Q&A With The Regulars Photographer Sarah Stolfa

meAVATAR2.jpgBY JONATHAN VALANIA Pretty much everyone in this town knows about The Regulars, Sarah Stolfa’s stunning Bukowski-meets-Caravaggio portraiture of McGlinchey’s patrons, snapped from behind the bar where she earned the dubious distinction of Unfriendliest Bartender In Town. The series won her first place in the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s Photography Contest For College Students, a long-running exhibition at Gallery 339 and an asspocket full of local acclaim and national recognition, including a residency at the Whitney Museum Of American Art in New York. And now Artisan Books has published the series in richly-appointed book form with a snarky-but-snappy essay by Jonathan Franzen wherein the vaunted author of The Corrections works through his conflicted feelings about our fair city, bars in general and, in a roundabout way, the photos in question. Recently, Phawker got Sarah on the horn to talk about all the above, along with her tenure in the Delta 72, her brief career as a boxer, her own conflicted feelings about the City of Brotherly Love, and whatever happened to those people in the photos.

PHAWKER: You sort of begrudgingly moved to Philly from D.C. back in the day, and I’m wondering what didn’t you like about the city then, Sarah_Stolfa.jpgand what’s changed since then since you’ve obviously seemed to have had a change of heart?

SARAH STOLFA: Well when I was in D.C., I was really involved in the music scene down there, so it was this whole community and network and I really loved that. Coming up to Philadelphia for band practices, I didn’t have that same community. I think that was the main reason why I didn’t like Philadelphia at the time. Now, since I’ve lived here for thirteen years, that’s very much changed. I have a really nice community and a sense of belonging here. I said it in my essay, but I feel that Philadelphia feels like a small town in a big city. The dry-cleaner knows who I am. Every day I leave my house, I see someone that I know.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk briefly about the Delta 72, tell me how that all started.

SARAH STOLFA: I lived in a big group house, and one of the guys I lived with was my boyfriend at the time. Him and another guy we lived with turned into the Delta 72 with the idea that he was a drummer and the other guy was a guitar player, but the idea was that there would always be a rotating third member. They played one show with this guy who played bass, and then they asked me to sing. When they heard me sing, they said, well how about trying it with the keyboard? So at that time, all our songs were in the key of E, and all of it was blues derivative. We played our first show at a festival in Ohio, and it was a great success, so we kept it the way it was.

PHAWKER: So why did you decide to leave Delta 72?

SARAH STOLFA: My relationship with the guys in the band just wasn’t working out, so I left.

sarahstolzfus_1.jpgPHAWKER: I see. So let’s get to photography. When did you first become interested in using a camera as a means of expression?

SARAH STOLFA: When I went back to school. After I left the Delta 72, I picked up some bar jobs. I worked at three different restaurants and bars for about a year, and it was certainly not making me the happiest person in the world. I just decided I had to do something to change my life, so I decided to go back to school, always being kind of interested in art and picked photography from that. I went to school at the Art Institute, which, at the time, was only a two year program. That was about as much commitment as I could handle. Then, I took my first history of photography class, and it sealed the deal. Totally fell in love with the medium, and decided I wanted to pursue more education than that school could offer since at the time it was very much a technical school. I transferred out of there to go to Drexel for a four year degree.

PHAWKER: Let’s talk about the process of The Regulars for a bit. How did you take the pictures in terms of lighting. Was it just a flash, or did you set up lighting?

SARAH STOLFA: It was a flash. I show with a Hasselblad. Normally a Hasselblad, you look down into the camera, but you can put a prism on it so that you hold it kind of like a 35mm. Then i put a flash right on top of the camera and bounced the light to kind of soften it a bit. It was pretty lo-tech. Then I started slowing down the shutters to let more of the ambient light in. Some of the pictures like Julianna, she’s on the cover, told me not to let that reddish glow come in.

PHAWKER: How many shots would you take of each person?

SARAH STOLFA: I would take a roll of film. A roll of film on that camera would give me 12 shots. A lot of times I would deliberately slow down or procrastinate as if I was touching with the camera to get someone to let their guard down and let that social mask fade away. Also in the bar, especially with that camera since it’s quite large, people start to feel uncomfortable in their own skin because all this attention is being brought to them. I was interested in how people would react being faced with the camera.STOWEBJesseSchabel_LG_1.jpg

PHAWKER: Would you ask everyone before taking their picture, or would you just do it?

SARAH STOLFA: No, no I would ask. It’s not the kind of camera where you could discreetly take shots. After I started getting model releases, I wouldn’t photograph anyone without a model release.

PHAWKER: Most of the portraits in the book were shot on a 12 exposure roll, correct?

SARAH STOLFA: All of them were.

PHAWKER: Did you find a sweet spot in the roll where you would get a decent shot?

SARAH STOLFA: No, there was never any consistency with that.

PHAWKER: What about influences? You mentioned Robert Frank, but what about other visual influences as far as the way the portrait turned out? It kind of has this renaissance-painting lighting to it.

SARAH STOLFA: Well, Caravaggio was always something I was drawn to. I love the blacks and the beautiful light that comes off it.

PHAWKER: Are you aware that Caravaggio killed a man?

SARAH STOLFA: Oh yeah, I knew that.

PHAWKER: I think it was in some old game, a prehistoric form of tennis, he got into an argument and just beat the guy to death.

SARAH STOLFA: Did you know that three of my regulars have passed away?

PHAWKER: I heard. Three of them, huh?

SARAH STOLFA: Yeah. Arpson Bravos was actually murdered four months ago. That was very tragic. He was beaten to death by his landlord. The Inquirer obituaries had the picture I took of him. Trevor Butler was a young man I knew. He worked at the bar next door, and Him and I would hang out during work. He was killed in a car accident. Lastly, Brian Rochford, he’s the last portrait in the book. He died of either a heart attack or a stroke.

PHAWKER: Sorry to hear that. And how many portraits are in the book?

STOWEBEdwinCurtis_LG_1.jpgSARAH STOLFA: 40.

PHAWKER: Are there any other interesting outcomes from any other subjects?

SARAH STOLFA: Not that I know of.

PHAWKER: Do you keep in touch with any of them? Did you become friends?

SARAH STOLFA: Not “friend” friends, but when I see one of them around town, we’re very friendly and we chat. Christopher Doyle, the guy holding his pinky with a fur hood around his head, I see him quite often. We live in the same neighborhood.

PHAWKER: And what is next? You mentioned a photography business?

SARAH STOLFA: I founded a non-profit photography center called the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. It’s to promote the study, appreciation, and practice of photography in the region. In an effort to do that we offer exhibition space, educational programming and digital rental lab. That’s opening in two weeks, just finishing up the construction. We have a website going up, it’s philaphotoarts.org.

PHAWKER: Now what have you been up to photography-wise since The Regulars?

SARAH STOLFA: Recently, in the last two years, I’ve been working on this body of work that formally looks very different from The Regulars. Looking at the American physical and cultural landscape. Images of everyday life that, when photographed and put next to other images, have this different interpretation. One of the things that I learned from Robert Frank‘s “The Americans”is how sequencing of pictures can change the photograph. It’s a wide range of objects and landscapes from Los Angeles, to Angola, to Philadelphia.

PHAWKER: What was in Angola, Louisiana?

SARAH STOLFA: A prison area. It’s a pretty brutal prison, very surreal.

PHAWKER: Now you referenced boxing in the essay, I remember that you did that, tell me about that.

SARAH STOLFA: I trained to become a boxer, to do amateur fights in, I guess, 2001. I was always interested in boxing, not for myself, but STOWEBMeganGibes_LG_1.jpgthe idea of it. I worked with this girl who told me about a gym with a membership. I wanted to start working out, so I called the gym, and they told me to check out their boxing facility. So I checked it out, and I met my trainer, Tony Versani, and I kind of fell in love with it. More fun than running on a treadmill. Then I went back to school full-time, and I couldn’t commit any longer. I had a pretty long training regiment that I couldn’t keep up with any longer.

PHAWKER: Did you eat raw eggs or punch meat?

SARAH STOLFA: Ha, I didn’t do any of that, but I didn’t eat as many carbs. Whenever I would have to fight, I needed to lose weight because I was on the lighter side of one class. It was better to drop the weight and go into the lighter-weight class.

PHAWKER: How did your bouts go, you fought two?

SARAH STOLFA: I fought two and I lost them both! Three rounds each, my first fight, the girl never showed up, so I fought a girl in a higher weight class and she beat me. I never got knocked out, I fought till the end. The second fight was by draw, she won. Five people came up to me after the fight and said I was ripped off.

PHAWKER: Does it still hurt like hell to get punched?

SARAH STOLFA: No, actually the hardest thing about boxing is the cardio. Going that long is tough. I got more hurt in the gym than the ring.

PHAWKER: Any advice you would offer to aspiring rockers? Don’t be in a band with your boyfriend?

SARAH STOLFA: No, it was fine actually. He got kicked out before I did. I would say generally, you just have to follow your heart. Even when it sounds crazy, like when I started photography it didn’t make any sense, but you just have to keep working. It’s going to pay off. I don’t live on a high hill mansion, but I do what i want to do every day, and that’s enough for me.

PHAWKER: I guess that answers my question of advice for aspiring photographers.

SARAH STOLFA: Yeah, for photographers, you just need to network. You can’t just sit in your home and do what you do. Photographers need to get out in the world. Be involved, go to photo shows. Get advice on your compositions. Otherwise, nobody is going to know you.

PHAWKER: So any plans to do another book down the line?

SARAH STOLFA: I’d love to do another book down the line of stuff I’m working on, but it’s not there yet. I’ve just been working on my photography.

PHAWKER: And when was the last time you were at McGlinchey’s? You know, just to have a drink.

SARAH STOLFA: Maybe a month ago. I don’t go very often. I’ll pop in every two to four months just to say hello.

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