Photographer Henry Horenstein brings up the unknown with shows in Portsmouth and Boston

Horenstein, now 74, takes his camera everywhere in search of characters and communities. He has published books such as “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music” and “Show” on the burlesque scene in New York. He is also the author of popular photography technical manuals and a memoir, “Shoot What You Love”.

Before turning to photography, Horenstein studied history at the University of Chicago and with labor historian EP Thompson at the University of Warwick in England. The speedway station grabbed him because of what Thompson taught him.

“He was a leader of what was called the ‘ascendant history school’,” Horenstein said. “He thought we should study, record, and document people who were likely to be overlooked in history.”

Horenstein recalled Thompson saying, “It’s going to be a fair job. “

This prompted him to take a camera. In 1972 he was studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. His role model was then street photographer Weegee, but the lessons in composition and tone he learned from RISD teachers, including Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, have also become implicit in his work.

He took to the freeway and took pictures of the fans, drivers and mechanics.

One shows a man with sharp features in coveralls. A wrecked car behind him frames the harsh angles of his body and face. All that’s missing is a cigarette, and he would be a character in a James Dean movie.

“Del, Thompson Speedway, Thompson, CT” 1972, from Henry Horenstein’s “Speedway72” series, in “Where Everybody Is Somebody” at 3S Artspace. Henri horenstein

“We think of art in terms of individual masterpieces. Henry’s work is that, but he’s really a historian with a camera, ”said Shannon Thomas Perich, curator of the Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. Perich organized an exhibition of Horenstein’s “Honky Tonk” images there in 2005.

“His approach is not overly conceptualized. There is a frankness and authenticity about him, ”said Perich. “He has the conceptual framework, and he can manifest it in an extraordinarily accessible way.”

"Fans, Thompson Speedway, Thompson, CT,"  1972, from the Henry Horenstein series "Speedway72," in "Where everyone is someone."
“Fans, Thompson Speedway, Thompson, CT”, 1972, from Henry Horenstein’s “Speedway72” series, in “Where Everybody Is Somebody”.Henri horenstein

Horenstein’s photographs are full of detail. Partly that’s because he documents subcultures full of costume and personality, but it also has to be because he puts his subjects at ease.

“The great part of documentary photography is you meet people, you have little adventures,” Horenstein said. “It’s like being an uncle or an aunt. You are having fun. And then it’s gone, and you no longer have any responsibility afterwards.

Archives in Henry Horenstein's office at Fort Point.
Archives in Henry Horenstein’s office at Fort Point.

Suzanne Kreiter / Globe Staff

“Blitto Underground”, another series from 3S Artspace, captures the bohemian vibe of Buenos Aires. Horenstein put on a show there in 2009 and decided to make it an expedition. He called a friend who had spent time there.

“I said, ‘I need a repairman. I need someone to translate. I need someone to lead me. I need someone to introduce me to the Buenos Aires metro, ”said Horenstein. “He found me Blitto.”

"Blitto, Buenos Aires, Argentina," 2009, from the Henry Horenstein series "Blitto underground," in "Where everyone is somebody" at 3S Artspace.
“Blitto, Buenos Aires, Argentina”, 2009, from the series “Blitto Underground” by Henry Horenstein, in “Where Everybody Is Somebody” at 3S Artspace. Henri horenstein

Blitto – pronounced Bleeto – is a hotel concierge. “His other life is in hiding. He’s a club singer. He hangs out with a lot of people, misbehaves a lot and has interesting friends, ”said Horenstein, who keeps in touch with Blitto. “He was perfect.”

"Friends of Blitto, Buenos Aires, Argentina," 2009, from the Henry Horenstein series "Blitto underground," in "Where everyone is someone."
“Friends of Blitto, Buenos Aires, Argentina”, 2009, from the series “Blitto Underground” by Henry Horenstein, in “Where Everybody Is Somebody”. Henri horenstein

The photographer returned in 2017 to make his first feature documentary, “Blitto Underground”, which will be screened at 3S Artspace on February 4th.

Photographing animals occupied Horenstein in the 1990s and 2000s, and it caught the attention of gallery owners and collectors in ways his other photographs did not. His animal photos at the NAGA Gallery have an intentional formality: the flying triangle of a musk stingray; the voluptuous curves of a hippopotamus in the bath.

"Musk ray, Myliobatis freminvillii," 1995-2001, is in "Henry Horenstein: Animalia" at the NAGA Gallery.
“Bullnose Ray, Myliobatis freminvillii”, 1995-2001, is in “Henry Horenstein: Animalia” at the NAGA Gallery. Courtesy of Henry Horenstein and the NAGA Gallery, Boston
"Hippopotamus, Amphibious Hippopotamus," 1995-2001, in "Henry Horenstein: Animalia."
“Hippopotamus, Hippopotamus amphibious”, 1995-2001, in “Henry Horenstein: Animalia”.Courtesy of Henry Horenstein and the NAGA Gallery, Boston

But the documentary projects – the Little Adventures of Horenstein – and the connections he makes, personally and with his camera, are what sustains him.

After taking the photos of the highway, he put them away. He didn’t even caption them. Five or six years ago, he took them out to show them to his students at RISD, where he has been teaching full time since the 1990s.

“One of them said, ‘Oh my God,'” said Horenstein. “This is where I live. My grandfather and the owner of this place are best friends. They hunt together, they drink together.

Horenstein asked her if she could help him identify his subjects.

“She set them up in the local VFW room,” he said, “and identified more than half of the people. “

The man in the jumpsuit is called Del Berdick. Horenstein will be releasing a new book, “Speedway72,” this spring.

He sees the title of the 3S Artspace show as a credo: “Where Everybody Is Somebody”.

“I look at an animal or a human and I’m like ‘Wow, that’s enough’, if I could record what they are or who they are and do a good job,” Horenstein said. “It’s as good as it gets.”


At 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth, NH, January 7 – March 20. 603-766-3330,


At the NAGA Gallery, 67 Newbury St., Jan.7-Feb. 5. 617-267-9060,

Cate McQuaid can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on twitter @cmcq.

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