“I think what exists in real life is more interesting than what exists in my mind … if you get really close to those animals, they are unbelievable,” says Henry Horenstein about his exhibit Animalia, which is on display at Portland’s Newspace Center for Photography from August 2nd through September 1st.
Horenstein photographed this collection of aquatic and terrestrial creatures primarily in zoos and aquariums between 1995 and 2001. His goal was to capture the subtle beauty, oddness and mystery of each creature.
Horenstein is well known for his documentary photography, including “Honky Tonk,” which is a survey of the people and character of country music, “Racing Days,” which looks at the changing world of thoroughbred racing, and much more. He has published more than 30 books, including Black & White Photography: A Basic Manual, which has been widely used by students. He is currently a professor of photography at Rhode Island School of Design.
OPB’s Arts and Life had the opportunity to interview Horenstein about his Animalia series and his thoughts on photography.
Q & A with Henry Horenstein
A&L: How did you come up with the idea for the Animalia series?
Henry Horenstein: It’s a little odd for me because I studied history in college and became a documentary photographer. That’s really what I do, but I kind of describe it as a midlife crisis. I was doing some assignment work at zoos, and I wasn’t too interested … [and] I started trying to make more interesting pictures than the client wanted, in my opinion anyway.
And I started shooting like that and liking it and finding it was very different than documentary work. And I liked it. It was [a] more peaceful and more thoughtful kind of work.
A&L: What did you like about photographing the animals in the series?
HH: I liked it a lot because it was different from what I was used to. I feel this way about a lot of things, and maybe it’s a fault of mine, but I think what exists in real life is more interesting than what exists in my mind. So, the animals … the surface and the textures and so forth, if you get really close to those animals, they are unbelievable. Probably your dog or cat are the only animals you usually get really close to see, but if you look at these wild animals or aquatic animals then you know they are amazing and that’s something that just evolution did. So I like subjects that are amazing subjects. Just try to capture them, you know… in a way that’s interesting or that’s competent or nicely done, but just really to reflect what exists.
A&L: Which subject did you have the most fun photographing? Why?
HH: I didn’t really have a list of subjects I wanted. I just would go to places and look and see what I can find, but I did want to get an octopus. And I was frustrated because they hide. They don’t like it out in the open. So I wasn’t able to do it, but I always looked for one. I went to dozens of aquariums all over the world. One day I was in Maui photographing at this beautiful little aquarium. There was a lot of commotion in the room and I looked back and this octopus was out in full bloom … During their breeding season, they do come out and they are kind of more friendly I guess. (I don’t know if that’s really true, but they told me that.)
This octopus just came out and was flailing around and everything. I just remember running over there and pushing some kids aside and getting the picture before it stopped swimming. I said, ‘Get lost, kids.’ [laughs]
The reason I remember it so much is because unlike documentary work where you pretty much have to be there for a photograph, you have to be at the moment and be ready to capture it, this kind of work wasn’t like that. The fish would go around and then come around again. There wasn’t really a decisive moment in there most of the time for the whole project. This [experience with the octopus] was the one time there was. I had to go grab it and I was able to.
A&L: Nowadays, people have easy access to photography including the ability to shoot photos with cell phones and publish them online or through social media. As a photography teacher, what’s your advice for someone who wants to be a good photographer who stands out from the crowd?
HH: I think it depends on what kind of photographer you want to be. If you want to photograph strictly for social media and so forth, it’s one thing. If you want to be a professional photographer, it’s something else entirely. I think, to be serious about what you are doing, then I think, in any field, you just have to work hard and be smart and be up-to-date on the technology and the trends …
With someone coming in now, it’s very daunting and they are going to have to develop their own sense of style as well as mission for their photographs — what they want photographs to accomplish, what they want them to be at the end of the day.
I guess if there is one piece of advice that I think is true and always was, it is not to follow the trends. Just to follow yourself and hope that you have something to say that somebody is going to want to look at some day.