Notes on Histories: Tales from the 70's

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One song ended most of my days in the early 1970s. I shared a bedroom with my brother John, two years my younger, and, just before moving toward my bed each night, I would stack four or five 45rpm records on the turntable of my Philco and climb under the covers. The first record to play was typically Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” In retrospect, it doesn’t seem like the appropriate lullaby to usher in peaceful sleep, and my brother John regularly accused me of entering deep slumber before the end of the song, him then having to listen until the all the music faded.

I see a bad moon rising.
I see trouble on the way.
I see earthquakes and lightnin'.
I see bad times today.

Don't go around tonight,
Well it's bound to take your life,
There's a bad moon on the rise.

Creedence had become my favorite, familiar soundtrack, a soothing affirmation pulsating through John Fogerty’s swampy guitar riffs and the soulful beat of the band. “Bad Moon Rising” acknowledged the dark clouds all around us as no one else in my little world cared to do. “I hear the voice of rage and ruin,” sings Fogerty. Perhaps I did too; despite what we all were hearing, no one seemed to want to talk about or admit that foreboding melodies surrounded us. That song, however, made it palpable, offered a kind of reassurance of truth in an age of crisis, ruin, and death—in Vietnam, in the racially charged streets of my Louisville, Kentucky hometown, and in the seemingly sheltered homes of so many I knew.

As I turned thirteen in 1970, the beginning of the decade had the illusion of calm, such benign and placid weather, like the quiet first paragraph of a short story that seems about little except the predictable patterns of the day to day.

Looking at Henry Horenstein’s earliest 1970s pictures feels similarly innocent, the result of his curious wandering while under the fertile, narrow spell of art school, embracing the idea that all we need to do is investigate the world around us and everything will work out just fine. The photographic frame is so perfect for reinforcing a purely personal way of moving along the streets and in the neighborhoods, through the landscape, in and out of homes. For all the photograph reveals and contains it simultaneously ‘frames’ out even more, editing what is around us so we (and our viewers) see and hear and feel just what the photographer wants, nothing else. Harry Callahan, a founding father of photographic education through his teaching at Rhode Island School of Design and a singularly brilliant artist, urged Horenstein and his classmates in Providence to “shoot what you love,” encouraging a photographic approach that gave permission for young artists to move about as discoverers, as picture-makers on a quest to affirm their own place in the world, to uncover their own heart-driven subject matter, to find the luminance in a sky so often plagued with bad moons, with trouble on the rise.

Horenstein’s early work—and really all his images throughout his long career—is also informed by his study of history at the University of Chicago prior to transferring to art school. Photograph after photograph throughout his archive reveals how deeply he absorbed the ideas of his history professor E. P. Thompson. Author of The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson explained his ideas of historical research and writing in that classic book: “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the ‘Utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Thompson went on to write that the experience of these heretofore anonymous workers is key to our understanding: “. . .their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking....But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not.” Like Thompson’s powerful statement of wanting to understand the voices and visions of often invisible workers who had “lived through these times,” Horenstein regularly inserts himself in contexts to photograph those whose lives are imbued with a sense of time and whose expressive power—in their lives and through his pictures—reveals the reverential place of the individual in the sometimes anonymous narratives of history. 

Throughout Horenstein’s portrayal of the decade, we are confronted with the plaids and stripes of the 1970s, with the double-knit clash of patterns and colors that calls forth memories of those days. In the middle years of the decade I felt that we had a choice between rayon and double knits as our style or the flannel shirt look with jeans and a pair of boots. The choice seemed to appear like the proverbial fork in the road, and, as is often the case the symbolic nature of which path to take, each option felt in sync with certain kinds of music, politics, and communities of people. Memory often oversimplifies and flattens some of the twisting complexities of the past, but these pictures are so eloquent in their rendering of time and the various threads of temperament. 

When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken came out in 1972, my musical world took a definite and permanent turn. The triple album was immediately my most often played record, each listen seeming to open up new directions not only in music but also in aesthetics more broadly. Hearing Maybelle Carter sent me to the Carter Family library of songs. Merle Travis’s singing “Nine Pound Hammer” prompted me to listen to many coal-mining songs. Roy Acuff, Earle Scruggs, Vasser Clements—they all became household words, and the Dirt Band and all their many collaborators for several years served as seminar instructors, fostering my musical and historical curiosity. The Dirt Band had produced an album that was a whole course in the history of traditional country music, a new gateway into an entirely new sound for so many young people whose musical habits were still tied to and determined by the radio. Those songs sent us all wandering to important new places, urged the crossing of boundaries we had no role in making, and helped expand our view of a widening world. Horenstein wandered in these directions too, and his photographs continue those lessons, playing many of the same chords, calling out similar ideas, and affirming the wellspring of vernacular and artistic knowledge from previous generations. 

Jeff Hanna, a founding member of the band, recalled the way that the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album affirmed the history of the founding genius of American country music, providing a subtle antidote to the tense politics of the decade. “What Maybelle [Carter] brought to the session aside from her wealth of talent was this great spiritual calmness,” Hanna says. “...I think what came out of those sessions was that there were these two gaps that were bridged—a generation gap and also a cultural gap,” he explains. “You know, the country was divided, imagine that. A lot of people looked at it and thought, well this is really illogical that these people are playing together....the element that wiped out all that misconception was the music. It helped take away some of the prejudice on both sides.“ While boundaries and divisions were infinite and often callously rigid, this collection of images bears witness to the connections across regions and occupations, the continuities present in seemingly disparate places. 

When Horenstein began to seriously make pictures he began at home, following his teachers and looking through his camera at his family and close friends to see what he could make from the most immediate subject matter. His photograph of his sister Barbara’s friend (TK) could be mistaken for a portrait made on assignment, or a picture of a stranger. Instead, it’s a part of an impulse to photograph that which is most present and accessible, the ordinary relations in life, those close at hand. We know this is the very best photographic subject matter so long as we can look with fresh eyes at things we’ve seen before and render something new from the deeply familiar. Horenstein’s photograph of his mother in her kitchen (TK) is a perfectly composed suburban interior with a visual balance that allows the slightly strange threesome—a mother and two dogs—to prompt questions in our mind. The numerous synthetic interior surfaces in the kitchen make us question its authenticity, and then, once we discover that it’s the Horenstein kitchen, any questions about reality are erased.

Following the dictum to photograph what you love took Horenstein to the honky tonks, to the source of the music, to the homes of the music makers, to wherever he needed to go to make pictures of his favorite songsters. Whatever it took, it seems, he found a way to slip backstage. His photograph of Doc Watson (TK) is the visual equivalent of listening to Watson in the early 1970s on the Vanguard or Folkways records or his classic renditions of “Tennessee Stud” and “Way Downtown” with the Dirt Band. Seeing Watson on that flower-patterned couch, all alone and in total control with his Gallagher guitar, puts me there with him, the image so far superior to the ubiquitous ones of him on stage. Likewise, Curley Ray Cline at home with his fiddle and his Walker hounds (TK) has the presence and power of place, a photograph embedded with the sincere dialogue between photographer and subject.

Henry Horenstein, influenced so purposefully by Harry Callahan’s example, kept his rambling eyes at work on what seem the small and mundane elements of life. He embraced the quiet turns of the day, following an intuitive map in his quest to discover and picture the deeper veins of cultural meaning in the seventh decade of the 20th century. He intentionally avoided the front of the stage, the typical perspective of an audience member, and seemed not to care so much about photographing the finish line of the great race. Rather, it’s activity (or lack of it) in the kitchen, the tack room, or the backside of the horse racing over the race itself—the bar at closing time rather than at the height of the evening. It’s this view that gives us the feel for the decade, melancholy and at times stagnant but also rich in creativity, the plaintive moans of the harmonica along side Horenstein’s flexible and ever-present humor. 

Horenstein never set out to make a book about the 1970s or to try to make sense of the cacophony of those ten years or the twists and turns in his own photographic life. But reflecting back on the personal archive of images allows a chance to consider the work as a whole, to retrace certain steps through time and image making, working a narrative that is simultaneously personal and historical, a single artist’s point of view with unquestioned universal resonance. To be sure, for all this says of the 1970s, it may say just as much about American culture and photographic vision in other times as well. Making pictures is one thing, and discovering how the seeming randomness of the documentary journey can dovetail together is quite another. Henry Horenstein rambled all over in the 1970s—from home to the speedway, from the honky tonks to the horse tracks, and much in between—chasing pictures down the backstretch of a decade, finding the lasting voices and enduring lives that help sing us back home, help us to see where we once were, and what it means to us today.

Tom Rankin, Durham, NC, 2016



My photography journey began in 1967 when friend Jeff Kane showed me his darkroom and his very cool pictures of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band. They hit a chord immediately. I thought, “If I was a photographer, I would get a lot more dates with cute girls than I do now.” “Now” consisted of sitting in the library a lot and reading history. Later, I revised my thinking, “If I was a photographer, I could still be an historian of sorts and not have to read so many boring books.”

So, that’s what I set out to do. It was a little more complicated than that, of course. First, I had to untangle myself from my longtime dream of being a normal historian. I took care of that by getting kicked out of school in my senior year. Just in the nick of time. But that’s another story.

Then, I had to learn something about photography and art, and that was tough. I got the geek angle straightaway—the cameras, lenses, and other equipment. I loved arguing about Rodenstock versus Schneider lenses, for example. I also loved the darkroom and the long, solitary hours with WBCN (“The American Revolution”) blasting, smelly chemicals, and detailed over analysis of the results.

What kind of photographer/artist would I be? A photojournalist maybe, combining photography and reporting—history in the making. So, I wondered around taking pictures that I thought could amount to something. But most were landscapes, as I was terrified of shooting people. Besides, landscape was the photo art of the day. Ansel Adams ruled, and there were other admired fellows named Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, and Minor White. Some of my early photos are published in this book. Not bad, as I look back. But not me.

   A broken down ‘58 Chevy with a beagle ; an abandoned drive-in theater screen; a ‘68 Jaguar with a trailer right off the highway (TK); and a simple trailer home at Horseneck Beach, where I swam summers as a boy (TK). There is even an early non-landscape, a guy reading the newspaper next to a sign offering a slice and soda for 45 cents (TK). All histories.

   My method was simple. I would drive around for hours every weekend and look for pictures, accompanied only by my friends on AM radio—George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall. Loretta Lynn. When I saw a subject I liked, I climbed out of my Chevy Nova, set up a tripod, and took the picture. Sometimes I was too lazy or self-conscious to do that, such as with the pizza man. I just pulled the Nova to a safe spot, rolled down the window, put a pillow on the ledge for stability, turned off the car to keep it from shaking, and shot away. I still work that way now. Sometimes.

   I even dipped my toe into the portrait pool, shooting family and friends. I’m glad I did, as this early work includes many of my favorites. It even became a book many years later, called Close Relations, about the time when you move from the family you’re given to the one you’ve chosen. Mom and Dad on a golf course is an odd one, as neither of them played golf. Perhaps there was a wedding? My nephew Adam at his bar mitzvah, discovering that becoming a man wasn’t all that great; an elderly couple on couch and chair, who I assume were related to me, but hell if I know how; my first roommates out of college Mary and Dennis and our very ‘70s apartment; and soulful Susan, a friend of my girlfriend who was an artist by day, a stripper by night, and a casualty of the drug culture of the time. The part of the ‘70s “they” don’t talk much about.

   It was the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. The Hippy Times. And like a lot of my friends, I had no clear career path. No life path, for that matter. I had this thing that I loved, photography, but taking pictures wasn’t paying the bills. So I painted houses, moved anyone who couldn’t afford a real mover, sold blood, delivered free samples of laundry detergent and the Yellow Pages, wrote a couple of how-to manuals, helped start a mail-order t-shirt company, and even taught a little photography at adult-education schools. There were quite a lot of them in those days, because photography was getting popular and real schools hadn’t caught on to the demand. Project, Inc, New England School of Photography, Imageworks, Cambridge Center for Adult Education, Lowell Institute School—I taught in all these places and maybe a few more. A class here and a class there.

   And I went back to school at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied with legends Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. Aaron was important to me, as much for what he talked me out of as for what he talked me into. Trying to sort things out, I decided to combine my two loves and become a photo historian. Aaron squashed that idea in no uncertain terms. I loved the work of the Photo League, left-leaning photographers of the ‘30s and ‘40s. And since Aaron had been a card-carrying member, I hoped he’d help me write a book on the League. “Forget it,” he told me dismissively, “Anne Tucker is working on that.”

   At the time I didn’t know who Anne Tucker was—just one of the greatest photo historians/curators ever. But I was too intimidated to admit it. I dropped the idea of being a photo historian then and there, and went back to figuring out how I could be a shooter. A working photographer. Thanks for that, Aaron.

   On the other hand, Harry was very supportive—and always on point. Just “photograph what you love,” he told me. And “work hard.” And “I’m going out for a cig now.”

   What did I love? Horse racing and country music. So that’s what I shot. I would take my Leica M2 to Suffolk Downs, Saratoga Race Course, Keeneland, Santa Anita Park—wherever I could fly cheaply or drive. Check in at the local Motel 6. And shoot, from early morning through the day’s races. I took pictures of whatever I could find that looked interesting. All along I thought I was recording a fading culture.

   A young Steve Cauthen, who became the youngest rider ever to win the Triple Crown the year after I took his picture. Affirmed was the horse and Cauthen was up. It took 37 years for another horse and jockey to duplicate this feat. American Pharaoh. 2015. Histories.

Jockeys in the sauna between races so they could make weight for the next race; a muddy backstretch at the dying Northampton Fairgrounds; the guy selling The Daily Racing Form, which is to racing what The Wall Street Journal is to finance. And just when you thought you had the worst job ever, the urine collector, who collects samples from the horses and sends them off for drug testing.

   From very early on, like so many photographers, I wanted to make books of my photographs. It took a while, but Racing Days was finally published in 1987. The text was by ace writer Brendan Boyd, a friend who first introduced me to track life in 1974. Our model was August Sander, the wonderful German photographer who chronicled the diversity of German life between the two World Wars. Covering horse racing was a lot less ambitious than covering Germany, but we gave it our best shot anyway.

   Harry Callahan also told me to photograph country music. So I did. Most people think of the music as Southern, but it really was a rural music back in the day and popular all over the United States and Canada. In the ‘50s, it merged with rhythm and blues and, with a big push from Elvis Presley, birthed rock ‘n’ roll. Record companies went looking for new Elvises and found Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. I shot a lot of these singers and many more in the ‘70s and put them in a book called Honky Tonk, not published until 2003 (but again in 2012). Some of these pictures I put in this book—musicians, fans, bars, and concerts.

   There was Dolly Parton, then 26 years old, waiting for her call to stage as the girl singer of The Porter Wagoner Band. I shot her for The Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly paper. The interviewers were Marian Leighton and Ken Irwin, who had recently launched Rounder Records with partner Bill Nowlin. Decades later, Dolly would record for Rounder. There was bad boy Waylon Jennings, who put gas into traditional country music with fellow “outlaws” Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and others; bluegrass icon Bill Monroe , who wrote Blue Moon of Kentucky, one side of Elvis’s first single; the wonderful Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn (TK), still on the road, partly thanks to the efforts of rocker Jack White; and no end of fans at honky tonks like Boston’s fabled Hillbilly Ranch (TK), Baton Rouge’s Kingfish Lounge (TK), and Nashville’s Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge (TK), for which my silkscreen partners and I made their first t-shirt. The Ranch is long gone, having closed its cigarette and beer pitted doors in 1980, while Tootsie’s remains on Lower Broad, rebranded as Tootsie's World Famous Orchid Lounge. Histories.

   Sometimes I shot on assignment from a magazine or newspaper or Rounder Records. These jobs would help with a little cash for my work, but mainly they gave me access to my subjects as a freelance journalist. But we’re not talking Sports Illustrated here. Rather, Turf and Sport Digest, Bluegrass Unlimited, Muleskinner News, Country Music, and The Boston Phoenix.

   I shot for myself, mostly, even when on assignment. I wasn’t going to get rich from Turf and Sport Digest for sure, though I once imagined I’d make a living that way. That part didn’t work out, but it didn’t stop me. I still wanted to make pictures, and, when I had a chance to, I usually took it.

   For instance, in 1972 my brother-in-law got me a gig as a photographer for the Thompson Speedway News, a weekly program for a stock-car track in north central Connecticut. The job must have paid something, at least expenses, but I didn’t care. Here was access to an entire world that had the look and feel of a dying culture. Histories.

   Wrong again. Today, Thompson Speedway thrives and only the greens and demographics can stop it. The racing is loud and polluting and what was once surrounding farm area is now neatly suburban.

   The track wanted pictures of the cars and drivers and I got plenty of these. Ray, posing in front of his fine Super Wench #71; Del, one of my few daytime shots, looking like Errol Flynn gone wrong in front of his Alice; and #10, a wide-body modified ‘61 Chevy. But I was even more interested in the fans. It was my Weegee moment. Often working in darkness, that ‘30s and ‘40s king of noir preset his focus and framed his subject the best he could, then blasted away, letting the flash make the picture. Or, not, as was often my situation. Still, I think I got some good ones.

   A family of four, fans and family, loaded down with blankets and a cooler; a teenaged couple, possibly destined for early marriage, cuddling in the bleachers; and a young couple, probably married early, walking in, holding what appears to be a Thompson Speedway News with my photo on the cover. Smart purchase.

   I also shot boxing, mainly because I loved the sport back then. Growing up, my dad and I used to go to The Boston Garden and see the fights live. My favorite boxer was Carmen Basilio, a tough guy from upstate New York, who once took the middleweight title from the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson. Carmen was the ultimate underdog, and any real boxing fan had to root for him.

   Another reason to shoot boxing was to piggyback on Brendan Boyd’s book in progress on the subject. Unfortunately, Brendan abandoned the project. It depressed him, he said. But it didn’t depress me. I loved the gyms and other places I went to and so many of the characters I met along the way. Take trainer Goody Petronelli, for example. Goody was from Brockton, MA, downtrodden city of boxing champions Rocky Marciano and Marvin Hagler. He was soft-spoken and dedicated to his fighters. Unfortunately, he died owing me $10, from betting on the Red Sox-Reds 1975 World Series.

   At Ward Street Gym, owned by Goody and brother Pat, I met and photographed Hagler. I even followed him around a little, such as when he revenged a disputed loss to Willie “The Worm” Monroe. Willie was from Philadelphia and it was well known that a visiting fighter had to knock the bejesus out of the local guy to get a decision. Hagler learned that lesson from fight one and knocked Monroe cold in the two follow-ups.

   Photographing Hagler was especially sweet, as it got me all kind of cred with my dad. As he grew frail, he and I would go to see Hagler’s fights (decisions again disputed) against media hero Sugar Ray Leonard at the Boston Armory. Closed circuit broadcast of the feature with a live local card and a fine steak dinner. $25. My treat. Histories.

   Boxing also gave me one of my favorite pictures ever, Boxing at the Harvard Club. Yes, Harvard University. Alumni used to put a boxing ring in the ballroom and let local fighters loose, while egging them on with racial epitaphs and other insults. Very gladiator-like. But then Harvard did offer a classical education.

   I wish I could look back and say I had a plan. But I didn’t. I shot what I could. Went to music shows. Drank some beer and bet some horses. I got a few assignments, which I took happily. But in 1979 I got my first real assignment. Finally, I was beginning to feel like a photographer. Not just a guy with a few good pictures and a big arty pretense, but a pro. Of sorts.

   The job was for The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. Folklife is kind of like folklore with a PhD. An academic pursuit, not a hobby. Think oral histories. It was called The Rhode Island Project, and we were there, in part, to make nice with the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Rhode Island Senator Claiborne Pell. Follow the money.

   I worked with a team of five or six folklorists, and we covered the state from border to border. That would have taken about two days, as Rhode Island is a very small state. So we stopped along the way, and the folklorists studied and interviewed a variety of subjects. I was in service to them, pretty much, taking pictures they required. But they also let me loose to shoot what I wanted. And that’s what I did.

   Hair styling demonstrations at a job training expo; a woodcutter and his daughter and dog; a worker in one of the few textile mills left in New England; and gospel singing at a variety of Baptist churches.

   My Tales From the 70s story ends there, for a while. In part because the ‘70s ended in 1979, but also because I quit taking pictures for a few years. I was offered a job at Polaroid, out of the blue, and took it under heavy pressure from Mary Lynn, my then girlfriend.

   “A job, are you kidding me?”

   “It’s not so bad, a lot of people have one.”

    “But I don’t have a suit or a tie.”

   “Don’t be a brat. I’ll buy you a suit and a tie. You can always quit if you don’t like it.”


   Thank you for that, Mary Lynn.

Henry Horenstein, Boston, MA , 2016