Many Traveled Roads: An Interview with Harvey Stein
Text by Robert A. Schaefer, Jr.
Images © Harvey Stein
Although I have known photographer Harvey Stein since 2000, when we were introduced at Fotofest in Houston, Texas, for a long while I hadn’t had an opportunity to talk to him about the many facets of his photography. Attending an opening at the new photography gallery, Umbrella Arts, in the East Village in New York City (where Harvey is curator), I recently had the opportunity to find out more about him and the directions his involvement with photography has gone.
Robert A. Schaefer, Jr.: Your body of photography is quite extensive with exotic locations as well as studies of different segments of the population. Do you have any personal favorites among these? Also, what would you site as a common theme, visual or otherwise running through your work?
Harvey Stein: I really haven’t been to very exotic locations, unless you consider Haiti and New York City as exotic. I will be going to Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and New Mexico this year to photograph and don’t really consider these places exotic. I’ve never been to Asia, Australia, or much of Africa or Latin America. I love to travel, but I also love to be in New York to photograph. But no matter where I am, I pretty much photograph the same way. I say that you don’t have to go far to photograph. I tell my students to shoot at home, in their bedrooms and kitchens, in their neighborhoods, in their cities and towns. Good work can be made anywhere.
It’s hard to say which of my extended studies of “different segments of the population” is my favorite. I’ve done six-year studies of identical twins, of artists (painters and sculptors), and of People Living With AIDS. I’ve been photographing a series on children for over 20 years, and photographing in Mexico and Harlem for over 15 years each. This year marks my 40th year photographing the people and area of Coney Island. I think the best idea I’ve ever had photographically is the twins work, probably no one has photographed and interviewed twins as thoroughly as I have (1972-1977). I was thrilled to produce the book, Parallels: A Look at Twins (1978) as a result. So this may be my favorite project, but not necessarily my best work.
The common theme or thread that connects my work is an abiding interest in the human condition, mostly on an individual basis. Getting close, involved and wide angle to achieve a context and connection with my subject is the way I like to work best.
Tell me about your background. (Where were you born and raised?) Were you involved with art and or photography as you were growing up?
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh Pa. I still have relatives and friends living there, and like to go back to photograph occasionally. It’s a hilly, visually interesting city with friendly people. A good place to shoot.
I have a BS degree in Metallurgical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, worked at Bethlehem Steel for a few years, and then attended Columbia University to earn an MBA in marketing. I worked in the corporate world for about six years, hated it, dropped out and tried my hand at photography.
I’ve never looked back or regretted becoming a photographer. It feeds me emotionally and physically, keeps me engaged, informed, and in daily contact with my fellow beings. It takes me to places I don’t belong, is ever challenging, and never gets easier; it satisfies my curiosity, but never lets me become smug since it’s internal rules and logic are forever mysterious and unsolvable. Photography keeps me on my toes, always.
I say that photography saved my life, I was rather aimless and unhappy during my corporate years, and I found photography and have loved what I’m doing ever since. And have been happy ever since.
Did you study photography formally? Which teachers inspired you? Which photographers or other types of artists have motivated your imagery?
I consider myself to be self-taught in photography, although I have taken many, many individual classes, but not in a formal program. I still take classes at ICP where I teach. I’m always learning.
Ben Fernandez was one of my first teachers in the early 70’s at the Public Theater here in NYC. He was very inspiring and bigger than life. He suggested I get a Leica, a 21mm lens, and go to Coney Island to shoot. Being the good student that I was, I followed his advice, still shoot mostly with a Leica and 21mm lens, and continue to photograph at Coney Island. As a matter of fact, next year I will have my next book, tentatively titled Coney Island: 40 years (1970-2010) published. I’m proud of that, 40 years of shooting anything either means you are stupid or a genius. We shall see.
I have always admired the work of Paul Strand, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand. Man Ray has also been an inspiration for his creativity, wide range, and alternate life-style. Various writers, filmmakers, painters (especially Van Gogh) and dance companies also feed me creatively and emotionally.
How do you produce your work?
I still shoot film with two Leica M4’s that I bought in the 70’s. I have been shooting digitally also for the last three years, but really still favor film. I make prints in my darkroom and develop film at home. I develop four rolls almost every day, and am still about four to five years behind, and about eight years behind in making prints. But the important projects jump to the front of the line. I know I will never catch up, but that’s OK. I’ve yet to print much of the digital images, hope to someday, but the film images seem to have more importance and immediacy for me.
What prompted you to do the series Living With AIDS? Why AIDS and not some other disease like cancer or Alzheimer’s? How do you feel about the lifting of the ban on visitors who are HIV positive or to the United States?
In 1992 I read a notice in an ASMP bulletin asking photographers to volunteer at the Gay Men’s Health Crises (GMHC). They wanted photographs for their clients, people who have full blown AIDS. This would be another free service that they provided, along with such things as legal and medical advice, meals, theater and movie tickets, haircuts, physical and emotional therapy, etc. GMHC is an amazing place, and always looking for volunteers; it’s the world’s first and now largest AIDS organization.
I was seeking a new project with a 4×5 camera. I lived in the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in NYC, knew no one with AIDS, but wanted to contribute something. As I remember, I was one of about 70 photographers who volunteered, and was one of only two who remained after five years of shooting. We could design our own projects, some photographers shot environmentally, some in the hospital, and some worked only for a few weeks. I set up a studio environment with the large format camera—studio lights, backgrounds, etc—in an office that they provided. I shot about four people every week or so for several years, and gave each sitter a beautiful archival 11”x14” print. I photographed and interviewed about 120 individuals, and tried to publish a book. The subject was too “hot” and emotional, and only about 10 years later was there serious interest in a book. By then, the “temperature” subsided, but they did a traveling exhibition of 60 images for three years.
This was one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever done, I got so much back from my subjects; they were very appreciative of the photographs and my interest in them. How could I complain about a sore finger in the face of their illness. They were very inspiring; they all believed they would survive AIDS. I’d say that approximately 60 percent did not.
I think it’s time that the ban on visitors who are HIV positive be lifted; it’s an example of another misguided United States policy.
Another series of your work deals with famous artists from which your book Artists Observed was published. Did you find this group of people easier to work with than others? Do you have any interesting stories from any of these shoots?
I photographed unknown, emerging, and famous artists (approximately 165 individuals) from 1980 through 1985 and had the book, Artists Observed, published in 1986 by Harry Abrams, Inc. My idea was to photograph them in their studios, with some of their work. I wanted to integrate, relate, fuse them to their art, and also conducted tape-recorded one-hour interviews, which are excerpted in the book. This was a personal quest; my motivation was to see how and where my life paralleled theirs, i.e., is the way I live and conduct my life similar to theirs? Am I living the life of an artist? Really, how do they live differently than a businessman, etc.?
I found that the younger, unknown artists were easy to approach and photograph. The more famous the artist, the more difficult and the less time they wanted to give me. Three exceptions were Red Grooms, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg; each was very gracious and helpful. After a few meetings with Warhol’s business manager, and several years of trying to arrange a session, I had only ten minutes with Andy. I didn’t even get his famous fifteen minutes. He was the only artist who wouldn’t agree to an interview, and he was the creator/owner of Interview Magazine. Hmmmm.
Another of your books, Parallels: A Look At Twins, works with images of identical twins. How did you become involved with that subject? Were you influenced at all by images done by the German photographer August Sander or by Diane Arbus? Have you considered working with triplets or other examples of multiple births? Any interest in contrasting images of identical and fraternal twins?
I met and photographed three sets of identical twins on the streets of Manhattan one weekend in May of 1972. I liked two of the resulting images, and this began a six-year effort of photographing about 155 sets of identical twins. My book, Parallels: A Look at Twins, was published by E.P. Dutton in 1978. Its ideas come from the work, meaning that after shooting for a while, I occasionally notice that certain themes and patterns and connections bubble up from the mire. I look and re-look at the work frequently, trying to perceive threads. I definitely believe that my work speaks to me, guides me, and often informs me of my direction and next steps. I trust myself and trust the process entirely; it has rarely led me astray.
I came to realize that part of my fascination with identical twins stemmed from knowing a set of female twins in grade school. I wondered how there could be two of one, and actually was in awe and afraid of them. And as a photographer, I was intrigued by the very strong visual qualities of their duplication. I photographed fraternal twins but this wasn’t nearly as compelling as identical twins. I also did some triplets, but that was too rare to pursue; it might have taken at least double the time to produce a meaningful project.
I started and mostly did this work while I was not a professional photographer and was totally unaware of August Sander. I knew of Arbus and her one photograph of identical twins. Many people think she did many twin photographs, but I believe she only did the one shoot. I love both Sander and Arbus and share their very direct, confrontational approach to photographing people. I maintain that this photographic style is innate and natural to me, not influenced by any other practitioners.
You have produced several photography books and teach courses in the making of a photography book. Besides taking your courses, what might you suggest to photographers in publishing a book of their imagery?
This question might take hours to answer. I teach a two-weekend course at the International Center of Photography that addresses this issue, and have done one and two-day long seminars around the country on the topic. So this is not a subject with a short answer. Suffice it to say that while almost everyone wants to do a book of their images, it’s not easy to find a commercial publisher. An average size book with perhaps 70-80 photographs might cost a publisher $75,000 to $100,000 to put out, depending on the number of copies and the print quality. The more focused and unique the subject, the better the chances to get published. The chief reason that projects are rejected is that the work isn’t coherent, consistent, and/or focused. Also, there should be a reachable, definable audience for the book.
Besides producing your own work you also teach extensively at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts, among others. Do you find that teaching enhances your own work? How? Is it ever a burden?
I love teaching and find it very rewarding. Besides teaching at ICP and SVA in New York City, I do my own workshops to Mexico, Ecuador, Italy and now Peru. And I’ve taught many workshops at all the major places—Maine, Santa Fe, Palm Beach, etc. Through teaching I meet interesting people, many who become friends, and make images while at the workshops. Photography can be a lonely and isolating profession; teaching keeps me in touch with issues and people. I learn and get ideas from students, and while sometimes it’s tiring and time consuming, teaching is never a burden. Mostly, it’s a joy and I recommend it highly.
What have been some of the most memorable events of your career in photography?
Events don’t stand out, places and the people there do. Places I return to time and time again, and where I love to photograph, include: Coney Island, Harlem, Mexico City, Italy and New Mexico. I don’t really photograph news events or famous people much, and when I do, I’m photographing for me, not for a media outlet. I go to events where I photograph, but not the event per se, rather the people at the event. But I have photographed a Democratic National Convention, the aftermath of 9/11, Fashion Week in New York City, and Mr./Ms. Nude America in Naked City, Indiana. And I’ve also managed to photograph such well-known people as Andy Warhol, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Jimmy Carter, George Wallace, Donald Trump, Annie Sprinkle and Spider Webb. I’d rather photograph a friend or the average person on the street than a famous person. Perhaps I think they are more real and ultimately, more interesting.
Your images of Coney Island— at least those on your website— are in color. What made you select color for that particular body of work when most of your other images are black-and-white?
With film, I mostly photograph in black-and-white. I prefer it, and still shoot lots of it. I think black-and-white is personal, color pictorial. I achieve more emotion and drama in black-and-white. But I also photographed with slide film, up to 2006 when I finally started to also shoot with a digital camera. So the digital camera has replaced shooting slide film, but not shooting with my Leicas and black-and-white film.
I had two bodies of work for Coney Island, and my editor at W.W. Norton wanted to do the color version for the book. I was happy with this decision since I thought it would get that work out, even though most people thought I only shot in black-and-white. With film only, in the past, I would often shoot with three cameras simultaneously, one Leica with a 21mm lens, one Leica with a 35mm lens (both with black-and-white film), and an SLR Nikon, 24mm lens loaded with slide film. I’m still shooting black-and-white with both Leicas, and color with the digital camera.
In 2011, I will have another book published on my Coney Island work, 40 years of photographs taken in black-and-white. So ultimately, both bodies of work will see the light of day. It’s the best of both worlds, and very satisfying to me.
More recently you took on an added role of curator at the Umbrella Arts Gallery in the East Village in Manhattan. How has this new role affected your own work?
In September of 2009, I was appointed Director of Photography at Umbrella Arts, a gallery on East Ninth Street in Manhattan—one of the prettiest streets in the East Village. It’s a small gem of a gallery and presents photography and painting exhibits in equal measure. I was brought in to initiate, organize and present photography exhibits of both emerging and established photographers.
It’s been a busy and exciting time. I love dealing with people, and find photographers uniformly intelligent, open and creative. I enjoy helping talented photographers to get their art to the public. It’s been fun, the only way it’s affected my own work so far is that it limits the time I have to work on my photography, but I’ll find a balance.
Where do you see your work heading later in 2010 and beyond?
I take things day-to-day, year-by-year; I am patient and persistent. I think these two qualities have helped me survive in the tough but always exciting field of photography. I cannot imagine myself ever not being involved with photography, in one capacity or another. I look forward to making new images. My work is what sustains me, keeps me going, keeps me happy.
I need to shoot more at Coney Island for my new book; I look forward to continuing to photograph for my Ecuador project; and will go to a new country for me—Peru—and perhaps begin a new project.
To see more of Harvey Stein’s images visit www.harveysteinphoto.com
Robert A. Schaefer, Jr. is a fine art photographer whose work is represented by the Domeischel Gallery as well as the private dealer William Floyed, both in New York City. He is also represented by the DeFrog Gallery in Houston, Texas. He writes about photography for various online publications as well as The Photo Review published in Philadelphia, Pa.