friend, check out our story Dog Daze: Sally Davies Answers 22 Questions About Her Canine Portraits.
And for an extended conversation between Sally Davies, Jill Waterman, and the B&H Podcast team, check out this link to the B&H Photography Podcast.