Friday, March 27, 2020

Resolution Accomplished: The 2019 Power Lunch Series

In the spring of 2018 I took my oldest niece out to lunch at the Park Cafe in Salt Lake City. Thanks to their oversized Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes, the Park Cafe had become a favorite for all my nieces, and this time around I decided to capture the experience. When our food arrived, I grabbed my camera, lined up my niece with her food, and widened the frame enough to capture some of the atmosphere of the cafe. She smiled, and I took the picture.

In a year that had me taking pictures everywhere from our nation's capital to the Southern California coast, that informal portrait of my grinning niece was my favorite image of 2018, and it set a template for what was to come. In December, as I put together my photo essay wrap-up for the year, it was clear that the time I spent with friends and family and even random strangers was what really made 2018 shine. So going into 2019, I made only one resolution: every time I went to lunch with a friend or a member of my family, I would take their picture.

The visual template was inspired by my Park Cafe lunch with my niece, but inspiration for what the project became came from many sources. I've been a huge fan of Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" series ever since it popped up on Netflix, and when I saw Seinfeld joking with his fellow comedians at coffee shops, the rhythm and banter reminded me of what I experienced with my own friends. Snagging an informal portrait of all my friends felt like a modest riff on the format.

My ambivalence for social media was another inspiration. I've never felt comfortable with the idea of self-promotion, and the self-interested, competitive "look at me!" nature of Facebook and Instagram often leaves me feeling like my junior high years are reaching out to drag me back into the 1990s. Going into 2019, I didn't know exactly where I'd take my portrait project, but I figured it would show up on social media in one form or another. When I decided to post my portraits along with a brief profile of each friend, it felt like a unique opportunity to make social media look outward instead of inward.

I got the ball rolling in early January when my buddy Chidsey joined me for lunch at El Rocoto, a favorite Peruvian spot in West Bountiful. Chidsey wore his favorite Ruth Bader Ginsburg T-shirt for the occasion, and after a few quick shots, I had my first entry in the can. Lunches with other friends followed at a steady pace, but as 2019 entered February, I continued to stockpile pictures without going public. By the time I posted Chidsey's mug in mid-March, I was piling up portraits quickly enough to wonder if I should set a goal to complete 52 total by the end of the year--enough to post one a week for a full twelve months.

I think it was around there that the project shifted from a casual "for fun" kind of thing to a priority. In addition to my regular rotation of lunch buddies, I started picking out different people who represented specific phases of my life--schools where I'd studied, jobs I'd worked, wards I'd attended. I continued posting a new subject every Friday, taking care to make sure the profiles focused on the friend, and not on me. I was still looking outward. But as the project grew, I realized I was compiling a strange kind of autobiography, a self-portrait made of the people who had colored my life.

The reaction on social media was almost universally positive. I think one or two people thought I had posted a picture because our mutual friend had died, and amusingly, several people assumed I was posting in honor of the subject's birthday, and commented accordingly. There was also a stark difference between platforms. The Facebook posts, which roped in my "friend" network as well as those of the subject, generated a lot of reaction. The Instagram posts, not so much. But overall, people really seemed to enjoy what I was doing.

That wasn't the only thing I noticed. On the technical side, I noticed that most restaurants aren't built for handheld portrait photography. The pictures in the series really don't look like much--more often than not, it's just a guy and some food--but the dim lighting and the tight spaces made getting those pictures a lot harder than you might suspect. In fact, on two occasions I made people go out with me a second time because I wasn't happy with our first shot, and though I tried to go to a different location for each lunch, I left out a couple of my favorite restaurants because I didn't know if I'd be able to work in their weak lighting.

Certain themes became obvious right away. Based on the people I featured, it would be easy for a newcomer to assume I was a balding white male in early middle age. It was actually very frustrating that I couldn't include more women in the project, but since I didn't bring my camera on dates, and didn't feel comfortable asking my married female friends out to lunch...well, let's just say the project is pretty dude-heavy. I did take lunch portraits of all three of my nieces in 2019, but didn't elect to profile them on social media, being an over-protective helicopter uncle and all.

I also noticed that some people just didn't want to get their picture taken. Over the course of the year there were several people I approached who either refused outright or were just evasive enough to suggest they weren't keen to be featured. While I understand their hesitation, and tried not to take the rejections personally, I feel their absence when I look through the results.

Eventually I had to come to grips with the idea that in spite of my efforts, I wouldn't be able to include everyone I wanted, even if they were all willing. Over the course of the year I made a list of candidates that stretches far beyond the people I actually managed to sit down with in 2019, and at times I worried that I was overlooking someone, or that people might start to perceive my effort as a kind of clique. One of the most common reactions to the project was a statement along the lines of, "wow, you know a lot of people," which I thought was funny. I've never thought of myself as a particularly popular person, at least not in a "run for student office" sense, but I'm old enough to realize that a lot of people have shaped my life along the way. I think most people could name several dozen memorable figures from their lives; the only difference is that I tried to drag them all into local restaurants and take pictures of them in public.

Altogether, my Power Lunch Series was one of the most rewarding projects I've ever been involved with, let alone completed. By the end of the calendar year, I had 56 lunch portraits, and a bonus image from my dad's favorite Jewish deli in Salt Lake capped off things nicely. Through the experience, I learned a lot about my family and friends, and even myself. The project has filled me with gratitude and great food--a fantastic combination--and it's amusing to think that in a year that saw me travel abroad for the first time, the thing that will define 2019 was a bunch of pictures I took of my friends and family as they sat in front of their lunch.