Interview by A.g. De Mesa, photos by Harvey Stein
The thing about any creative pursuit, specifically photography, is that it is easy to pick up but only a few can stay with it let alone be good at the same time.
As Harvey Stein shows us, the things needed to be exactly that is something we haven’t already heard before: when you stick to your style and stay true to yourself, you can make the most of what photography offers. This New York photographer has just released his 7th book Briefly Seen New York Street Life, has just been named a finalist in the 2015 LensCulture Street Photography Awards, and in the course of us going back and forth in this interview, he has been shooting around the world keeping his senses sharp and his photographs plenty.
Looking at his past work and interviews here at the blog, Harlem Street Portraits and Coney Island 40 years, it’s interesting that throughout the years, Harvey has still something different to show us. With latest book, Briefly Seen New York Street life, we pulls us in with the glance of stranger amongst the sea of people. Jotting himself in the middle of these crowds to pick that simple act of a stare or a gesture. The density of a city in full effect. There is a feeling of claustrophobia in the images, perhaps the use of the strong light he usually tends to shoot in or despite using wide angle lenses, he fills every inch of the frame with people. Best to dive in and explore the process that Harvey goes through.
A.g.:You have made 7 Books and countless exhibitions in your entire career. In the age of internet where everything moves fast and trends come and go, how did you manage to stay and work for this long?
Harvey: I am patient and am always working, whether shooting, editing, printing, or communicating using email or Face Book. I enjoy teaching and getting my work out in exhibits, blogs, magazines and especially doing books. I love photography and photographing and most of the processes associated with it. I enjoy the photo world and feel very lucky and even blessed to be a part of it and to be able to be so active for so long. I am not in a rush to do things, as you can see with books that I’ve done that took 40 years, 27 years, 10 years, six years. Really, what is the rush? I have never paid attention to trends, because that is exactly what they are, trends that are short term and usually superficial. I am in it all for the long term and try to keep it as honest and real and simple as possible.
The book making process is very interesting and self publishing is all the rage these days. And again, you’ve done 7 books! What do you think is in books that make ideal as a platform for photographers to show their works as opposed to say an exhibition or an online gallery of sorts?
Doing a book for me is the peak of what I can do and aspire to. A book is an exhibit, a magazine, an object, a life all in one. It lives much longer than any exhibit or portfolio published in a magazine, whether online or actual. It is so satisfying to know that you can and you have worked for years on a project and have seen it completed and presented it to the public to share. Satisfaction comes with conceiving of the project, shooting it for years, then shaping and guiding it, and seeing it to fruition. It’s like giving birth, I suppose. It’s your baby and you have done it mostly alone and on your own. Nice.
The keyword I always see on how you describe your work is “Edginess”, can you tell me your definition of that word and how you translate that to photographs?
I don’t really like happy photos, or ones that are obvious, sentimental, even beautiful. I guess because I don’t think life is like that, it’s tough and hard for most people. Yes, it’s great to be alive and there are happy times and places and relationships, but ultimately life ends badly, fatally. So I want my images to be tough yet humane, honest and deep, psychological, probing, thought provoking, and meaningful. This is not always possible of course, but we try and keep trying. So for me edginess means all this, a lack of superficiality and full of intensity and life on the edge, not pretty.
For the Coney Island book, the portraits are more formal in the sense that the people are aware of your presence. Why did you choose a different approach for Briefly Seen, New York Street Life? Was it a decision you made while editing the work or it all just fell into place like that?
My usual style and approach to shooting on the street is to engage my subject, to confront them, talk to them and get them to agree and participate in my taking their photograph. I ask them to be serious if they are smiling. I ask them to look into the lens, I prefer a direct gaze into the camera and if successful, the image involves not only me and the subject but also the viewer of the image and this can be quite powerful. I call this a confrontational/collaborative approach to street photography. Most of my work and all of my books of the street show this style. But I found that over the years in New York City, with all the crowds constantly on the streets, I was also drawn to shooting while in the crowd; this of course involves lots of people rather than isolating on one or two. I enjoy the design and composition of the various figures in crowds and how they collide and crash and juxtapose in the two dimensional space of a photograph. So I’d say it just fell into place over many years.
How do you go about with your editing process? You have decades worth of images, how do you sift through all of them?
This is a tremendous problem. I have hundreds and hundreds of contact sheets that I’ve not looked at yet, some from 10 years ago. I have thousands of rolls of film still to process, some as far back as five-six years (another reason to love Garry Winogrand). For my black and white work, I patiently look at contact sheets for several hours a week, when I’m home and not traveling. I mark up the sheets with a red grease marker. I then go over the marked up sheets the day before I go into the darkroom, selecting about 10 images for that day to print. For digital images, I download my memory cards to my desktop computer to a file with the date of the shoot and a unique number and description of what I shot. I eventually look at every image in the file, deleting images that are out of focus or wildly under or over exposed. I then put each image into a subject file by year, such as Coney Island 2015, dogs 2015, etc. etc. I start a new subject file each year. It’s not the best way to do this, but it’s modeled after the method I use to edit and file b/w prints—I put b/w prints into archival boxes by subject matter. For digital, I’ve only edited images through 2010. Not good.
Do you have a favorite image in Briefly Seen, New York Street Life? Can you tell us the backstory of how that shot was made?
I have several favorite images in Briefly Seen. The cover image of a crowd of young people on 5th Avenue at the St. Patrick parade is one. A young man in a nice coat and sweater, with a carnation in his lapel, is angling and tilting his head upward onto the left edge of the frame. I shot from a low angle, it’s quite sunny, and my shadow is on his chest. In the near background is a young lady leaning and tilting her head on her boy friends chest in the approximate way that the young man is leaning. Both have closed their eyes. I was close and shot a few frames with a 21mm lens quickly from below. I think it’s a beautiful and ambiguous and unusually shot photograph, the instant mattered since this arrangement disappeared immediately, hence, briefly seen.
Are there any moments on the street that you missed but sorely wished wish you had taken? Or Perhaps a place or city you badly want to visit and just photograph there?
I’m sure there are many moments on the street that I’ve missed, too numerous to mention. None really stand out in my memory. I have always wanted to photograph at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and just got around to doing it in early October. It’s huge, interesting, and worth doing, but I fear I was a few years late in getting there since it seems to be fixed up more than needed, but it’s still a special place to photograph. I’d like to photograph in Vietnam, and look forward to traveling to Southern India this February. I’ve been to Rajasthan in India the past few years and it’s like another planet.
You’ve been around the world and in various cities, what do you think makes the streets of New York different? And at a day and age where there are just so many photographs being made, especially in NYC, do you think there is still something new to be made?
I think New York is a great city, everyone wants to at least visit here and mostly everyone wants to live here, if they could afford it. I love the vibrancy, the variety of people, the incredible culture and interesting people that live here. It’s probably one if not the most photographed cities in the world. Of course, I think there is still something new to be made, as you say. There is always new and more to photograph. It may be harder for me for at least two reasons, but yes, it’s still possible. First, I’ve photographed here for so long, so I’ve seen it all and have done it all. Almost, but the city is never the same, never exhausted, I am only exhausted (sometimes). Second, the city is largely gentrified everywhere. Rough, edgy neighborhoods no longer exist, hipsters and young techies are moving in everywhere, it’s harder to find places where the environment lends itself to atmospheric and wondrous backgrounds, it’s becoming corporate and sterile everywhere, just like other cities. This just makes it more challenging to make excellent images.
Do you still get surprised when you are on the streets or you just go “Yep, another day in New York?”
I do still get surprised and see new things on the streets. I am trying now to go to the boroughs other than Manhattan to shoot, Queens has terrific ethnic events that I’ve not explored much, so does the Bronx. I am endlessly curious about people, and intrigued by their difference and yet their similarities. So this propels me. I think good photographers are curious individuals, always seeking and wanting to know more. This is a trait that serves to motivate and engage us. Once we are bored or blasé, we definitely lose drive and desire and as a result, probably don’t make images that are strong enough.
What do you think is the biggest difference of today’s photographers to when you were still starting out? Well aside from the fact that digital photography exists?
To me, the biggest difference, besides digital, is that there are so many more photographers today then say 30 years ago. Photography is much easier to do now, it’s lots less labor intensive than film photography. And there are so many excellent photographers. But it’s probably harder to get recognized due to the greater numbers of photographers and the fact that the magazines using photography well are fewer, yet galleries are more plentiful. There seems to be more photo books published today, yet fewer and fewer books sell. This probably has to with so many more distractions including the Internet and the opportunities to receive images in other ways. I think the key is to believe in yourself, to stay true to your interests and approach, to not play to the market, and to continue to love doing what you do and continue to love photography and photographing.
Follow Harvey Stein
The Book Briefly Seen New York Street Life is already available via Amazon. For those who are in New York, there will be a book launch and book signing over at Rizzoli Bookstore, 26th Street and Broadway on Monday, November 16th, 5:30-7:30PM. More details here.