Henry Horenstein's indispensable advice for young photographers.
Technology has made it easier than ever for anyone to be a photographer, but that means it's even harder to make an iconic photograph. Photo School is a new monthly column that teaches you all the things you need to know about photography without the hassle of going to art school.
I've had some great photography teachers, but the best piece of advice I ever got came from Henry Horenstein on my first day in the photo department at the Rhode Island School of Design:
"Find out what you love, and photograph it."
Horenstein was given that advice by legendary photographer Harry Callahan, who took pictures of his wife, Eleanor. But for Horenstein, this has meant shooting country musicians, horses at the racetrack, burlesque performers, and his family and friends in Boston. All of his pictures are concerned with documenting people and places in the process of disappearing. "They're histories," he says, "which is what photographs really are. As they get older they become a record of a time, whether you intend them that way or not." This statement makes sense coming from someone who studied history at the University of Chicago before returning to his native New England to apprentice under Callahan and seminal photographer Aaron Siskind.
Coincidentally I had been introduced to Horenstein years before I went to art school, in the seventh grade, when an uncle gave me a disused enlarger and film developing tanks. I switched on our family's Dell to research darkrooms and found Horenstein's Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual. I loosely followed its instructions and built the world's dustiest darkroom in the root cellar of my parents' house.
Horenstein is a storyteller, both in his practice as a photographer and in his approach to teaching. One of the stories he told was about a gig he had photographing Dolly Parton at Symphony Hall in Boston. Backstage at the concert, he gathered his courage and decided to ask her why she felt the need to wear elaborate costumes, despite being such a talented musician.
"Well, honey, they don't come out to see me looking like everybody else."
This is increasingly true of photography—it is no longer enough just to be able to make a good picture. You have to do something different to set your work apart from the massive onslaught of images people see every day.
These kind of gems make Henry a good teacher. His past students have included legends like Nan Goldin ("she took three classes until she found a better teacher," he admits), Jim Goldberg, Stanley Greene, and punk photographer Godlis. Horenstein is currently crowdfunding a monograph of his work, called Histories: Tales From the 70s,that will collect these sage anecdotes alongside previously unseen photos from that decade.
Below, Henry gives VICE a preview of some histories from the book.
"Before Dolly became a star, she was a singer for Porter's Wagon Masters (1967-1974). I took this picture backstage for the Boston Phoenix, the local alternative weekly. This shot was taken in the same session that produced a better known photo of Dolly alone."
" Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Doc Watson was highly influential in bringing mountain-style county music to the city—hillbilly music to citybilles. He was 'discovered' by musician and folklorist Ralph Rinzler in 1960, and spent the next 50 years playing in cities large and small, college campuses, and folk festivals. Doc was blind from a very early age and for many years he traveled and played with his son Merle, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. Doc died in 2012."
"My job as photographer at the Thompson Speedway was mostly taking pictures of the drivers, their cars, and the Winner's Circle. But I loved meeting and photographing the fans, everyday people who were related to the drivers or just came out for the action. My hero was, of course, the legendary Weegee. Working at night, I often copied his style (still do), which was to preset the focus, point the camera in the direction of the subjects, and let the flash make the picture. Then, hope for the best."
"My mom had eight dogs in her lifetime, all small poodles. She named them each one Chammie. Because she had such a bad memory, she figured this was a good way to remember the various dogs' names. She'd say to me, 'Peter, take Chammie for a walk, please.' I hated that. I'm Henry, Mom, not Peter. Anyway, not only was my mom in love with dogs (god bless her), she also loved knitting. Here, we see the two loves in her life. In my low moments, I sometimes wonder if Peter came in a distant third."
"Here, Mom is pictured with her dog, Chammie (left), and Chammie's cousin, Studley, my sister's dog. This photo was my first prize winner ever—second place in the portrait category for The Real Paper, a local alternative weekly. For my efforts, I scored a 105mm, f2.8 Nikon lens."
"The Holy Modal Rounders were most successful in the 60s and 70s, but they actually had a lot in common with the beats in the 50s. At any rate, their music was the real thing, channeling Uncle Dave Macon, the first star of the Grand Ole Opry, and singing originals like 'Boobs a Lot'—well before the Political Correctness Days. This was when Greenwich Village was where the hippest things were happening. For a while, the Rounders (mainly Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber, pictured here) were part of the legendary Fugs. Later, a promising young playwright/actor named Sam Shepard was part of the band. They were featured on the soundtrack of Easy Rider. And one of the most influential indie record labels ever, Rounder Records, was named after them. I shot this picture and many others for Rounder when we were all just starting out."
"How many musicians can lay claim to starting a musical genre? And don't say Chubby Checker and the twist, please. Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys began bluegrass music. Pretty much. His brother Charlie was a part of it, for sure, and a few others, no doubt. OK, second question: What musician started a musical genre and wrote one side of Elvis's first 45, "Blue Moon of Kentucky"?
"This photo shows a sweet, skeptical baby against a lot of fun patterns. But to me it's a coming-of-age picture—the first baby I knew who was not part of my family. I was 25 years old, building my own family of friends."
"So, this is a friend of my sister's. Can't recall her name. It was made for my first assignment and first publication, when I was just starting out. It was a brochure for an educational publisher warning kids against drug use called DRUGS AND YOU, TOO. Worked for me. I got $10 per photo. In other words, no budget for models, so I turned friends and family into drug addicts for the brochure."
"Here's a guy with a harmonica in a Nashville honky tonk. There's really nothing special about him. Maybe he's hoping a producer will walk by and discover him. Or maybe he's just feeling the music and needs to let loose. I'm sure there are people and places like this in Nashville still, but very few who haven't just traded on their vintageness or simply turned into fern bars. People say that the music was better back then. I'm not sure if that's true, but I'm pretty sure it was more heartfelt."
"It seems odd to some, but there is a long and strong tradition of country music in New England. One of the reasons for this is a string of country music parks that once were popular throughout the northeast, from Maryland to Maine to Ohio and into Canada. These getaways were affordable summer homes for working people, who would rent a space and put down an RV, trailer, or tent. They would come with their families to enjoy a weekend or vacation getaway, grill burgers and hot dogs, give the kids some space, and enjoy the country bands of the day. Many popular bands toured these parks annually, picking up fans and gas money to keep their buses on the road and themselves in business."
"Male Harvard alumni used to gather annually in the ballroom of their mansion to eat roast beef, smoke cigars, and jeer at boxers pounding each other. Racial epitaphs were heard; business deals were sealed. I shot this picture for a book I was working on with writer Brendan Boyd, which was never published. Ten years later, Brendan and I did collaborate on the book Racing Days, which is about horse racing."
"Taken months before he passed, the greatest racehorse ever spent his last 15 years "covering" mares and being coddled. Alright, I know this picture was taken ten years after the 70s ended, but in 1973 Secretariat became one of only 11 horses to win the Triple Crown of Racing, so I thought he fit in here. Besides, a Kickstarter-savvy friend advised, 'For rewards, offer celebrities and animals.' In this picture you get both."
"The last winner of the Triple Crown was a horse named Affirmed in 1978. Steve Cauthen was the rider. He was 18-years old at the time. Not long after, he moved to England and rode champion horses for Arabian princes and cut country music records. This picture speaks to a jockey's strength—the hands that guide their mounts to the finish line."
"Just when you think your job sucks, consider the urine collector. His task is to catch a horse's urine after a race to send to a lab for drug testing. I imagine the process is a little more sophisticated now than it was in 1977. Still, the reasons for drugging a horse remain the same. Maybe it's to improve its performance, so you can bet it to win. Or maybe it's to make a favored horse lose so you can back other horses in the race. The problem is you don't always know who's doing what.
"Oddly, in the 70s there was very little live music in Nashville. It was an industry town with the Grand Ole Opry, a live radio show, as the primary performing venue. But there were a few old honky tonks around, like the Merchant Café, where a couple could get hammered and show their moves, with no inhibition."
"I photographed a lot of country musicians back in the day, but I also shot blues, jazz, and R&B on assignment and mostly for myself. I can't recall why I photographed Taylor, a hard-touring blues singer, but it was a simple shoot. I only made three or four frames, and this is the one I like best. Taylor represented the older sounding Chicago blues that was so popular with the college and folk music crowd in the 70s and 80s—songs like "Wang Dang Doodle," one of her few chart hits."
"The 'Coal Miner's Daughter' Loretta was one of the very first country music female stars, after Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. She lived a hard life replete with poverty, four children before the age of 20, a difficult marriage, and psychological problems. I photographed her after she broke down on stage, and she put on a face for the photographers waiting for her to board her bus. Although a very traditional, old-school performer, Loretta could throw a curve now and again. For instance her pro-birth control song, 'The Pill,' and her ditty about male/female double standards, "Rated X." At 82, Loretta still tours, her career helped by a comeback album produced by Jack White in 2004."