Henry Horenstein is as much of a fixture in honky-tonks and dive bars as cold beer, neon lights, and Elvis figurines. His photographs of the 1970s honky-tonk country music scene include everyone from rising stars to drunken spectators. In one portrait a young, bright-eyed Dolly Parton smiles angelically, dimple cheeked amongst a mass of blonde curls. In another, a drunken couple leer at the camera next to a tabletop vending machine proclaiming “hot nuts.”
As a child growing up in rural Massachusetts, Horenstein became enamored with the music of country bars and dancehalls. Later, as a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, his mentor Harry Callahan advised him to “find what you love, and shoot it.” This advice led him back into the dancehalls of his youth and has inspired every project since. His images exemplify the decades they were made in: women with beehive hairstyles half a foot high, men in bell bottoms sitting on wicker chairs, and Chamie, his mother’s poodle, regally posed on a floral comforter in front of baroque wallpaper.
Horenstein’s early career during the 1970s is a snapshot of photography in its adolescence, before the medium was fully accepted as a fine art. He initially studied history and jokes that he switched to photography after realizing he could get more dates with a camera than a textbook. Still, the artifacts of his original major remain embedded in his work. “After all,” he says, “history is nothing but stories, not all of them true, and a lot of folk music is the same.” His subjects are steeped in the traditions he loves: Honky-tonk music, horse racing, and his own family. They form bodies of work that are fueled by his desire to preserve eras and subsets of pop culture from extinction. Each picture is as much a snapshot of a time period as it is an image of a person or place—all inevitably colored by hindsight.
In the 1980s, Horenstein worked for Polaroid, an experience that he says showed him, “a much bigger world than I was used to working strictly out of a fine art background and teaching in fine art schools. It taught me that there was a lot to photography beyond that and that I should open up and consider all the possibilities.” The job improved his technical competency and gave him a business savvy that he had not learned in an art school. It also propelled him to write some of the first photography textbooks. As an artist and educator, Horenstein has authored over 30 photography books, among them Black & White Photography, Digital Photography, and Beyond Basic Photography, which have been the blueprints for many students’ first forays into the medium. “I’ve sold over 700,000 copies,” he likes to humble-brag, “but I don’t know how many people actually read them.”
Horenstein’s work has been exhibited in the Smithsonian and the George Eastman Museum, among many others and is held in various collections including the Library of Congress and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. He credits the majority of his success to participation and the rest to loving what he does. Now a professor at his alma mater, he continues to make work, recently branching into video and making the documentary films Spoke and Partners. When asked about his inclusion in this Living Legends issue of Don’t Take Pictures, he responded, “You become a living legend by being very old, being around for a long time. But don’t make it sound like I’m about to die.” Now in his 70s, Horenstein may have a long, distinguished career behind him, but he is most excited about the work that lies ahead. “For me,” he says, “work is never dead, just resting.”
This article first appeared in Issue 11.
Ashley Hagerstrand is an artist and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.