Henry Horenstein in The Boston Globe

Photographer Henry Horenstein elevates the overlooked with shows in Portsmouth and Boston
Dec 30, 2021

Fifty years ago, photographer Henry Horenstein got a job shooting pictures at Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park in Thompson, Conn.

“My brother-in-law raced junkers. Stock cars, beat-up cars,” Horenstein said over Zoom from his Fort Point home. “He told me Thompson was looking for a photographer for their weekly program. I took the gig. Not for the money — I don’t even know if I got paid — but for the access.”

The series “Speedway72″ is among the works in Horenstein’s solo show “Where Everybody Is Somebody” opening at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, N.H., on Jan. 7. The exhibit also spotlights projects based in Buenos Aires and rural Louisiana. On that same day, “Henry Horenstein: Animalia,” featuring his popular black-and-white images of animals, will open at Boston’s Gallery NAGA.

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

Before he turned to photography, Horenstein studied history at the University of Chicago, and with labor historian E.P. Thompson at England’s University of Warwick. The speedway job grabbed him because of what Thompson taught him.

“He was a leader of what was called ‘the bottom-up school of history,’” said Horenstein. “He thought we should be studying, recording, and documenting people who were probably going to be overlooked in history.”

Horenstein remembered Thompson saying, “‘It’s going to be a righteous job.’”

It prompted him to pick up a camera. In 1972, he was in graduate school at Rhode Island School of Design. His role model then was street photographer Weegee, but lessons about composition and tone he learned from RISD teachers, including Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan, became implicit in his work, too.

He went off to the speedway and took pictures of fans, drivers, and mechanics.

One shows a sharp-featured man in a jumpsuit. A wrecked car behind him frames the hard angles of his body and face. All that’s missing is a cigarette, and he’d be a character in a James Dean movie.

“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 in the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Perich organized an exhibition of Horenstein’s “Honky Tonk” images there in 2005.

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

Horenstein’s photographs percolate with detail. That’s partly because he documents subcultures filled with costume and personality, but it also must be because he puts his subjects at ease.

“The great part about documentary photography is you meet people, you have little adventures,” Horenstein said. “It’s like being an uncle or aunt. You have some fun. And then it’s gone, and you don’t have responsibility afterwards.”

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

“I said, ‘I need a fixer. I need someone to translate. I need someone to drive me. I need someone to introduce me to the Buenos Aires underground,’” Horenstein said. “He found me Blitto.”

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

The photographer returned in 2017 to make his first feature-length documentary film, “Blitto Underground,” which will screen at 3S Artspace on Feb. 4.

Photographing animals occupied Horenstein in the 1990s and 2000s, and that caught the attention of gallerists and collectors in a way his other photography had not. His animal photos at Gallery NAGA have intentional formality: the flying triangle of a bullnose stingray; the voluptuous curves of a bathing hippo.

But the documentary projects — Horenstein’s little adventures — and the connections he makes, personally and with his camera, are what sustain him.

After he shot the speedway pictures, he stowed them away. He didn’t even caption them. Five or six years ago, he took them out to show to his students at RISD, where he has taught full time since the 1990s.

“One of them said, ‘Oh my God,’” Horenstein said. “‘That’s where I live. My grandfather and the owner of that place are best friends. They hunt together, they drink together.’”

Horenstein asked if she could help identify his subjects.

“She put them up at the local VFW hall,” he said, “and ID’d more than half of the people.”

The man in the jumpsuit is named Del Berdick. Horenstein will publish 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 go, ‘Wow, that’s enough,’ if I could record what they are or who they are and do a good job of it,” Horenstein said. “That’s as good as I can get.”


At 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth, N.H., Jan. 7-March 20. 603-766-3330, www.3Sarts.org


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