Interview: Gene Smirnov on Capturing Philly Dive Bars for a Gallery Show At Gravy Studio.

How did this project come about?
About a year and half ago I was approached by Philadelphia Magazine to photograph a variety of dive bars around the city. It was a really nice result because they ended up doing almost a gallery [spread] inside the magazine. I decided to continue on and make it more of my own personal project—it was personal to begin with since that’s how approached it.

How has it changed since then?
It’s been quite an evolution because when I came back to it about a year later it took me awhile to figure out what I was doing. I didn’t have any sort of fire behind me to accomplish it, so I wasn’t sure what was really the story there. But as I went about it, I realized I really wanted to represent these places in an interesting way. It was about finding all the interesting details that make them special. It’s my response to the place. It’s a little bit more thorough and personal.

You’ll see snippets of the experience of being in these bars. Obviously, it’s a subjective experience. I’d like to show what the place is about and some of the quirky details as well as the people there. For me, going into a bar, I feel like I’m intruding on their experience either being with themselves or meeting someone else. It took awhile to realize that’s not that big a deal, especially with the regulars. Experience at the bar is pretty similar day to day, so having someone making a story about it, I think that’s actually an exciting thing for some people.

togetherLooking at some of the photos, it does feel like your conveying the type of emotional connection that comes with being a regular.
Exactly. That’s what I was really going for. You don’t get a full scope of what each place is about. It’s more about your experience by yourself in this place. It’s bits and pieces from each place.

What is it that makes a good dive bar?
When you walk in, it’s the atmosphere and how it makes you feel. It has to have a unique environment. A variety of people…it’s really hard to tell. You have to have some staple beers. Some cheaper beers. A place that has some character that has built up over the years. That’s what makes it unique. Each place slowly becomes this…almost like a coral that builds up these little details inside and the regulars who are always coming back are part of it.

A classic look keeps coming up in the photos you captured. What are some of the aesthetic elements you kept noticing?
I think Philly is really proud of their sports and their history. There’s a lot elements celebrating that. For me, I like just the sort of Americana element that carries through. You go to these places and it’s low pressure. You feel really relaxed. It’s the comfort of an old timey space where you can be in your shell.

What were some of your favorite visual elements or subjects?
I really liked looking around a bartender’s space. I liked that they have details recognizable to the regulars and there’s just some things that have been there for years and years. To me, those things are interesting because they tell a little story about the place. Some of the spaces weren’t very different from others, so I liked it when the lighting was interesting or they had certain decorations. It’s hard to say—just anything that sticks out. At Bob ‘n Barbara’s, they have that real old cashier’s machine. At another place it’s an old jukebox. There’s so many of them. There are all these little different differences, yet you can hop between them and feel a sense of continuity.

layout.jpgGoing along with you to a few places, I was little more conscious of fine details as you lined up shots. There was the red neon of the sign that carried through the place at Oscar’s to get picked up by glassware, mirrors, or brass before being complemented by seat cushions or labels and signs. With the door open at Dirty Frank’s at night, you could see how the street lamp and traffic signal cast their influence over the interior.  
I think for my project specifically, I focused on the evening time and you do have that almost—I guess with the neon lights it reminds you of old towns. It’s a celebratory environment but it’s not festive. It’s more of a post-party kind of feel.

Like a friend’s basement.
Yeah, exactly.

You have a decent number of black and white photos with a chrome-like gleam. There’s silver carrying through the shots you have from Kung Fu Necktie.
The reason why I do black and white, partially is because those places are dim and it is a little challenging to get a quality color photo out of it but I also think black and white in general mutes the response you get from the photo and you focus more on the emotion [of the subject]. If it’s a portrait, you’re not thinking about all the distracting elements in the photo. You’re just looking at the person and their expression and what they’re saying with their eyes. It’s focusing more on the emotion than the feel of the place.

gs15081_0553How did you get your subjects—bartenders or regulars—to be at ease with your presence?
It was a bit harder in the beginning because I didn’t know how to approach and read people. Once I had this story locked in, once I already did part of this project for the magazine, I felt like I had a mission to explain to everybody I met. Generally, I would make them aware of what I was doing, but at the same time, I would ask them to just be themselves. I try not to overcomplicate things. I’d say I’m just doing a simple portrait. I don’t want them to think too much about my intentions. When I approach them, I try not to be too fast or too in your face. I feel it out, where they’re at and what they’re doing and just go with it.

Just try to catch everyone in the flow of the place—as you would if you’re joining a conversation between strangers.
I try not to change what they’re doing—I think that’s the key. I think that’s the key to a lot of what I do. I really always let the person be themselves and not try to change for me. That way, they’re not questioning their own space and intentions.

How many bars and which areas did you cover?
Most of the bars are in Center City. There’s so many of them—between 30 and 35. I’m featuring about 25 (including Dirty Frank’s, El Bar, McGlinchey’s, and Kung Fu Necktie). There are so many good ones it would be hard to even start. Because they’re so small and so specific to their neighborhoods, it might even be challenging. What I’ve done is focused on some of the more interesting ones, the ones that stick out and people recognize. I added a few on the outskirts—Northeast-ish.

What kind of schedule did you have?
It would be tricky because I live outside the city. I would have to drive down and make my time worthwhile. I would try to go to a couple of places near each other or ones that were receptive. At least half of the time, I would call ahead and make sure they were okay with me shooting there. Each place requires me being there for a little bit. It takes some time to get it going. I wouldn’t be able to do more than four at a time.

You had to take time to get the feel of the place.
Yeah, sometimes you have to wait. You show up to a place and even in the evening it could be empty and you’d wait for people to show up. Some bars, I’d focus on little details, some bars, I’d focus on regulars. Some bars, the regulars, come out at certain hours, not always in the evening, which is interesting. You go during the day and you can run into someone who has gone there everyday for the past twenty years, but you wouldn’t be able to catch him if you didn’t know when they like to go. So it took time with each place. Also, just being comfortable approaching people, but I got much better as it went on. The second part was a lot easier than the first a year and half ago.

gs15081_0471And you had to get used to drinking more than you usually do.
Yeah! I learned a little bit slow with this one. You go and you get a drink and you sit around, you end up having a couple. Then you realize you need a break. As it went on, I started drinking less and less and lighter and lighter. I think towards the end, I realized I need to drink really light beer instead of what I like, which is something a little stronger. But you can’t keep up if you’re drinking IPAs—it goes downhill really fast. You get a shot of tequila if you’re not feeling comfortable or just have a light beer and that would make a difference because you’re drinking but you’re still there. There’s balance—it’s almost like you’re playing pool. If you have a little drink, it will ease out your thoughts and you can focus on the game. I think this [project] worked out the same way. If you’re not comfortable in a place, you can’t capture it. You do have to get a drink because you’re asking people to respond to you in a positive way, so you kind of want to participate in what’s happening.

What has the response been like?
I had somebody at the show [opening reception] and they were really excited about it. They were saying it is like a piece of history of Philadelphia because some of these places may not even exist in ten, twenty years. Just going out and doing this is something that documents a subculture of a city in its own way. It was exciting to see some people who were in the photos or are regulars at these places and gave me a seal of approval.

Last Call
Gene Smirnov
Gravy Studio

Open Sat 1-5 remaining Saturdays in September. Closing reception is the last Saturday, 1-5. Heritage has 5 pieces hanging throughout the month. Closing reception will feature a performance by Gorgeous Porch at 4pm. As Gene says, “there will be beer and arts—the two things I was after during this project.”

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