Shoot What You Love: Tips and Tales from a Working Photographer
by Henry Horenstein
Monacelli Studio, 2016
Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald
Henry Horenstein is a gas. A born raconteur, his stories are full of wit, enthusiasm, and just plain fun. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting Henry or hearing him speak, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, have no fear. His most recent book, Shoot What You Love, is a collection of memories as anecdotes, paired with photographs taken throughout his career. Reading this memoir, you have the impression Henry’s sitting right there, whispering conspiratorially in your ear. Maybe you’re cozied up together in a booth, sipping a beer and listening to some music.
The book is separated into chapters, arranged chronologically and roughly according to jobs, bodies of work, or preoccupations. Some examples from early in the book: Those Who Teach (1968), What’s a Career?, and Close Relations (1971-1976). Beginning with his childhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts and his university days in Chicago, he sets the stage for what put him on the path to a career in photography (chapter title, Bye-Bye History). And it’s been a long career. He’s part of the group of fortunate students who studied with Minor White, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind, and in effect began his career by writing a textbook, Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual, while still in graduate school. He even got Harry Callahan to provide the cover image for $100. Chutzpah.
It’s evident in the way he writes that his early loves were folk music and history. He writes, “After all, history is nothing but stories, not all of them true, and a lot of folk music is the same.” His casual, freewheeling style of storytelling fits in perfectly with this. Nothing is sacred; everything may or may not be a tall tale. But it’s clear from the stories; this guy is interested. In almost everything. From folk music to blues to country, stock cars to horse racing to zoos, from honky-tonks to burlesque shows, and in traveling to places where he doesn’t speak the language.
He talks about various stages of his career with a certain amount of gleefulness, from freelancing to book publishing to working on assignment. Every story, no matter how random, seems to say, “Hey, I got to do this GREAT thing!” Like illustrating a book for an educational company called Drugs and You, Too. As he recounts, “There was no budget to speak of, so I convinced my family and friends to model as drug abusers … So, my mother took too many pills; my sister smoked weed. Whatever came naturally.” He has a habit of peppering his writing with little bits and pieces of advice. And it’s good advice. Regarding photographing strangers, he says, “Ask ten people to pose and probably five will agree, two won’t care, two will say no, and only one will become generally hostile or even violent. Not so bad.” Or, “You don’t need everyone to like your work. Just a few who are passionate and able to make something happen.” So many of Horenstein’s projects come from personal connections, being curious, and willing to explore an idea. A writer friend wanted to document a small clan from Maryland called Wesorts, a small community that had existed apart from mainstream society and was in danger of disappearing. As with many of his projects, the sensitive, intimate portraits he created of the people he met and the places he visited are at once moving, humorous, and kind.
You can read this book in many ways – as a window into the life of a career photographer and teacher, as a very particular and personal history of the development of photography in the late 20th century, from changes in processes and developments (he also worked for Polaroid for years) to the acceptance of photography by the larger art world. Horenstein notes, “But this was a good-news, bad-news situation. The good news: We got respect. The bad news: We had to be respectful.” It’s clear he doesn’t take himself too seriously. This is fun, too, and familiar. It’s helpful and comforting to read that someone who has had such a career can write so engagingly about his fears, and struggles, and personal peculiarities. An assignment photographing animals at the zoo evolved into a personal body of work, Animalia. Again, the advice is spot on – do what you have to do to make the work. Find out the most expeditious way to make images. Figure out what you actually WILL do. So for Henry, “I took the path of least resistance and shot only in zoos and aquariums. For a while I billed myself as the Jewish Wildlife Photographer. I never shot in a jungle or underwater. Only where it was safe and there was a food court, bathroom, ATM, and Wifi.” Indeed. Know thyself. I found it interesting that he made the images of animals as if in a studio, with plain backgrounds and great details in the bodies themselves. When he presents his photos of contemporary burlesque shows later in the book, I am struck by how a portrait of a drag performer evokes a brilliant fish or exotic bird.
It’s difficult to say what I like most about this book. As a teacher, so many of the things I read really resonate with me. About how important good teachers are, but how even more important good students are. “It’s not that hard to look good when one or more land in your class. Just stay out of their way, help where you can, and let them do their thing.” On how to learn from your own teachers, and how to use that knowledge to decide how to be the teacher you want to be. Or, it’s a primer for students (or the perpetual student, as I also am). Be kind. Be curious. Take chances. Think outside the box. Be flexible. Don’t be afraid to try something new, but decide for yourself what to do, not what others want you to do. Be yourself. Keep photographing. That project you’ve been working on for years may not become a book, but one day those pictures will be seen, if you’re patient. Another great saying from Henry, “Still, for me work is never dead, just resting.” And don’t take yourself too seriously.
Which brings us back to the beginning, and some advice offered by Henry’s “photo teacher hero” Harry Callahan. We all have those teachers, the professors we just plain admire and adore. If you’re a teacher yourself, this is likely the one you WISH you could be like. At the very least, you can try to listen to their advice and follow their example. Henry’s recounting of a conversation with Harry Callahan says it all.
One day I asked Harry what I could photograph.
“What do you like to do besides take pictures?”
“I like to go to the racetrack and bet horses, and I like to listen to country music.”
“Why not photograph the races and the music? Even if you make lousy pictures, you’ll have a good time.”
SHOOT WHAT YOU LOVE. Indeed. If you don’t love what you’re doing, how can you expect anyone else to?
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.