Sunday, November 18, 2007

Art Space Talk: Henry Horenstein

Henry Horenstein has worked as a photographer, teacher, and author since the early 1970s-- his career as a teacher started at Harvard in 1974. Henry is author of over 30 books, including many monographs (HONKY TONK, HUMANS, CREATURES, AQUATICS, CANINE, RACING DAYS). His newest book CLOSE RELATIONS was recently published by powerHouse Books; it’s a collection of photographs he made as a student of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind’s at RISD in the early 1970s. Henry's textbooks have been widely used by hundreds of thousands of photography students over past 30 years. Henry lives in Boston where he continues to photography, exhibit, publish, and teach at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he is professor of photography. He is known for being one of the most influential photography educators in the United States.

Brian Sherwin: Henry, tell us about your background-- are there any early experiences you would like to share in regards to your first years working with photography? When did you decide to first pick up a camera?

Henry Horenstein: I started out as a history student at University of Chicago. It was the late 1960s and everyone, including me, felt a little restless. A roommate showed me how to use a camera and I was hooked. Taking pictures was a lot more interactive, and a lot more fun, than study in the library stacks.

BS: Henry, you have worked as a photographer, author, and teacher since the early 1970s. How were you able to find balance while working in so many directions? Would you say that one pursuit feeds off the next, so to speak?

HH: For me, it's one of the same. My professional work is teaching and photographing and I enjoy them equally. More fun and rewarding than just teaching or just taking pictures. The books are the natural outlets for my ideas about teaching, thus the textbooks, and my personal photography, thus the monographs.

BS: You studied under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at RISD in the early 1970s. Can you discuss how they influenced you as a young photographer? Did they inspire you to be come a professor of photography at RISD?

HH: They were both great teachers, with very different styles. I think I learned from Aaron to try hard to be supportive of students and to not lord my experience over them. I learned from Harry that hard works get results. And I learned from both of them that the life of a teacher/photographer was a life worth pursuing. Sounds a little silly now, but in the early 1970s there weren't that many role models for this kind of career goal. As for teaching at RISD, this was blind luck. I taught at several schools before returning to RISD as a teacher, then a job came available and I got it.

BS: Henry, your textbooks have been widely used by hundreds of thousands of photography students over the past 30 years. How do you feel knowing that you inspire young minds to create-- that you have taken part in their instruction?

HH: I feel very appreciative and lucky. When I wrote my first textbook, schools were just beginning to offer a lot of photography classes, so there was need for such a book. Timing, as they say, is everything.

BS: Are you writing anything at this time? Also, where is the best place for our readers to find your books if they are interested?

HH: Working on books of my own work—one called ANIMALIA, out spring 08, is a compilation of my animal photos. Another is on burlesque. Always revising a textbook, it seems. If people have an independent bookstore nearby, I suggest supporting them. Otherwise, AMAZON or some other online retailer is probably the best place to find my books.

BS: Henry, you are known for you unique manner of capturing your subject matter. For example, your photographs of the animal kingdom-- often characterized by shooting very close to the subject -- are at times difficult to identify at first glance. Can you discuss why you capture subjects in this manner?

HH: Well, I'm trying to find a different way to see the animals. So many good pictures from so many great photographers of these subjects over the years. Otherwise why bother? I am trying to bring a more intimate look, to see if the animals can "tell" us something, not necessarily about them, but maybe us. There's a photo of a texas-map turtle, for example, treading water. That's how so many of us feel so often ,I think.

BS: Henry, your Humans series of photographs explore the human body as a form of landscape. These images have been noted for never giving way to aesthetic perfection. We live in a fairly open society, yet the general public is still often wary of nudity. Would you say that part of your goal with Humans is to challenge viewpoints concerning the nude human form? Can you go into detail about this series of photographs-- the motive behind them?

HH: Really they are extensions of the animal photos. I like the roughness (grain, contrast, varying focus planes) because they show another side of the human body. And I try to show man and women, not just one or the other. But these pictures have little to do with the people or sexuality or the usual things nude photos are about. They are meant to see their subjects in a different light and maybe suggest something about ourselves.

BS: Henry, how do you decide on a theme to explore? The possibilities seem endless-- how do you decide what to focus on?

HH: They are endless. I just pick subjects that interest me and that make good photographic subjects. Simple. I am not working for a client, in the traditional sense. Bad news: I may never get paid. Good news: I get to do what I want.

BS: What are you working on at this time with your photography? Also, will you be exhibiting in the near future?

HH: The books I mentioned above. Yes, some shows. Always trying. There's animal work up in Cambridge, MA now at the Harvrad Museum of Natural History and at Gallery 339 in Philadelphia in the spring. Also, some work in Paris in a group show called Bettes et Hommes

BS: Henry, what kind of equipment do you use?

HH: Canon 35mm film cameras and 5D digital. Fuji 645 and Mamiya 6 medium-format film cameras.

BS: Finally, do you have any advice for photographers who are just starting out?

HH: My advice is a cliche, I'm afraid, but here goes: Be yourself. Don't let other talk you out of what you want to do. Listen. Consider. Make your own way. There are many ways to skin a cat.

You can learn more about Henry Horenstein by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

Yes, Henry..I was pretty much set straight by one heck of a shooter a few months past when he advised me to be true to what I am doing..

I was tending to stray, and David Burnett (as usual)knew what he was saying. Love your work. Maybe one day I'll be known...

Anonymous said...

Thankyou Brian for referring me to this website and interviews. Most informative! Will definitely be back to read some of the other interviews that you recommended! Best wishes Kathie Nichols