When I asked Sam Horine if he thought he would’ve been a photographer if he hadn’t come to New York City, he seemed perplexed.
“I have no idea,” he said. “I think photography would have played some role in my life, but it was really a specific time and place that galvanized this whole thing.”
This “whole thing” being his career.
Sam, a 30-something photographer originally from Maine, has been called “NYC’s Best Instagrammer” and I think many of his 519,000 followers would agree with that moniker.
But before Sam was so well-known, he was a recent college graduate trying to find his way around the city. He left college with “no real sense of purpose” so, when a good friend announced he was moving to Brooklyn, needed a roommate and invited Sam to come along, he ended up in New York City.
It was the early 2000s. Digital photography had become more affordable and Sam had plenty of free time in between his slew of odd jobs. He built movie sets, waited tables, and drove around giving away free Red Bull, but it was his job at a design company that created offbeat art installations for various events that was pivotal.
“Part of my job was sourcing these crazy props and building supplies and things from all over the city,” he said. “So I went all over the place, and it was a really great way to learn the city.”
It helped that he was able to stop along the way to photograph anything that caught his eye.
When some of Sam’s friends started playing in bands that performed shows outside the city, he’d tag along and take photos. Providing those photos to the bloggers and writers who attended the shows turned into a part-time job. Then, his friends in the media industry would reach out if they needed a photographer.
From then on, it was all about diversifying.
First it was bands. Then concert attendees. Then it became fashion, and eventually, it was food.
Frequently changing subjects may have helped Sam avoid a rut, but New York City has always held his attention.
“New York is a living organism,” he said. “I was talking to a friend of mine and he realized, ‘the city is never done being built.’ I started to think about it and he was right. You keep waiting for the construction on your block to end and it never ends. It’s the city that is constantly falling apart and being propped back up and rebuilt.”
Sam has photographed New York City for well over a decade and, though he’s stuck with it for longer than any of his other subjects, there are times when he finds himself getting bored. Usually it’s on the sunny days (he finds gray more interesting), but then something serendipitous will happen and pull him back.
“It’s so easy to get stuck and feel like you’re regurgitating things over and over again,” Sam said. “All it takes is, maybe you’ve been somewhere a hundred times and the light is different, or there’s someone fascinating who’s there, or something has changed.”
The one thing Sam loves about New York City is that it’s possible to return to a certain place after a week, a month, or a year, and see it with new eyes. Though he doesn’t have “go-to” places or neighborhoods, Sam has an affinity for DUMBO in Brooklyn. The cobblestone streets and railroad tracks make him think of a different time.
He likes to wander and has been trying to walk instead of riding the subway. He relies on his instinct and tries not to overthink what he’s doing.
Sam might not have a specific “narrative” he wants to tell about New York City, but he acknowledges that it is his vision of the city portrayed on his feed.
“The people give [the city] a real vibrancy,” he said. “I think the longer you are somewhere, [the more] you start becoming fascinated with the intricacies and the smaller pieces and the language of the city.”
After having seen the city so many times, Sam is able to re-envision it constantly, honing in on the details or pulling back to capture the big picture with ease. His focus is always changing.
When I ask Sam how Instagram has influenced his photography, he tells me about how he originally wanted to be a fine arts photographer, but gallery shows were expensive and it isn’t easy to sell photographs.
“Instagram is its own gallery now, in a sense,” he mused. “But it’s such a limited gallery because it’s not physical. It really loses something … it doesn’t encourage this in-depth conversation. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Instagram was probably never really about photography.”
He noted that he sees people scroll through images while on the subway, but they never stop to really look at anything in particular. It’s as though looking at pictures on Instagram is just a distraction so, for him, it’s become a personal goal to try to make images that stop people.
“Being a photographer is about challenging yourself to continue to push forward and not fall into ruts and not do the same thing because of this feedback loop you get out of it,” Sam said. “It’s just about finding that motivation to go out and make photos, and tell stories, and meet new people, and be open to new experiences, and just constantly trying to be better.”
Sam might not notice it himself, but New York City seems to have worn off on him.
“There’s something very beautiful about the city that is ever-evolving and constantly changing.”
It’s as if, by photographing the city and spending so much time observing it, he now embodies the city itself.