Meet Alan Epstein, ‘the Bill Cunningham of breakfast’ | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

Meet Alan Epstein, ‘the Bill Cunningham of breakfast’ 

His Instagram feed @whatwasbreakfast gets Chicagoans talking about bacon, eggs, and life.

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click to enlarge ALAN EPSTEIN
  • Alan Epstein

A lan Epstein had been in Chicago just a year in 2016 when he started What Was Breakfast (@whatwasbreakfast), the Instagram feed dedicated to what its subjects had for breakfast. When he's not taking photos, Epstein, 37, is a server at the Cherry Circle Room, where he began the project. What Was Breakfast begs comparison to Humans of New York, but Epstein doesn't ask the same soul-baring-some critics have said saccharine-questions as HONY ("What is your greatest struggle right now?," "Who is the most influential person in your life?"). His ambition is simpler: He asks you about your morning meal and takes your picture as you answer. "I'd like to be the Bill Cunningham of breakfast," he says.

click to enlarge ALAN EPSTEIN
  • Alan Epstein

His photos can generate mixed reactions. In one shot, he captures a young woman and her child at a bus stop. For breakfast they'd had chicken rings and yogurt: "People that I know will see my feed and be like 'That's just the cutest little thing,'" Epstein says, "or they'll be like, 'That's sad that they had Chicken McNuggets for breakfast,' and both those realities are right."

In between discussions of smoothies and skillets, a wide cross section of the city's population passes before his camera, people not often brought to the forefront of conversations, even those as basic as breakfast. These slices of Chicago reflect humor and sweetness, but also insight and from time to time unvarnished grace. We caught up over coffee and discussed how the project has evolved.

click to enlarge ALAN EPSTEIN
  • Alan Epstein

How has What Was Breakfast changed since you started?

I guess since we started the major thing that's changed is that I see myself as a photographer. Whereas when I first started, I was just a dude with a camera who was curious about people and food. I think that's always been the driving force, but maybe I'm more comfortable wearing the label of photographer.

For me, what What Was Breakfast is really all about, aside from me having a creative outlet, is [that] we're all the same; we all wake up and eat food and go on about our day, that's really the heart of the project. I think it's just- it just started to be fun.

click to enlarge ALAN EPSTEIN
  • Alan Epstein

Is there anything visually you try for with each photo, in the beginning or now? Do you have any rules?

What I really do, I just wander fairly aimlessly. I like to know what direction I'm going, but I'm not tied to any particular streets. I wait until somebody catches my attention. I can't dictate where that happens, I just try to catch that. I don't really move anybody; the most that I might do is just walk around you, to make sure I'm on the right side of the light. But the things that I look for are some person that is interesting in some way, and then I just try to not mess up the shot.   v

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