Last Tuesday, Cal Poly students gathered at the Construction Innovation Center in a room far too small to accommodate them all. Patiently waiting, the crowd prepared their pens and notebooks to document the wisdom of their highly anticipated guest. Then walked in blue-jean wearing, bearded Henry Horenstein.
The distinguished American photographer, publisher and filmmaker spoke to students about his career. He recounted how it started and where it’s headed with his most recent endeavors in documentary filmmaking.
Growing up, Horenstein aspired to be a professional basketball player, but with his father standing at 5-foot-5 and his mother at 5-foot-3, the odds were not in his favor. After realizing this, Horenstein became more involved in academics and discovered his love for history.
He followed his fervor for the subject to an undergraduate program at the University of Chicago, but his studies were short-lived. Soon after enrolling, Horenstein was kicked out of the university and had to find a new route. At the same time, his passion for photography was brewing.
“I’ve always loved history and respected historians for how they document life. I came to realize that in a lot of ways a historian’s role is very similar to a photographer’s,” Horenstein said.
Determined to be a historian with a camera in hand, Horenstein enrolled in The Rhode Island School of Design where he completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Horenstein was originally inspired by Danny Lyon and his book “The Bikeriders,” which documented the Outlaws Motorcycle Club in Chicago. The book, full of black and white photographs and transcribed interviews, quickly became a major success.
“I thought, ‘Why not me?’ Lyon was two years older than I was at the time when his book took off, he was new to photography, so I thought ‘Why can’t that be me?’” Horenstein said.
A couple years later, Horenstein followed in Lyon’s footsteps, putting together photography books about subjects he cared about. From “Racing Days,” which chronicled horse racing culture in the ‘70s, to “Honky Tonk,” which documented the ‘70s country music scene, Horenstein made it a priority to shoot what he loved.
A constant theme in his work is the way his subjects are presented.
“One thing that holds true for all these projects is Henry’s great gift for storytelling,” Cal Poly photography and video professor Lana Caplan said when introducing Horenstein.
The faces and livelihoods of the events Horenstein chose to capture have changed through time and will continue to do so every day.
That being said, Horenstein said he always saw his photography as an act of preservation. Perhaps that’s the historian in him. His ability to capture raw emotions and overarching feelings is why Horenstein’s work is celebrated.
Most recently, Horenstein is working on documentary filmmaking, a shift from his famous black and white book galleries.
“Motion is as important as still photos and becoming even more so,” Horenstein said. “Film is practically the same as still photos, but it’s just a little extra. It’s fun.”
Walking into the crowded classroom, Horenstein immediately bewitched the audience. He possesses a strong energy, one that even at age 69, is still full of life and curiosity. This youthful aura helps Horenstein stay current when documenting life, a skill that any great historian must have.