CHICAGO — Alan Epstein, known on Instagram as @whatwasbreakfast, moved to Chicago from California to pursue improv but ended up discovering a new form of creative expression: photography. No, not food photography as the name might imply, but street photography — snapping pictures of different Chicagoans in a “Humans of New York” fashion. After taking pictures of his subjects, Epstein asks, “What did you have for breakfast?”
Why breakfast? “It’s something we all do, so it’s like something everybody does but everybody does differently. I think it’s a way of showing we’re all so different but we’re also the same,” said Epstein.
Not to mention breakfast is his favorite meal. It’s often cheaper than eating out for dinner and nothing beats a classic diner-style breakfast, no gimmicks or creative twists necessary, he said.
“I want to go to a place that’s like, ‘Here’s your eggs, here’s your bacon, here’s your toast and I’m gonna pour your coffee, like, a million times,’ ” Epstein said.
The idea for this project dawned on him while working at the Cherry Circle Room, a Chicago restaurant tucked away on the second floor of the Chicago Athletic Association in the Loop.
“A lot of things lined up for it to make sense. ... About that time, I was realizing that improv was not going to be my thing, but I had a camera for a sketch I filmed. I started messing around and would take pictures of my co-workers,” Epstein said. “During the day, a lot of people would order the two of everything breakfast and it would take a really long time to ask all of the follow-up questions like, ‘What kind of toast do you want? How would you like your eggs — poached or scrambled?’
“I was complaining to my friend, ‘Every time someone orders this (special), it’s like a (expletive) interview,’ and then something clicked and I thought, well, maybe I could learn something about (people based on their preferences).”
After his realization, Epstein started interviewing his co-workers, asking them what they would get if they came in on a day off to eat breakfast.
“I’d record it ... and pull out a little fun quote. Then the people at the restaurant started printing and hanging (the photos and quotes) up in the hallway. People started talking to each other about their preferences, and I thought OK, there’s something here. I eventually ran out of co-workers to interview and took it to the street instead.”
Since then, he’s been posting daily photos, highlighting people with cool and unique style.
“It was the creative outlet I was seeking in improv. I was improvising (by asking questions) within a structure. I was connecting with people in an unorthodox way; it was a nice way to have a relaxed, wholesome conversation with somebody. It’s interesting that you can kinda get somebody’s personality a bit, through their choices. It’s also a reason for me to just wander.”
Wander he does, not necessarily on the prowl for something that will make a viral post, but for people who seem to have interesting stories, focusing on the unique looks of people that someone bee-lining from A to B might not notice.
Most of his photos are shot in the Loop. “I think it’s got the biggest cross-section of everybody. It’s maybe a little more dense, so I have the chance to see more people than I would if I go to a less populated neighborhood where (seeing people) is fewer and far between.”
Cool fashion wasn’t on his mind when he first started the project, but he quickly realized he’d have better luck stopping folks on the street who had interesting or outlandish style. Not only do they pop on camera, Epstein experiences much lower rates of rejection with these style of creatives than he does with someone in a business suit on their way to work.
It also makes it easier to explain to a stranger why you want to take their picture.
“People need to feel like there’s a reason. ... I can be like, ‘Oh, I really like your green scarf and your earrings look great,’ and it’s like boom, that’s why I’m talking to you.”
How does he know if someone will make a good subject?
“(It’s) when you see somebody and think, ‘I wonder what that person is up to? Is this an image of a person that I think somebody would be curious to know about a little slice of their life?’ It’s a super intangible kind of feeling.”
One issue Epstein has run into is the fact that many people skip breakfast, but just because it’s bad for your metabolism doesn’t mean it’s bad for Epstein’s project. Even if all you had was a glass of water or all you’ve done since waking up in the morning is smoke a blunt, Epstein will have follow-up questions for you.
“When people say they’ve skipped breakfast, I’ll still talk to them because it’s not necessarily about the breakfast. It’s more like, what’s up with this person today?”
His interviews are short, but Epstein tries to get in as many questions as he can in under a minute.
“One of the things I’ve gotten really interested in is asking really specific follow-up questions. It’s almost like a game for me, like how many questions can I ask somebody while remaining on subject.
“Sometimes — and this just happened very recently — I’ll start pitching what I’m doing to a person and they’re like, ‘Are you the What Was Breakfast guy?’”
Along with the diverse cast of characters he’s photographed, he’s also snapped some notable celebrities.
“I got Willy H. Macy. People (expletive) freaked out about that.”
Although street photography is an unexpected passion and improv is no longer on his mind, Epstein said he doesn’t regret moving to Chicago.
“It’s like the biggest of the big cities that still feels small and livable,” he said.
He continues to explore the city, meet new people, take new photos and ask about what they’re eating. As for Epstein’s favorite breakfast — if there isn’t a nearby diner, nothing beats old-fashioned doughnuts and a cup of black coffee.