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Big Hair, Big Cars & Plaid Pants: Henry Horenstein’s “Tales from the 70s”

A new exhibition of photography takes you on a trip back to the past to a time when personal style was a way of life.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: “Boxing at the Harvard Club,” Boston, MA, 1976, Vintage gelatin silver print.

Photographer Henry Horenstein remembers the 1970s well: “When we were in our early 20s, we didn’t have that much to do. I’d go out, drink beers with friends, I had girlfriends (or tried to get them), and I had a dog. I had a personal life. I don’t have that anymore. Life is too busy.”

Also: Books | Ken Light: What’s Going On? 1969–1974

A student of Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Minor White, Horenstein has been making photographs since the early 1970s. He observes, “Over the years I’ve photographed many different types of subjects, even animals and the human form. But I’ve always returned to my roots as a documentary photographer. More than anything, I like a good story. And I try to tell one in a direct way, with humor and a punch line, if possible.”

“Ray Jr.,” Driver, Thompson Speedway, Thompson, CT, 1972, Vintage gelatin silver print

“Ray Jr.,” Driver, Thompson Speedway, Thompson, CT, 1972, Vintage gelatin silver print

His new exhibition, Histories: Tales from the 70s, currently on view at ClampArt, New York, through May 21, 2016, goes back to those earliest days, when Horenstein was new to the medium. He remembers Harry Callahan telling him, “Got out and shoot the stuff you love, and even if you have bad pictures, you’ll have had a good time.”

Horenstein had fashioned himself as an historian, and with that in mind he used the camera to document the world for posterity. He observes, “I studied with E.P. Thompson in England, and his message was: It is our righteous job to record, study, and document the undocumented—the people who were going to disappear from history unless someone preserved them.”

“Dolly Parton,” Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, 1972, Vintage gelatin silver print

“Dolly Parton,” Symphony Hall, Boston, MA, 1972, Vintage gelatin silver print

With this in mind, Horenstein headed into Boston’s honkytonks. Horenstein remembers, “Back then, there were seven honkytonks in downtown Boston. Now there are none,” proving his instinct for preservation was as fortuitous as it was beautifully done. Horenstein’s photographs celebrate his subject’s distinction and verve; in his work we see the life force as it is made manifest in so many forms. Whether in the bars or at the racetrack, Horenstein was on the scene, capturing so many slices of life that spoke to the spirit of the age that has long since disappeared.

In Horenstein’s 1970s, we returns to a time not so long ago, but so very far away: a time when everything was analogue. Just imagine how cutting edge the 8 track cassettes had been: finally you could curate the sounds on your car stereo. Horenstein’s 1970s were filled everything that made the era great, the “big cars, plaid pants, long hair, and all.” Horenstein reveals, “The thing I never thought about was the way people dressed, the hairdos and the cars. Now, when I shoot, I see it. But back then I never thought about it. People look at the pictures and giggle over what they’re wearing. But back then it was normal.”

“Hosts,” Charity Party, Newton, MA, 1972, Vintage gelatin silver print

“Hosts,” Charity Party, Newton, MA, 1972, Vintage gelatin silver print

It is this purity of preservation that makes Horenstein’s photographs timeless; the way in which everything is natural, his subjects filled with a sense of ease and repose. There is a lack of the artificial, self-conscious, and self-constructed in Horenstein’s photographs. Everyone simply is exactly as they are. And in that way, it’s not surprising to find Dolly Parton in the mix; she’s a woman of the people and her presence reminds us of this.

Horenstein observes, “It’s great to look at older photographs. You remember things that you did. There are so many people who disappeared along the way that you had been close to, that influenced you, and then they’re gone. You forget.”

“Chammie in Wool,” Newton, MA, 1974, Vintage gelatin silver print

“Chammie in Wool,” Newton, MA, 1974, Vintage gelatin silver print

The photographs become reminders of the past, repositories of memory, objects evoking emotions, and artifacts of history. Horenstein adds, “It’s interesting to see how you evolved creatively—or didn’t. I like stories in a picture, rather than ideas. Some people focus on the conceptual but my work centers on stories. My pictures are histories of a sort. These are the things that we should remember. We have to tell the whole story of what our culture is.”

All photos: :© Henry Horenstein, Courtesy of ClampArt, New York City.

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.