Documenting Coney Island for Over 40 Years: Interview with Harvey Stein

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Eric’s Note: I am excited to share this interview with Harvey Stein, a prolific street photographer from NYC. He has been shooting the streets for nearly half a century, and has recently published his book: “Coney Island 40 Years” which is one of my new favorite street photography books. Check out some of his work and thoughts on photography in the interview below.

1. Harvey, it is a pleasure to have you. You have been shooting street photography in New York for many decades now. Can you share how you first picked up a camera and how you “discovered” street photography?

Photo Booth, Coney Island 1978. © Harvey Stein
Photo Booth, Coney Island 1978. © Harvey Stein

It’s a pleasure to be interviewed by you. I first picked up a camera when I was 22 years old while serving as a lieutenant in the American army stationed in Germany. The army had a darkroom on the base, and I thought it would be cool to get a German camera—it was a Zeiss Icon with a 50mm lens—and it wasn’t expensive then.

I had lots of free time and I taught myself how to operate the camera and how to develop film. I would shoot some of my troops during exercises, and walk around the small town I was stationed in and shoot the architecture and inhabitants. I was always interested in art making, even though I studied engineering in college.

My school, Carnegie Mellon University, was renowned for engineering and science, but they also have terrific drama and painting departments and I knew lots of these folks when an undergraduate. I tried to paint, write, do ceramics, but wasn’t very good at them.

Once I picked up the camera, I realized almost immediately I could do it well, I liked doing it, and maybe someday I thought I’d do it full time. And of course, that has happened.

I moved to New York to go to Columbia University Grad School of Business and discovered the variety, excitement, and strangeness of New York street life. I was hooked and photographed all the time, even while going to graduate school.

2. What are some of the changes you have seen in New York over the years?

Coney Island, 2004 © Harvey Stein
Coney Island, 2004 © Harvey Stein

The biggest change is that New York has gotten less edgy, its street life is muted, safe, not very chaotic. I have just returned from traveling for three weeks in India and photographing almost all day and some nights. Now that is crazy and vivid and exhilarating country.

New York is very mild in comparison, safe and unexciting. Which of course makes it harder to get interesting images, but maybe there is a greater challenge now then when I began to shoot in the streets, now it’s harder to make more edgy and meaningful images. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

3. You have published two books on Coney Island, one in color and the other in black and white. Can you share the differences of meaning that color and black and white adds to Coney Island?

Happy New Year Man, Coney Island, 2010 © Harvey Stein
Happy New Year Man, Coney Island, 2010 © Harvey Stein

I prefer b/w photography to color, I think we can get lost in the color; that color often obscures content. I believe black/white is more personal and abstract, color more pictorial. That said, Coney Island is quite colorful and over the years I photographed there in both color and black/white.

I showed both versions of the Coney Island work to an editor at W.W.Norton, and he wanted to do the book in color; I liked the idea since my color photography wasn’t/isn’t as well known as my black/white imagery.

I prefer my black/white work more than the color at Coney, but I’d probably say that about any project photographed in both.

4. Your recent black and white book, Coney Island 40 Years, was shot over a 40 year time frame. How do you stay motivated to work on a project for that long, and what advice would you give to other street photographers trying to find and stick with a project?

Happy Mermaid, Coney Island, 2010 © Harvey Stein
Happy Mermaid, Coney Island, 2010 © Harvey Stein

The years seem to fly by. In 2006, I realized that I’d been photographing at Coney Island for 36 years, since 1970. I thought how cool it would be to shoot there for another four years and do another book, covering 40 years. So since then I had that as an objective, and it happened.

The book, Coney Island 40 Years, is from 1970-2010, and was published in the spring of 2011. I’m still shooting there, have many more wonderful images, and now have as a goal a third book, Coney Island 50 Years, to be published in 2021. We shall see.
The place and the people motivate me, it’s endlessly fascinating, ever changing, with interesting, crazy characters who populate the boardwalk, beach, amusements.

I advise photographers to find a personal project that they can relate to and keep working it to make it richer, fuller, more well rounded and complete because they photograph constantly over a long period of time. Keep going back to the same places, houses, territory, whether physical or psychic. You will be rewarded.

5. I find it fascinating that for most of the photos in the book you utilized a 21mm lens. I know very few street photographers who utilize that focal length, as it is extremely wide and difficult to handle. Even Winogrand had a tough time mastering it. Can you share why you decided to use that focal length as your lens of choice.

Harlem, 1990, © Harvey Stein
Harlem, 1990, © Harvey Stein

My first and most influential teacher, Ben Fernandez, a terrific street photographer, said to get a Leica, use a 21mm lens, and shoot at Coney Island. Being the good student that I was, I complied, and have used the 21mm ever since. My long lens is a 35mm lens; I never use a longer lens on the street. I want to get close to my subject, yet put them in a context with their surroundings.

The 21mm lens allows me to accomplish this. I think this lens helps to tell their story better then hanging back and shooting from a distance with a long lens. For me, getting close makes for a more powerful and impactful photograph, I always try to get as close to my subject as possible, usually talking to them and being involved with them, even if only for seconds.

Perhaps the fact that the subject knows that I am there validates my reason for being there.

6. Describe how you shoot on the streets. What types of subjects interest you, how do you interact with them, and generally how many shots do you try to take of a single subject?

Sienna, Italy, 1998. © Harvey Stein
Sienna, Italy, 1998. © Harvey Stein

As I said above, I try to get close to my subjects. I like talking to them, getting involved with them. I get into difficulty on the street when I try to shoot candidly, i.e., “sneak” photographs.

That’s when subjects often get pissed if they see you. I want to give them the dignity to say no, and I usually don’t shoot if they say no. I feel better working this way then shooting candidly, and I think my images are better when I ask or at least when there is an acknowledgement that I am there and they are being photographed.

I am interested in photographing people and their behavior in public places. I want to see and show how people interact and intersect in public, how we all get along or not, and how public behavior reflects the culture’s trends, patterns, values and mores. I’ve shot all over the world, and there are definitely differences in street behavior. I like noting these patterns and differences.

I often shoot 8-10-12 frames of someone if I like the situation, whether film or digitally. I’ve done rolls of film of an event if vibrant enough.

7. How do you see street photography as a genre changing and evolving. Also where would you like to see street photography in 5-10 years from now?

Siena Italy 1996 © Harvey Stein
Siena Italy 1996 © Harvey Stein

I think I shoot rather traditionally, I don’t set up situations, which has been in vogue now for quite awhile (Gregory Crewdson, Philip Lorca de Corsica).

I don’t think I’ve changed over the years, and I don’t really think street photography has changed much. It’s still about the unpredictability of behavior of everyday people in public places, often very humorous, moving, energetic, exciting, sad, silly and vital.

I do like to pose people, to direct them a bit, move them from here to there (2-3 steps), I call my style collaborative/confrontational, as opposed to candid. I want people to be serious and to look into the camera.

I think street photography has evolved to this; until the 1970’s or so, street photography was mostly candid, now, I don’t think it is. Now it’s more personal, it’s about how we see and feel, it’s not about the pursuit of truth and beauty any longer. I see street photography moving in this direction even more in the future.

8. One of the most difficult things that street photographers face is editing and sequencing their work- especially when preparing for a publication, exhibition, or a book. How do you edit your work and what is the logic behind your sequencing. Perhaps you can use examples from your Coney Island 40 Years book?

I agree, it’s very difficult for photographers to edit and sequence well. I think I’ve always been good at doing both of these. I like to edit as soon as I shoot, then relook at the contact sheets or digital images over a period of time, often leaving it alone for a month or so to come back to the work with fresh eyes.

I like to make prints and lay them out on a table or the floor and move them around. I look for connections between/among images, whether similarities in mood or visually.

For instance, on pages 180-181 of the Coney Island book, on the left hand page is a photo of a worker standing outside the freak show turned toward another worker on the right hand page. Both have the Coney Island “logo” from the 1910’s, a neon sign called Happy Face, in the background. Both have circular elements, both have strongly posed individuals with a dark, uncluttered immersive background. For me the two photographs go together very well and should be sequenced together.

There are 214 photographs on 240 pages Coney Island 40 Years, that’s a lot. I broke the sequence into six sections or chapters (boardwalk, pier, mermaid parade, amusements, workers, beach). This helps, now I have 6 smaller sections to deal with. This also helps to make the subject more palatable for the viewer.

9. Can you discuss your new book, Harlem Street Portraits? When is it being published, how long have you worked on it, what are its themes?

Harlem, 1991. © Harvey Stein
Harlem, 1991. © Harvey Stein

My new book should be out in the fall of 2013, and is being published by Schiffer Publishing, the same company that brought out my recent Coney Island book. There will be about 165 black/white images on 192 pages, and includes a few short essays about the history of photography in Harlem and the nature of street photography.

I think it’s some of my strongest work. Photographs in the book span the 22-year period between 1990 and 2012. The images simultaneously look back in time while giving a current view to the people, streets and architecture of the area. This allows the viewer to notice changes in style, fashions and sense of place over many years.

I’ve tried to make the photographs close, personal and yet environmental, they mostly document the collaboration between me and the subject while showing the connection between us, if only momentarily. I’m quite excited about the book.

10. What are some projects you are currently working on now?

Pozos, Mexico 1995 Atotonilco, Mexico 1997 © Harvey Stein
Atotonilco, Mexico 1997 © Harvey Stein

I have at least four book projects finished, one about Mexico (I’ve shot there for about 12 years), one about New York City street life, one on children/childhood, one on photographer photographing.

I’ve been traveling to South America for the last five years photographing (Peru, Ecuador, Argentina) and have lots of photographs that look good, I have to work on the prints and start editing and sequencing in earnest, if only I can find the time.

11. How do you want your photography to be remembered and what do you want people to feel when looking at your books or images?

This is a tough question, I don’t really think about how I want to be remembered or how people feel when looking at my work. I care that I like my work, if others do also, great. If not, there’s not much I can do about it.

One of my guiding principles has always been to photograph for myself, to please me, and not to play to the market. I want my work to be honest, real, genuine. If others appreciate it, great, that’s a nice bonus. The work rewards me, not the market place or other people’s opinions.

12. If you could step into a time machine and transport yourself again to when you started photography, what advice would you give yourself.

Atotonilco, Mexico 1997 © Harvey Stein
Atotonilco, Mexico 1997 © Harvey Stein

It would be the advice that I did give myself, which is to work very hard, be totally involved with and passionate about photography, and not to worry about selling, and photograph from a personal perspective; photograph what I want to learn more about and what absorbs me.

13. Who are some contemporary street photographers you recommend people to check out?

I don’t have recommendations. My favorite street photographer is Garry Winogrand, and I love Diane Arbus’ work. August Sander is my all time favorite photographer, although he’s not thought of as a street photographer.



HARVEY STEIN is a professional photographer, teacher, lecturer, author and curator based in New York City. He currently teaches at the International Center of Photography. Stein is a frequent lecturer on photography both in the United States and abroad. He is the Director of Photography at Umbrella Arts Gallery, located in the East Village of Manhattan. He has also been a member of the faculty of the School of Visual Arts, New School University, Drew University, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Bridgeport. A recipient of a Creative Arts Public Service (CAPS) fellowship and numerous artist in residency grants, Stein’s latest book, his fifth, Coney Island 40 Years, was published in June of 2011 (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd).

Stein’s photographs have been widely exhibited in the United States and Europe—75 one-person and over 150 group shows to date. He has also curated 24 exhibits since 2007. His photographs are in more than 55 permanent collections, including the George Eastman House, Bibliotheque Nationale, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, etc. Stein’s photographs and portfolios have been published in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Time, Life, Esquire, American Heritage, Smithsonian, etc and all the major photography magazines.

His work is represented by the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, Throckmorton Fine Art and June Bateman Fine Art, New York City. Stein’s work can be seen on his web site,


  • Parallels: A Look at Twins, E.P. Dutton (1978)
  • Artists Observed, Harry Abrams, Inc. (1986)
  • Coney Island, W.W. Norton, Inc. (1998)
  • Movimento: Glimpses of Italian Street Life, Gangemi Editore, Rome (2006)
  • Coney Island 40 Years, Schiffer Publishing , Ltd. (2011)
  • Harlem Street Portraits (scheduled), Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., (2013)