Street photographer Sam Horine: “The best thing you can do to get your work seen is to build a community and be a good citizen in that community.” Mark Myerson reports
Sam Horine’s photographs seem to breathe New York, but he actually grew up in Maine, the small, rural state in New England. His parents were native to Chicago, but got caught in the “back-to-the-woods movement”, he says.
Horine would spend his evenings stuck in his parents’ National Geographic magazines. He started to shoot 35mm film of anything that caught his eye – “interesting patterns, vibrant colours, a great-looking face, good lighting or just plain weirdness”.
At 18, he left the woodlands of Maine and moved to Upstate New York, pursuing a degree in religious studies and Eastern philosophy at Hartwick College, a small liberal arts college at the foot of the Catskill mountains. While he continued to shoot 35mm at Hartwick, he started experimenting with instant film: “Polaroid was still relatively cheap in the late 1990s,” he says.
Then, in 2002, he made the big move to the Big Apple: “I moved to NY for no real reason other than I had a friend who was moving to Brooklyn and needed a roommate. It seemed like a good plan for someone who really had no plan as to what to do after college.”
Photography was nothing more than a hobby, and he mostly gave up shooting when he moved. He was broke, and filmstock was too expensive. “Though I would still shoot Polaroid whenever I found packs on sale, stocking up on ‘Buy 2 Get 2 Free’ deals,” he says.
He was given a Canon point-and-shoot for Christmas not long after he moved to NY, and photography started to take centre-stage again. “Armed with my Canon and an old bootleg version of Photoshop, I started shooting photos of things I saw around me as I explored the city,” he says.
At first he focused on those subjects close to him – friends at parties, old signage, cars – done without any commercial plan in mind.
“I had been shooting with that Canon for a few years,” he says. “Then one of my friends asked if I would shoot an editorial feature for a newspaper. I had a few extra bucks at the time, so I splurged on a Canon 20d, showed up at the shoot with the camera barely out of the box, and pretended to know what I was doing.” The newspaper ran the photos and now, armed with a bigger, better camera, Horine started to shoot as much as he could, wherever he could.
“I had a few friends in bands,” he says. He began taking photographs in exchange for free gigs. “They’d put me on the guestlist and I’d get free drinks in exchange for shooting their shows.”
Soon other indie bands were commissioning him for promo shoots, and opportunities quickly started to open up for him. “I became friends with lots of the people involved in the music scene – publicists, managers, other photographers, media people – and the relationships we formed were kind of symbiotic,” Horine says.
“As we all moved around from job to job, we would always help each other out. ‘Hey, you need a free liquor promo for a show? I know a guy. Oh, you need someone to shoot this thing or that? I’ll do it.’”
While shooting at a party in an abandoned swimming pool in Brooklyn one night, a sense of sameness started to creep in. “It was like, ‘OK, here’s another cool portrait of the singer, and another nice action shot of the band and… erm, what next?’ I found myself focusing on the crowd behind me, picking out unique faces and interesting outfits.”
That instinctive moment led to a shift in style, focusing less on musicians and more on the couture and culture of the partygoers. “It’s important to keep challenging myself to try new things. As soon as it starts to feel like work, I try to change it, to keep it fresh,” he explains.
Then came the camera phone, and New York took to it before anyone. “Flickr really opened up the world to me,” Horine says. “Now I could see what people were shooting all over the city, and by extension the world. It led me down the rabbit hole. It pushed me to try harder, to experiment more.”
As the work flowed, Horine’s horizons started to move past New York and into the wider world. He landed a commission with Bon Appétit magazine, and he flew to Seoul, South Korea, for a shoot. “It was my first time in Asia, and I am definitely going back,” he says.
Then the Turkish tourist board got in touch, and he leapt at the chance. “That was a very up and down trip, though. There were moments when I’d ask myself, ‘What am I doing here? I’ve been riding this bus for 12 hours!’ Then you finally get to your destination and the scenery is totally epic, totally worth it.”
Yet the epic urbanity of New York continues to pull him in. For one of his street shots of Roosevelt Drive – a six-lane freeway running along Manhattan’s East Side – Horine wanted a long exposure. Stood on the Manhattan Bridge overlooking traffic, he wanted to capture the light trails of the cars speeding along the freeway. “Unfortunately I didn’t bring my tripod that night, so in between trains rumbling by, which totally shakes the bridge, I pressed my iPhone up against a metal gate – it has a 200-foot drop to the East River – and hand held the shot.” The result was a stunning cityscape.
So what has Horine learned from all those years of hustle in New York’s photography circles? “The best thing you can do to get your work seen is to build a community and be a good citizen in that community,” he says. In 2012, at the Foley Gallery on the Lower East Side, he was part of a group exhibition that helped to raise $20,000 for the victims of Hurricane Sandy, and he has now begun to lecture on digital photography at New York University in the West Village.
“It’s important to make original work, striking work, that shows your own style and vision, because it will help you stand apart, but you also have to help promote other people, and the same will come back to you.”