When Robert Presutti photographs someone, he has two words of advice for them: “Be yourself.”
Those two words were just what the patrons and employees of An Beal Bocht Café needed to hear when Presutti snapped their picture for his exhibition, “An Beal Faces,” on display at the 445 W. 238th St., establishment through Dec. 10.
For years, Presutti’s work has ranged from fashion photography assignments to highlighting the life of the Arhuaco indigenous people in Colombia for The New York Times. But about two months ago, An Beal Bocht approached him with a new idea — a portrait series highlighting its employees and regular customers.
Presutti — having had a similar idea that was inspired by his first visit to the establishment after moving to Riverdale more than 20 years ago — immediately agreed to do the project.
When he first stepped foot into An Beal, Presutti remembered being captivated by the types of people who frequented the place.
“You can find the 18-year-old freshman here and the 90-year-old Irish immigrant, and everything in between,” he said. “I was really fascinated by that diversity in age.”
In mid-October, Presutti set up shop at the back of the bar three times a week to photograph people for “An Beal Faces.” Each person had to give a minimum donation of $75 in order to cover the cost of printing. In return, they would each receive a copy of the photo taken of them. In the end, Presutti ended up shooting 124 portraits.
As someone who typically spends about an hour with a subject when he’s photographing them, spending time with 124 people for no more than 10 minutes at a time was a challenge for Presutti.
As he continued, however, Presutti was able to find his groove with each person. When it comes to getting those essential personality shots, he never directs people to do anything unless it’s to make a minor adjustment to benefit the outcome of the photo.
“I’m a little bit like an X-ray machine,” he said. “I look at people, and right away, I find out their personality. And then I need to express that in photography, and that’s not an easy thing.”
One thing he noticed after doing this project was that his body language and the way he looked at his subjects was helpful enough for him to get the perfect shot.
“It’s just this unspoken thing that happens that just fascinates me,” he said. “Everything that these people have done, they’ve done that on their own.”
The opening reception of “An Beal Faces” took place Nov. 10, and Presutti will never forget how people responded to the portraits.
“When we uncovered everything, I didn’t expect their reaction,” he said. “They literally went crazy. There were people in tears.”
The moment was so unforgettable that even Presutti found himself tearing up.
“It was too much of a thing I didn’t expect,” he said.
Presutti jokes that when he walks into An Beal these days, he’s treated a bit like a celebrity.
“Now they love me more than ever,” he said. “It’s really incredible to walk in here every day and having somebody that has maybe not been to the opening say, ‘Thank you so much for making me be part of the wall.’”
Looking back on “An Beal Faces” only a month after completing it, Presutti notes it doesn’t matter where you spend time with someone for a portrait because you’re always bound to learn something new.
“People open up and they tell you about their jobs and even their personal problems sometimes, and that exchange … always enriches you,” he said. “The people that I photographed here are real people that, no matter what they do in life, have something to teach you.”