Veteran Photographer Henry Horenstein Advises: “Shoot What You Love”

Photo: Gatemouth Brown, New Orleans, 1985

Could there be anything greater than combining your passion and your love—and get paid for doing so? American photographer Henry Horenstein would emphatically say “No.” Horenstein (b. 1947) got his start in the 1970s, studying under seminal artists Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White. It was Callahan who gave him the best advice of his life.

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As a young student, Horenstein wondered what he should photograph. Callahan asked him what he liked to do and Horenstein replied, “I like to go to the racetrack and bet on horses, and I like to listen to country music.” Callahan offered sensible advice: “Why not photograph the races and the music? Even if you make lousy pictures, you’ll have a good time.”

Del, Thompson Speedway, Thompson, Connecticut, 1972

From this simple directive came a lifetime of work that has resulted in over 30 books, including a basic manual on black and white photography that has been used by aspiring photography students for more than thirty years. He has traveled the world, capturing moments far and wide, from Dolly Parton and Porter Wagner backstage at Boston’s Symphony Hall to an unexpected scene of camel coitus in Dubai.

The one constant throughout it al has been Horenstein’s commitment to love and so it is from the heart that his latest book comes. Shoot What You Love: Tips and Tales from a Working Photographer (Monacelli Studio) is a romp through Horenstein’s life behind the camera, giving us a look at some of his favorite works produced along with behind-the-scenes stories, tips, and tricks gleaned from more than forty years in the business. He deftly combines elements of autobiography, professional insights, and art into a captivating volume that will make you smile with recognition of life’s infinite pleasures and absurdities.

Lovers, Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Nashville, 1975

As a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design, Horenstein has mastered the dynamics of teaching. This wisdom shines throughout the book, and is best encapsulated in Horenstein’s words: “Here’s how I see it. Students pay the money. Teachers get paid. It’s our job to listen and to give what we can to make them more thoughtful and a little better at what they are doing. Simple. Guide and support. Don’t shove anything down anyone’s throat. Trust each student to figure out what works for him or her. One size doesn’t fit all.”

This practical nugget of wisdom can be applied in just about any context. The essence of it is listening to the other person and respecting their integrity. Thus we can see Horenstein apply this to the very act of photography. Every image is a duet, a reading of the person as more than a subject but as an individual and discovering the space between the two. It is always shifting based on what Horenstein observes, what his heart calls to him as he lifts the camera and presses the shutter release. In that fraction of a second we see not only the subject of the photograph, but we glimpse Horenstein himself, reflected in the energy of the images he creates.

Joni Mitchell at the Philadelphia Folk Festival

All photos: © Henry Horenstein, courtesy of The Monacelli Press

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.