Total Strangers by Michael Cinque

Taken between 1986 and 1989, portraits of randomly selected strangers that I encountered while walking in New York City. The people in these pictures are shown in public, but in unguarded, intimate moments. Upon approaching them I would simply ask if I could take their portrait. Most people graciously agreed to be photographed and the whole process usually took 5 to 10 minutes per portrait.

It’s hard for me to articulate why I’m so fascinated with these portraits from New York from the late ’80s, but I am and every time I look at them it feels like I’ve never seen them before.  At first glance they may not look remarkable.  It might take repeated viewing, but it’s worth the effort. What draws me into the body of work is the sensation of being right there with Michael as he makes the portraits. There’s an immediacy to them that’s palpable.  You can sense the tension between photographer and subject, but it’s always in the right proportion.  Michael has a way of making the subjects at ease, but not too at ease.  The ephemeral nature of these encounters feels transcribed right there in the frame.

Often when I go back over these I attempt to deconstruct them and answer the question, why so these photographs hold my attention?  One reason I’ve settled on is craft.  These portraits are crafted. Every piece is given the right amount of attention, tone, light, composition, focus, gesture, pose, moment.  Michael is a photographer that pays attention to the details, and not just a few details, all of them.  I get the feeling that when he was making this body of work he was firing on all cylinders, or as some might say, he was in the zone.

Another reason I’m continually drawn to this work is the people.  But that’s always important in portraiture, right? Of course.  Selecting whom you find interesting and want to photograph is a skill that few photographers can really master.  The subjects in this series are relatively broad, but by no means an exact representation of the diversity of New York. But I don’t think Michael was going for that. I sense that his intuition was guiding him more than any desire to create a representative cross-section of the inhabitants of New York City. Instead, what comes through in the portraits is specific kind of individuality that makes me feel these people had something going on inside that Michael could sense.  I’ve quipped in the past to friends that when I look at a portrait I rarely wonder about the lives of the subjects.  In this series, I do wonder.  I wonder what happened to these people. Did they go onto do big things?  Or lead quiet lives?  Which I’m not sure would be possible if they’re still in NYC.

Time is a critical element in photography.  These photographs were made in the late ’80s, but it’s not necessarily a look you might associate with the ’80s.  It feels like it could have come out of the ’70s or maybe even earlier. But those attempts are thwarted because there are elements within the photographs that make them feel more contemporary.  Is it the clothes or hair styles? Perhaps, but I think there’s something else going on as well. It feels like the ’80s but not the ’80s from popular culture necessarily.

These are the type of projects that truly make photography on the web interesting.  The web gives these photographs a new life.  One day I hope to see the prints on a gallery wall because I know once again, they’ll draw me into them in a new way.

We’re happy to present a selection of 17 from the series in the following slideshow.  You can view many more on Michael’s newly launched website as well.


  • Zisis Kardianos

    Great work and thank you for posting Bryan.
    I found similarities to the intimate, street portraits of Mark Steinmetz, mainly in the emotional tone of the two bodies of work. Mark’s compositions are more varied where Michael’s seems to obey to a more specific pattern.

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  • Bryan

    I was thinking about a Kikai comparison too the other day. I even imagined captions for some of these people. I’d love to read about the Woody Allen-esque fella.

  • Blake

    I think these portraits are great. My first reaction, and I told Michael this, was to think of Hiroh Kikai’s Asukasa Portraits. Very similar time period, photographing technique, and the penetrating style is similar. It’s strange to consider two people on opposite sides of the planet pursuing a similar project without being aware of each other. I was actually going to post some of them but you beat me to it. Great stuff.

  • justin vogel

    really nice set of portraits. I spent a good deal of my teenage years in and around central park in the eighties, and I would say these pictures are an exact representation of the diversity of the neighborhood. Looking at these is like going back in time for me.