Photographer Profile - Henry Horenstein: "I could remember everything about shooting every picture"

By David Schonauer   Tuesday June 14, 2016

On the back cover of Henry Horenstein’s new book, Histories: Tales From the 70s, are some words from Walker Evans:
When I first made photographs, they were too plain to be considered art and I wasn’t considered an artist. I didn’t get any attention at all. The people who looked at my work thought, well, that’s just a snapshot of the backyard. Privately I knew otherwise and through stubbornness stayed with it.
“The book’s designer, Ernesto Aparicio, found that quote,” Horenstein says. “I had never seen it before, and I thought, ‘That’s a pretty good description for a lot of what I did in my day.’”

Horenstein is a noted photographer, a longtime professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, and the author of somewhere between 30 and 40 books. He isn’t quite sure, off the top of his head. One of them was 2012’s popular Honky Tonk, an ode to country music, which is one of Horenstein’s loves. Another was Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual, which has sold over 700,000 copies since it was first published in 1974. “That was was my first book, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is easy,’” Horenstein says.

Another of Horenstein’s interests is history, and his new book reflects that. It is filled with cultural touchstones, including double-knit plaids and a number of larger-than-life personalities from the era, not the least of which is Dolly Parton. Horenstein’s 1972 photo of her, made at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 1972, is one of his best known.

But Horenstein’s history of the 1970s is not a history in the sense of VH1’s I Love the ’70s  or CNN’s The Seventies. His book is less the story of a decade than it is a personal story, and because Horenstein is who he is, that makes it a story about photography, which, like a great many other things, was different then.

“It was in a transitional time,” Horenstein says. “Photography was growing up. A lot of people like me came from a time when photojournalism was the big deal in photography. There weren't art galleries for photography then — not many — so people weren't shooting for that.”

Certainly he wasn’t. Horenstein more or less wandered through the ’70s with his camera, taking pictures of things he was interested in, like horse racing. He photographed Steve Cauthen at Saratoga Springs in 1977, the year before the young jockey rode Affirmed to a Triple Crown.

Some 40 years later, Horenstein began exploring his archive of images from the period. In a sense, that exploration is what the book is really about.

“Going through the old contact sheets was an incredible experience,” Horenstein says. “Despite having a terrible a memory, I could remember almost everything about shooting every picture — including when I fucked up and got the wrong exposure or was afraid to talk to someone.”

The pictures also sparked wider memories, as pictures will. “It’s your life flashing before your eyes,” Horenstein says. “I remembered people I dated, and people I dated and shouldn’t have dated, and the ones who got away — some of them running.”

Rambling in a 1958 Chevy Nova

In 1973, Horenstein was teaching a course at Imageworks, a pioneering school for photography in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that no longer exists. In his class were several young photographers with promise: Nan Goldin, Jim Goldberg, David Godlis and Stanley Greene.

“It wasn’t that I was a genius teacher; it was just that there were not that many schools teaching photographer then,” Horenstein says. “But there was a growing interest in photography, so you had these little schools like Imageworks. Minor White started one called Project, Inc. Paul Caponigro taught there, and a few years later I taught there. Later on, the big schools caught on and started offering photography, which put all those little schools out of business.”

He notes in his book that his interest in photography started in 1967, when a friend showed him his darkroom. “I got the geek angle straightaway — the cameras, lenses and other equipment,” he writes in his book. “I loved arguing about Rodenstock versus Schneider lenses.”

He saw the possibilities in combining photography with his interest in history, but his career choices narrowed when he was kicked out of the University of Chicago — “ostensibly over a demonstration, but it’s a long story,” he notes — and he began rambling around in a 1958 Chevy Nova, shooting abandoned drive-in movie theaters, trailer homes, country musicians, stock car racing fans, and anything else he wanted. Like Walker Evans, Horenstein was interested in America’s backyards.

He also worked as a house painter, shot a few pictures for the Boston Phoenix, and got an MFA at RISD, where he studied with Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, who advised him to “shoot what you love.”

The Artist-Teacher Model

“So many photographers today come from the fine-art world, even if they’re doing other things, but back when I was starting out, fine art was a small, marginal part of photography,” says Horenstein. “People like Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind were the exception. I think in the long run their biggest influence wasn’t their work as much as the careers they made for themselves. They were the forerunners of the artist-teacher model. Now everyone wants to do that.”

The way photographers approach personal projects has changed as well, Horenstein says.

“Most photographers of my era shot a lot more than the younger photographers do now,” he  says. “You see someone coming out of school now, and they work on one project, and often it’s wonderful. They do that one project, get it out, do an exhibition or whatever, and then they work on another for a few years. But in my day — a million years ago — we worked on everything all the time. We just shot, shot, shot.”

Horenstein has adapted to photography’s changing ways. Increasingly risk-averse book publishers have largely stopped putting out financially marginal art titles, so he financed his ’70s book with a Kickstarter campaign in 2014.

“I probably spent more money on it than I raised, because I was making stupid decisions, like getting better paper stock and adding a slipcase,” he says. “But the nice thing was having so much control over the design of the book, which you don’t with a traditional publisher.”

He is, however, working with a publisher — Monacelli Press — on another book, a memoir that will be coming out in the fall. And he’s begun digging through his archives for a possible book featuring his photography from the 1980s.

“My dream is to do books about the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and bring it all up to the present and then die,” he says. “I don’t know if that would be possible, but if it works out I’d probably want to extend the series as long as possible.”


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