Issue #150  10/20/2008
Two New Photo Books By Henry Horenstein

By Matt Damsker


Photos by Henry Horenstein. 2008, Pond Press hardcover, 86 pages, approximately 70 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-0-9761955-2-8 CUSA. Information: http://www.animaliabook.com , http://www.horenstein.com , http://www.pondpress.com .


Photos by Henry Horenstein. 2006, Powerhouse Books hardcover; 112 pages, approximately 100 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 1-57687-327-7; Information: http://www.powerHouseBooks.com .

Most of Henry Horenstein's "Animalia" photographs were shot between 1995 and 2001, and 19 of these startling images--of wildlife in expressive close-up--were recently presented at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. They are wonderful studies, in which the contours and angularities of sea creatures, fire ants, monkeys, dogs, lizards, birds, or the knuckles of a gorilla become near-alien revisions of familiar fauna.

The snout of a pig in frame-grabbing close-up, the calligraphy of sea nettles floating along, the tufted tail of a thoroughbred horse, the hides of elephant and hippo--these and many other such photos rip their subjects from their usual contexts and force us to see these wondrous everyday creatures on fresh terms, from fresh perspectives, and as extraordinary specimens of natural diversity. The real beauty of these shots lies in the way they resist interpretation, as Zen-like affirmations of pure being.

Horenstein, an accomplished photo-realist and textbook author who also teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, has made a solid career of representing the human and the non-human over the course of three decades of photography. Some of his "Animalia" images can justly be called iconic, but the sheer human interest of his other recent volume, "Close Relations," makes his high-craft animal shots seem a little self-consciously artistic by comparison.

Indeed, the time-honored tradition of family photography often yields carefully posed, idealized portraiture, but Horenstein's cache of family-and-friends photos, from the early 1970s, is an artful hybrid of domestic snapshooting and casual posing that conveys a strong sense of the times and glances warmly at the artist's middle-class Bostonian roots.

Most of "Close Relations" consists of photos Hornestein made when he was himself a student at RISD, although though there's no amateurish reek to these uncropped, medium-format studies shot on Tri-X film. Images of Horenstein's mom, dad, aunts, grandparents, friends, lovers, and the leitmotif of his family's feisty little poodle, Chammie, create a domestic salon that bursts with a lot of post-WWII optimism that feels tempered by '60s turmoil and a palpable sense of generational change.

Thus, a wonderful family portrait of two young, presumably married friends holding their infant daughter in their cramped Boston apartment is a telling study in post-hippie adjustment to the norms of middle-class life--and the look of doubt on the young mother's face seems to say it all. Similarly, Hornstein's shots of his mother and father--two game seniors whose weathered faces and loud clothing (the jumbled flair of '60s and '70s "fashion" is a humorous theme of many of these shots) mark them as epitomes of their changing times.

Horenstein may have been young and just finding his aesthetic footing in these early shots, but his instincts were unerring. The faces of his student friends have a somber, introspective cast that suggests a very typical '60s fusion of leftist disaffection and marijuana hangover, while the uncertainty and vague anxiety of the older folks is the cautionary offset to the youthful narcissism. And Horenstein's eye is provoked by the dark interiors of his domestic studies--the cluttered, curtained, makeshift apartments, siblings' rooms and Formica kitchens of his childhood--and the woodsy backyards of his New England milieu.

They provide a rich textural context for his affectionate yet unsparing vision--and connect Horenstein's work to the ragged realism of Nan Goldin (whom he influenced, according to Shannon Thomas Perich, who provides an afterword to this volume), William Eggleston, Lee Friedlander, as well as pay tribute to Horenstein's own teachers--the likes of Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and Minor White.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)