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Henry Horenstein: Make Better Pictures

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday December 6, 2018

As an art school student at Cooper Union during the pre-digital era, I was given a twin-lens reflex camera to play around with. It was medium format and simple to use. One crisp autumn day I spooled in a roll of 120 Tri-X and headed to Washington Square Park. 

The camera didn’t have a light meter—and neither did I. All I knew about picture-making came through having used a Brownie Box my dad gave me for Christmas when I was nine years old. But I had ovheard someone say to “bracket” my shots. So I studied the info page wrapped around the film canister, printed in miniature type, and began to get the idea. 

Later on, as I watched the 16 images resolve from a blurry haze into pictures of people in and around the park, photography became my drug of choice: my first ever roll of 120 film had four pictures I was confident enough in to enlarge.

Someone in my class mentioned a book that had everything you needed to know about making pictures. I found a copy of Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual at the Strand, got a used Pentax SLR, and became a photo junkie. The book, by Henry Horenstein, changed my life and that of hundreds of thousands more.

The author, a professor at RISD [the other art school I had been accepted into], had studied there with Harry Callahan. At the time, photography was thought of as a documentary medium—certainly not an art form. Horenstein says that the best piece of advice he ever got came from Callahan, who said, “Find out what you love, and photograph it.” I, like so man others, did the same and became a street photographer—not even knowing that this was, in fact, a discipline. The only thing I knew for sure was that you had to include the borders of the frame in your prints.

Henry’s first book was so direct and detailed that it went on to sell over 700,000 copies. In an an interview with David Schonauer, the editor of ProPhoto Daily, he said, “That was my first book, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is easy.” Now, some 35+ books later, Henry's latest, Make Better Pictures, has just been published by Little, Brown. 

Everything about this chunky square volume, a format that shouts “Instagram,” tells at a glance that this is a manual for the digital age. The front cover features near-silhouette images of people from all walks of life with their smartPhones taking selfies; another with a drone; another with a DSLR loaded with a huge telephoto lens. The back cover advertises “More than 100 powerful tips to improve every photograph you take.” Among the subject headings are: TECH; GEAR; LIGHT; SEE; SHARE. One of my favorites is YOU, which includes this advice, and more: Dig a Little Deeper; Patience; Amaze Me; Slow Down; Go Natural.

So all I can say is, “Buy this book.” You can’t go wrong when you consider that Henry’s roster of students at RISD includes legends like Nan Goldin, Jim Goldberg, Stanley Greene, and Godlis. 

But there’s more: God bless you Henry for what I’ve learned from you. (The black-and-white photos here are mine.) Wishing you all the best, Peggy.

Make Better Pictures: Truth, Opinions, and Practical Advice (Little,Brown 2018) by Henry Horenstein, is now in bookstores everywhere, and online. Photos © Peggy Roalf

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