Harvey Stein, a professional documentary street photographer living in New York City, is picture perfect. A deep soul drawn to life and death in perhaps equal measure, Harvey snaps street life in its glorious light and shadows, contrasts and contradictions, and revels in immersion and repetition, mystery and magic. A purist who, in this digital age, predominantly shoots black & white film. His photos? Probing, edgy, meaningful, masterful.
The path wasn’t always as clear as his Leica lens. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Harvey received an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon and an MBA from Columbia University. During a two-year army stint stationed in Germany, he picked up a camera — the very thing, it turned out, that made him happiest and still does. Harvey resumed his corporate career when he returned stateside, but before too long he followed his inner voice, followed his art, and the rest is photographic history.
Currently teaching at the International Center for Photography and Director of Photography at Umbrella Arts Gallery, Harvey also lectures, curates, and conducts his own photo travel workshops worldwide. His eighth and latest book, “Mexico Between Life and Death,” was recently published, he has exhibited in more than 85 one-person and 165 group shows to date, and his photos can be seen in major periodicals. In one early book, “Artists Observed,” Harvey photographed and interviewed 165 visual artists, including Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Lee Krasner, Alex Katz, and Keith Haring. His ongoing love affair with Coney Island is the catalyst for his next book, as he’s been photographing the famed seaside extravaganza now for 50 years.
Although attracted to religious and spiritual symbols in his photography — he has made numerous trips to Mexico, India, Italy, and a Brooklyn church whose Good Friday Stations of the Cross he’s documented for about 20 years, he loves going into churches, and frequently uses the cross as a visual element — Harvey is quick to say he is neither religious nor spiritual. The seeming contradiction? Every picture tells a story, but not the whole story.
RG: Harvey, thank you for talking with me. You're incredibly kind.
HS: You're welcome.
RG: You are a well known and lauded professional photographer, primarily a documentary street photographer. You're an author, lecturer, curator, and teacher, and your photographs have been widely exhibited. What would be the first thing that you would tell me about your photography?
HS: The first thing that jumps to mind is that I love doing it and I can't imagine doing anything else. I'm not educated primarily as a photographer. I went to college for engineering and then I got an MBA in business. I tried those things and didn't like it, and just picked up the camera in Europe when I was in the American army and said, 'I'd love to do this some day,' and I made it happen maybe four years later. So the first thing I would say is I love photography, I love most aspects of it and I am a happy person because I found my calling. I was about at age 28 when that happened so I wasn't young but I wasn't old and I am very thankful to whoever for helping me discover photography.
RG: You said that you love most things about it. What are the things you don't love?
HS: Well, there's some drudgery. I still shoot film. I shoot digitally also but I love film more. It takes an hour and a half, it's every other morning that I develop film. The radio is on, I'm reading, and I'm paying attention to the clock and the different steps. I wish maybe I didn't have to do that, but I wouldn't let anyone develop my film. I never have, because I can do it well and can't trust anyone else. So that's a little drudgery. Filing photographs, looking at contact sheets with a loupe is time consuming and gets old after awhile. I'm behind with my film developing. I do everything myself. But I like that because I think some day I might break my leg and I can't go out and shoot, so I'll have plenty to do at home. I think it will never happen, but I always like to have work to look forward to.
RG: How would you describe your photography for people who have never seen it? You're always described as a street photographer. What does that mean to you?
HS: I think I'm more than that. I'm a documentary photographer that photographs mostly on the street. Street photographer means someone that practices photography in public places. It's not in a national park, it's in an urban setting usually with streets. Photographing on the street implies several things. It implies urban, it implies documentary, it implies candid photography, which I try not to do. I have a different way of approaching it and I can talk about that. And it implies black and white photography, although more and more it's color. The first street photography dated from a man named John Thompson, a British photographer who photographed in China on the street in the 19th Century and brought images back. 1860s, maybe ‘70s.
HS: With a huge camera he would walk the streets and we didn't know what China looked like then, and he brought images back. So street photography has a long history. It's been looked down upon I'd say in the 1980s and '90s, 2000, because it's been around and the critics say it's been done, it's been done, it's been done. But with the advent of the World Trade Center being hit, we now see the value of street photography because right after that many photographers went there to document the aftermath and in three months after the event of 9/11, an amazing book came out by Magnum photographers who photographed the streets around there, the devastation, and it really affected people.
Street photography has had a rise in popularity and value since then and it's been done in different ways, a little bit differently than the traditional way. I think I'm still a traditional street photographer but I approach people and speak to them when I photograph mostly, as opposed to doing it candidly. Most street photographers are candid photographers, they don't reveal themselves, but I like to go up to people and speak to them if I can and interact with them. I feel I work better that way and make stronger photographs as a result.
Women Talking, Sienna, Italy, 1999 ©Harvey Stein 2006
RG: Let's talk about that for a minute. Your subjects are typically always looking into the lens.
RG: I get the feeling that perhaps they know that they're being photographed. Have you asked them if you could photograph them, and are you posing them at all?
HS: I pose them a little bit but mostly I take them as they are. I don't say, 'Can I take your photograph,' I say, 'I'm going to,' or I just nod, or I do it. I ask in a way without asking. I go in and compliment them, 'I like your hat,' I like your tattoo, I'd like to make a photograph of you,' and then we agree, usually. But I get No's a lot. I get hands put up, and I photograph that even though that means I shouldn't because I love that gesture and it's strong. I have pictures in some of my books with hands out. Some people have criticized me for doing that. But what the heck. It's only a photograph, you know? I'm not harming or trying to hurt someone.
RG: It's an interesting thing these days with photography and with everyone carrying essentially a camera in their pocket. This idea of street photography, I mean, we're all doing it and I think some people have become so used to it that they're just ready to have their picture taken.
HS: Or some are so annoyed by it they don't want it any longer and they're afraid of how it's going to be used. In the '70s and '80s when I first started, even the '90s, no one worried about, 'What are you going to do with it?' I mean, yes, some people. Now you get that all the time. I say, 'Look, my pictures aren't digital, they're film.’
RG: That's a good point.
HS: That helps. There's advantages of digital, certainly. You can show them the picture right away, like kids love that and it gets them excited to pose. Adults like it in foreign countries. I just was in Vietnam and they love seeing their photographs, especially kids but adults, too. They all have iPhones there too, now. The uniqueness has worn off, it seems to me.
RG: There certainly is this sense of trust.
RG: I took a photojournalism class what feels like 100 years ago at this point so I only know a little bit about lenses, but it seems to me that many of your photos are shot with a wide angle lens.
RG: You've got the person up close and then you've got a huge amount of background there as well. What I'm getting at is you're very close to these people when you're shooting them.
HS: Yes, I like to be three or four feet away from my subject and I use a wide angle lens. It's a 21mm lens. A normal lens, quote unquote, is a 50mm. That replicates our eyesight, approximately. The 21 distorts a lot. People don't like it for that but I can use it without distorting pretty much. I know how to handle it where the distortion isn't really a problem. Sometimes it is. I like to get close to talk to them and then put them in an environment and a situation. I want to show their background, I want to show where they are. I think that adds to their story, to what I'm trying to say about them, and I like backgrounds. I like information. I don't want the backgrounds to be out of focus or nonexistent. I want that background, and the 21 allows me to get close with the context.
I have a second lens, it's a 35, still wide angle but not as extreme, and I don't use anything else. Most people use long lenses, telephoto lenses, and they stand 10, 20 feet away and take pictures on the street, or of a burning building. If you don't want to get close, you use a long lens. But on the street where I can walk up and get close, that's what I do and I feel I get more powerful photographs by working that way. Most people don't do that. I pass up plenty of photographs, but if I see someone or something that really attracts me I go for it and try to get as close as I can.
RG: I noticed that you mostly shoot with Leicas. Do you think of your cameras as artistic instruments in the same way that a pianist would with a piano or any musician with an instrument?
HS: I've never been asked that, that's a good question. Definitely. Leicas are the state of the art street cameras. I think the first Leica appeared in 1925 or 26, and they're small, they're quiet. They're called rangefinder cameras, there's no mirror in them. The mirror is what makes noise, the click, mostly. They're unobtrusive. I use black cameras. (A lot of cameras these days aren't black but mostly I guess they still are). Leicas are amazing. They're very dependable, they're well-built. I use the M4s, they're acknowledged by a lot of people to be the best camera ever designed. I was lucky enough when I first started, I had a teacher, Ben Fernandez, and he used M4s and he said, 'Get a Leica, get a 21mm lens, and go to Coney Island,' and that's what I did, and that's what I still do! That was the early '70s. It's a great camera and I feel it's my instrument and I give it a lot of credit for my success. I use other cameras and I've had other cameras, and I can't shoot as well, I don't think, with those cameras. I know these cameras so well. They're not complicated, there's only a couple of settings, there's no menu, there's no meter, there's no battery. It's all pure and very, I feel, authentic.
RG: Wow, I did not know that.
HS: Yes. Well the M4 is the last, they stopped manufacturing them in probably the '70s, so the next model, the M5, has a meter and a battery. Now we're up to the M10. They're digital now. I think Leica makes only one camera that is a film camera now. I could be wrong.
RG: Let's talk about the art piece a little more. What is the experience you're having as an artist when you find the moment, or find the person or the action that you want to preserve. How does that happen for you?
HS: I'll tell you, it feels good. But you know what, I never really know that I've got it, captured a wonderful image, because I don't see it. I have to develop it days or months later, and usually it's months later. I have a distance from the time I actually make the image, or I realize the image, to the time I make it as a print. It could be years.
RG: But you're seeing it in a viewfinder.
HS: I'm seeing it in the viewfinder. I'm shooting a roll of film, let's say, and it's 36 exposures. If I get one or two good photographs that I'll print from that roll of film I'm doing really well. My batting average is really poor, and that's true of most photographers. The most I'll ever get is three or four images off one roll of film. It's not like a painter and she has a moment of epiphany where she realizes a breakthrough or a bolt of lightening has hit her. I could have a feeling, 'Oh maybe this is going to work.' I went to Coney Island a couple Sundays ago and it was raining and misty and foggy and it was fabulous. I loved it. It was warm, too, like 50 degrees. I shot seven rolls. I developed two of them today so I'm anxious to see that. I have more rolls to develop from that day, and then I have to make a contact sheet which will probably be in a week or two, and then maybe in a month or two after that I'll make prints. There’s a gestation period. I mean, it could be years.
Coney Island, Man Wearing Bow Tie,1970 ©Harvey Stein 2011
RG: You have to be a very patient person.
HS: I am very patient, and I like that. I like the long term, that's how I work. I've done eight books, they're all long term. The quickest book I ever have made took six years to shoot. My longest book is 40 years. Now I'm working on a book, Coney Island, 50 years. I'm running out of years but I'm very patient.
RG: How did you learn to see? Did you always have this ability or did you teach yourself along the way after you realized you wanted photography?
HS: I probably taught myself. I have no art upbringing. I think I learned by using the Leica, by using the camera and putting it to my eye. It takes away the whole world except that rectangle that you're looking through. It's an inch rectangle, it's not a square. I tried to paint, I tried to write, I did some ceramics. I picked up the camera and I knew immediately, 'This is for me.' I knew I didn't want to be an engineer, even in college. But I had pressures from family, it was my third year, and I started painting on my own. I had a friend who painted and she got me started. I couldn't do that well. I read books, I read photo magazines, photo books, looking at photographs, going to galleries and museums. You can educate yourself and I think there's a natural ability that comes with it also.
RG: Do you remember what the feeling was when you picked up the camera and you knew it was yours?
HS: Well, I thought it might be mine. It took me four or five years to get to the point where I went out to do it full time, let's say. More than that, even. But I just felt free. I had a job, I was working and I was punching a clock and I didn't like that. I had sworn to myself as a young person that I wouldn't work punching a clock because that's what my Dad did and he wasn't happy and I saw that. It gives me freedom. I don't answer to anyone. I worked in large corporations for about five or six years, and for a couple small companies also. I worked on Madison Avenue in advertising. I like the existential feeling of photography that it's really up to me. No one's behind the viewfinder clicking the shutter at that instant that I'm doing it. I'm right or I'm wrong, and mostly I'm wrong. But I do it enough to make enough pictures that come out OK. So it's really up to me and I like that feeling and responsibility and freedom at the same time. That really motivates me and it makes me happy. I don't want to work for someone else. I don't want to go in 9 to 5. I never was suited for that for some reason.
RG: Can you talk a little more about that existential feeling you mentioned?
HS: As I understand existentialism, and I studied it a little bit in college, it's a state where it depends on you. It's up to you to come through and not to rely on anyone else and that's what photography gives me. I really deeply feel that and appreciate it, and that's why in some ways I love photography. I could not be a filmmaker because it takes a crew. To me it's astounding how you can do a film with thousands of people for years and years. I like to work alone, I guess. I like to work with other people in a classroom, or I go on a shoot with a colleague once in awhile. I like meeting people. But I want to depend on myself, knowing you've done it well or you haven't done it and you failed. I gave myself two years to do photography after I quit the business world and if I succeeded, great, which I have, and if I didn't I would then go back to the corporate world with my tail behind me and unhappy but I'd go back. I gave myself two years because I could get back into the corporate world if I had to.
RG: What was your marker for the two years? How were you defining what success was?
HS: Success for me was always being able to pay the bills, I guess. Make enough money to survive. And that's a good question, what's success. I wanted to be a successful person. I'm pretty aggressive, hopefully in a nice way. I'm determined and patient. I'm not mean or anything like that. I never step on anyone. I think the world's big enough for a lot of us to perform and do what we want to do. I wanted to be famous and that's long gone. I wanted, I guess early on, to do a book. It took me my first six years of doing photography until I came out with a book. Seven years, maybe.
For me a book means that I've lived and that I filled blank pages. I imagined, 'Here's a book with blank pages, and because I've lived, I filled those pages.' It sounds kind of corny maybe, but it's like I filled those pages with my life. Then I was able to do another book, and now I've done eight books and I'm working on two more right now. For me the most meaningful thing I can do in photography is to do books. I don't have children. I'm married but I don't have children. I never wanted children. These are my children, in a way. It takes nine months to produce a book once you give the publisher the materials. At least traditionally. You can speed it up digitally. But it takes about nine months from when you give them the photographs and the text for them to design it and to edit and mark it up and all that, then print it and bind it and send it to the bookstores. I've always likened it to giving birth.
RG: By that standard you have eight babies!
HS: I have eight babies. I love them and I think they're all good and always the best one is the last one.
Man Putting on Guadelupe Shirt, Mexico City, 2000 ©Harvey Stein 2018
RG: I read this great quote on your website: 'I give evidence to life that is never true but always real.' I'm wondering if you've learned anything in particular about humanity from either so much observation on the streets or just learning about yourself in terms of what you're interested in, and I'm asking that from when you're looking in a viewfinder and also when you're developing and how you're choosing to edit.
HS: Absolutely. Well I've always said I want to be psychological with my work. I explore the world but at the same time I'm exploring myself, and my images are a combination of me and my life and my point of view and the way I see and the world. I need the world, that's the starting off point. I need something in front of the camera. You could do photography without being realistic, you could do a blank wall or a door or you could do blurs and all that. You don't even need a camera to do photography, there's camera-less photography. But I need the world as the jumping off point to excite me and give me ideas and I filter that through my own environment, my own education, my own point of view, my own knowledge.
I'd say photography is about ideas. I'm always trying to work with ideas. I like people and I care about people and I'm sometimes good with people and sometimes not. I'm sometimes shy. But I like working with people, so I have learned so much about people and through photography, more than anything, I've learned about myself. I say, 'Show yourself, show yourself in your work.' Your work should be a reflection of who you are. All photography is self portraiture, whether you're photographing yourself directly or not. I think all art is. It's like a writer doing his or her memoir or a painter painting him or herself, it’s all doing a self portrait. Photographers photograph themselves but we don't have to photograph ourselves to reveal who we are. Why do I photograph people and another person photographs trees, or landscapes, or why do some people photograph neighborhoods and others go to war zones? It is a reflection of who they are, or who they want to be.
RG: Well I think it's also, for me, this idea of public intimacy.
HS: Yes, public intimacy, wow. The public in the public arena, there's amazing things that happen whether it's on the subway or on a street. I don't photograph weird things. I'll photograph an interesting looking person or a tattooed person. I won’t photograph someone that's down and out or having a fit or hurt or something like that. I want to make a photograph of someone who I want to know more about, maybe. I don't want to show them realistically or totally realistically. It's a combination of how they look and how I see them. If I could do more of how I see them that would even be better. That's often hard to do because photography is very realistic. I just saw the Martha Rosler show at the Jewish Museum and she uses collage. I don't do that, I don't manipulate the image. I want to do it in the taking of the photograph. Express myself and what I care about and what I like. I don't do landscape, I don't do architecture, particularly. I do people because that's what I'm interested in and I learn from them about myself and I learn about the world through them.
The thing I've learned is that we're all the same no matter what. I go to a disability parade and I talk to people and we'll share. People who are really disabled go out and they're wonderful. I love to photograph old people. I photograph children. I don't want children but I love to photograph them. And then adults, young and old, pretty and not so pretty. I learned whatever color – and I've traveled all over the world now – we're all the same and I think we all want the same, which is to be happy, to have a family, to have security, not have wants. We're all the same and how could we be prejudiced? We all grow old, we all go to the bathroom, we all smell and we all are beautiful. I'm really grateful for photography. Photography gets me to places where I shouldn't go, where I don't belong, and that's wonderful.
RG: I guess any art, but photos, when they're done well, change us. This concept of 'Every picture tells a story.' Are you thinking a lot, or even at all when you’re shooting, about the ideas of let's say myth or reality or metaphor?
HS: I'm always seeing symbols. Not always, but I see it often, symbols, metaphor. I see stories. I don't really go after a story, per se, but they do come up. I didn't think about photography in that way early on, maybe I do a little more now. I'm thinking about relationships in a frame, near and far, what's in the background, what's in the foreground. I'm thinking about my main subject and how I can best show them. Not that they look best but best in the composition or in a frame. Metaphor, what else did you ask?
RG: I was talking about myth and reality and metaphor.
HS: Definitely reality and myth. In Mexico definitely myth. In Mexico for this latest book, I went to traditional places. I didn't go to modern Mexico, there's no modern Mexico. You look at the book, it could all be 100 years ago. I wanted the past. I have modern here in midtown New York. I don't want modern. I'm more and more going to countries that are poorer and more visual, it seems to me, than New York. I love New York and I like shooting here, but.
RG: Give me an example of where you're thinking about going next.
HS: I just came back from Vietnam and I was also there last year. I'm going to China soon; we’ll be visiting Beijing and Shanghai along with remote villages. I want to go to royal places. In Vietnam we went to villages, we went to Hmong villages. They're really amazing people, the way they dress and their intelligence. They live in shacks and they don't want amenities too much. I mean, they want to sell you their purses or their beads or something that they make. I'm planning Sri Lanka in the fall. I've been to India four times now. India is another world, another planet, and they're amazing people. It's just like I say, Wow! I don't want to live there, maybe, but I want to be there, I want to experience that and bring back photographs in a meaningful way. I'm looking for meaning, I'm looking for structure.
We should talk about this, I guess. As a child I had a realization when I was maybe five, six, seven. I'm playing ball and I'm so happy and I say, 'Wow, how could I not be here someday?' I had a realization that someday I'm not going to be here and that frightened me and I didn't believe it. 'I'm going to be here forever.' That idea of death has always, I wouldn't say plagued me, but it's always been with me and maybe more so than most people. I look for that in my photographs. It's interesting that every book that I've done ends in death. A symbol, or a myth of death. In my book on the artists, I have Robert Rauschenberg by a painting where he has this big skull. It's just him, his face, and the skull. In the Coney Island book the last photograph is a man walking into the ocean, fully clothed with a big ocean and a big sky, and I don't even remember taking that picture.
Coney Island, Man in Ocean, 2003, ©Harvey Stein 2011
RG: Oh wow.
HS: He's like walking in to drown but I don't think he did. The Mexico book ends symbolically in a cemetery with a streak of light that represents a god, maybe, or the ancestors coming back for the Day of the Dead. It's always with me. I don't have a book on children but I planned a book and my ending is gravesites of children. I don't think I'm macabre about it. I'm frightened about it, and in my photographs, it's there.
RG: I think I remember your telling me that your grandparents died when you were young but I think you said you were a teenager and that it wasn't sudden.
HS: Three of four grandparents died by the time I was 10 years old. One I never knew. My grandmother, who I lived in the same apartment building with, she actually owned it, a building in Pittsburgh, she died when I was in Europe in the army and I was about 22. Of all the grandparents, I was closest with her. But I didn’t have friends that died or parents that died.
RG: Where did this come from at age five, do you think?
HS: Well it may not have been age five, it might have been seven. I don't know, I can't tell you. Nothing happened, I didn't see any head rolling down the street. There's a photographer named Joel-Peter Witkin who did experience that and it traumatized him.
RG: I know his work.
HS: His photography, if you know it, is very weird and strange.
RG: It is, and I actually love it quite a lot!
HS: Me too, and he's very successful with it. So it's a layer in my thinking and my work, I guess, but it's not heavy in most of my pictures. It's sort of there, it sneaks in. One reason I wanted to go to Mexico was to explore the way that they deal with death, which is a lot different than ours. I call the book, 'Mexico Between Life and Death.' Death is part of life, and they incorporate it, they live with it, they accept it. The Day of the Dead, they welcome their ancestors back. They have a museum of the mummy where they dug up graves and the people are mummified and they put them on display. They don't shuttle their aged people into old age homes as much as we do. We put them out of sight. So I was always interested in how they dealt with it, the Aztecs and the Toltecs. I always wanted to go there and I finally did. I knew immediately what I wanted to photograph, symbols of death, and that would be skulls, that would be guns, that's crosses, that's masks, and religion, which deals with death a lot. It was kind of easy to photograph, compared to my book on Italy. For the first three years I didn't know what the heck I was photographing in Italy, it was just accumulated photographs.
RG: And then you found your theme?
HS: The theme eventually emerges. Street life, a vague overall theme that I titled, 'Movimento, Glimpses of Italian Street Life’.
RG: Was it the same in Italy? Did you find yourself focused on death there as well?
HS: No, but I did go to a museum where they had, oh boy, what are they, they are 17th Century anatomical bodies that were sliced, made out of plastic and rubber or whatever, and they were used for medical students and the bodies were opened up. I photographed a lot of that. I'd have to look at the ending but I don't think I found much in the way of death imagery or symbols in Italy. Maybe. I love photographing crosses because it's a very strong shape to me, and I use it as a shape. I have quite a few photos incorporating crosses in the Mexico book.
RG: This thing about death, you know, for a long time there were people who thought if you took their photograph that you were taking their soul.
HS: Right, and that still happens. I was in Morocco 30 years ago and they would not let you photograph them.
RG: For that reason?
HS: I think so. The Hasidic don't like being photographed at all. It's against some Native Americans. I was on a very small reservation, I'll think of it, and they wouldn’t allow you to photograph even their landscapes.
RG: Again, it's for that reason? It's about the connection to the soul?
HS: And the spirit, I think. I mean, I was a bad boy and I snuck some pictures just to do it, I guess. There was nothing good. I went to a dance. You could sit on the roofs of the houses but you couldn’t photograph. A woman's dance. It's not the Navajo, who's the rival of the Navajo?
RG: I was going to guess the Hopis.
HS: Yes, the Hopis. So you couldn't photograph. There are some people that still don't want their photographs taken. In India I'm photographing Hindus and Muslims. It's harder to photograph the Muslims, they don't want to be photographed as much and I think it has to do with their religion.
RG: Is there something about understanding the mystery of life, or perhaps understanding death, that comes through photography for you? There's a reality and a mysteriousness to photography, for me at least.
Two Men Carrying Jesus, Taco, Mexico, 2003 ©Harvey Stein, 2018
HS: Yes. Well, a photograph is made in a fraction of a second, a 60th of a second, 1/250th of a second, and that moment is gone but I've captured it, I've frozen it. It's gone, it's dead, you know, and I think sometimes like that. But I can preserve it like a mummy, actually. There's an amazing paper I read recently by a wonderful writer, she's a literature professor at Montclair State, and she wrote about how photographers in the early days of photography were seen as agents of death. And the language, 'I'm going to shoot you,' 'How was your shooting today?' 'How was your shoot?' 'I'm going to shoot that artist,’ like this, like that. The language even implies or connects with death. So photography, yes, it's like a camera was a death machine. There was a movie called 'Peeping Tom,' where he had a blade on his camera and he would kill his subjects. Probably an awful movie and not good for photography.
RG: To take this to the next step, do you think it's conceivable that photography in a sense is spiritual?
HS: I think it's mysterious, I think it's magical. There was a movement in the 1880s or so of spirit photography where they used photography to get in touch with ancestors or dead people. It was a hoax but some people pursued it. I don't know the history of it. I don't know that I think of it as spiritual but I’m sure people do. I've done self portraits. I had a house in the country, and there's not a lot to photograph for me in the country, in the Berkshires, let's say. It's a lot of woods. But I found old cemeteries and I photographed myself in the cemeteries, blurred, coming out of the grave, for instance. I have one really good photograph coming out of the grave. I'm behind the gravestone and I'm blurred coming up out of that. I'm skewing this maybe too much toward all that. Spirit, yes, I think it's considered by some people as spiritual, or catching spirits, or catching apparitions or phantoms, or, you know, angels or devils. I'm sure people have done that or tried to do that, and dressed up and photographed themselves or other people as alive or dead. There's a photographer who photographed himself as Jesus on the cross. I think (William) Mortensen from Germany in the '20s.
RG: I'm not sure I know him. I think there's someone else who's done that as well. Maybe many someones.
HS: Cindy Sherman's photographed herself.
RG: Right, exactly.
HS: In the mud, in the muck and all that.
RG: I think Cindy Sherman's photographed herself doing everything at this point! Although Cindy Sherman has never dressed up as Harvey Stein.
HS: She's never dressed up as Cindy Sherman!
RG: That's true!
HS: Which is probably her point, you know?
RG: Apart from your being a really extraordinary and accomplished photographer, I wanted to interview you because you've been photographing a lot of religious and spiritual iconography through the years. You've mentioned Mexico, you've mentioned Italy, you’ve mentioned India. Were you aware that you were drawn to this, and what was it about all of that that caught your attention?
HS: I guess consciously, or subconsciously, I was aware of it. I have a major project that I shot for 20 years of a church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, that I photograph just once a year, but over 20 years at least, of their Good Friday processions through the neighborhood doing the Stations of the Cross where kids dress up as Jesus and Roman soldiers and go to different locations in the neighborhood. I guess people pay and they go to their house and they reenact a scene in the life of Jesus. They sing a song, they do a prayer. The priest is there and does a little talk. They’re usually small houses there. An Italian neighborhood. It's changing, the neighborhood, gentrifying.
RG: I thought Greenpoint was mostly Polish.
HS: Yes. This is an Italian church. It's Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It’s always Good Friday and I try to go if I'm in town. It's wonderful and I got to know some of the people over the years. I've always threatened to give them pictures. I haven't yet but before I pass away I hope to do that because it would be great for them to have. I wasn't really aware of it but I like cemeteries, I like to shoot in cemeteries. I like the way crosses look. I went to a military cemetery in Vietnam, we got special permission to do it, that was my idea. I don't know, I think it's a different kind of space and ground, and it's hallowed or strange ground or maybe I'll see an apparition somewhere in there. I don't know. I guess I'm attracted to it, and again, I think it has to do with death and dying.
RG: Am I right that the attraction for you on Good Friday is that there's a death?
HS: I think it's religious and I don't know the religion, I'm not religious. I like going into churches. In my book on Mexico I have many Jesuses in the book and they're all tortured and bloody and all that. Maybe it's a way of coming to terms with death. There's religion, and it's mysterious, so I'm curious about it and I think there's photographic possibilities. I can make strong images about it.
RG: It's interesting because some of this is about repetition and some is about reverence.
HS: I like this procession in Greenpoint because it's very heartfelt and it's very authentic and it feels old, like it's been going on for 100 years. It's nothing phony. I don't like anything phony at all, phony buildings or phony people. It's very genuine and it's touching. I don't know that I want to be a part of it. I am an outsider with a camera and that's how I feel about going to India or to Mexico. I don't know the language, and I want to be an outsider, that's part of it. Being a photographer is being an outsider. We're not participants, we're observers. We're on the outer edge or outer ring of the performer, the street performer. Most photographers are either quiet or shy and very smart and very curious, but we don't want to be center stage, so that's another element of why I like photography because that suits my personality. I'm never in the spotlight, usually. But I like being well-known and I can give a talk and show my work and all that, that's easy. And teach. I like all of that.
RG: These long, long projects that you do can take many years, and I'm certainly thinking of the church in Greenpoint but also about Coney Island. You've had a romance with Coney Island, let's say! It's become a many many year photo project. I guess 40 years.
HS: Forty and coming on 50 now.
RG: Admittedly, Coney Island is a remarkable place. The boardwalk, the Cyclone, the Mermaid parade, the fog in the winter. There are so many pieces of it.
RG: Is it that a place shows itself, shows the soul or spirit, differently over time and that’s what you're interested in? Based on what you've been saying about death you could also say that you're going back to these places and it's like you're on the march with them toward death.
HS: Yes, I mean I think they all survive. Coney Island nearly died and it's come back. I do like repetition. One of my secrets, one of the reasons I think I'm successful, is that I go back to the same places all the time. In Mexico the same towns, the same villages. I always go to a new place when I’m there but I always go back to the same places first, probably.
RG: Do you ever shoot the same people?
HS: Yes, I've seen the same people occasionally. Certainly in Coney Island. It's much smaller than a country like Mexico. And I meet new people. For instance in Coney Island I photograph the Polar Bears. It's a swim club that started in 1903 and they've been in existence since then and they go in every Sunday at 1 o'clock in the winter, into the Atlantic Ocean, and I photograph them doing that. They have a clubhouse and I'm friends with a lot of them. They welcome me. I'm not a member, I'm an outsider, but I'm welcome. The same with the religious procession. I can be in awe of these participants, these actors, but I'm not one of them.
I'm on the outside looking in and recording and photographing them and I think making a contribution, whether for history or for myself, and I'm happy doing it because I'm doing my art and I have something to show for it where they don't. I just thought about that the other day, they go into the ocean and they have a good day, but I'm making something of it, and I like that idea. I'll be able to leave something behind. So when I say I'm doing my books and leaving them behind and I'm showing the pages, that's my way, I'm just realizing this talking to you, it's my way of saying I was here and that I exist and don't forget me.
RG: There it is.
HS: Yes, there it is. ‘Don't forget me when I leave this great earth,’ you know? I don't believe in an afterlife so I have to do the best I can now.
Village Woman, Chandelao, India, 2013 ©Harvey Stein 2013
RG: It's a little like being an historian also – as you're telling and creating the narrative of what you're shooting, you're also creating your own narrative.
HS: Yes. I never liked the idea of photographs being liked and thought of as good because of the history of the photographs, or nostalgia. But now my pictures can be nostalgic because I've been photographing for nearly 50 years. I think they should live now and be as strong now as they were, as they will be in 50 years, but that's hard to come by because there is that gloss of nostalgia that makes people like certain photographs. 'Oh, look at it then,' you know. I want my photographs to be strong now, and then, but not just then.
RG: This is a good time to talk about your background. You’re born in Pittsburgh, you have an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon and a Columbia University MBA, and at some point along the way you were in the army and picked up a camera.
HS: I bought a German camera. You could buy them inexpensively. I had time on my hands and we had a dark room on the base so I started taking pictures and developing film. I taught myself and I liked it and then I came back here and I went back to work. I had a job waiting for me because by law, if you had a job and you were put into the army then you could come back and they had to hold it for you. I didn't like my job. I quit my engineering job. I wanted to go back to Europe and live there. I loved being in Europe for the two years. That didn't happen, but I started photographing in the army on my free time, took a couple classes in New York and then quit my job on Madison Avenue and became a photographer. In 1979, it happened.
RG: How did you come to be in the army?
HS: I was in ROTC.
RG: So then you owed two years.
HS: Yes. I did that because they paid you a couple hundred dollars a month to be in ROTC and that helped me with my college expenses and paying college tuition.
RG: You were in Germany for the two years?
HS: I was stationed about 20 months in Germany and then I got out and traveled for three months with another lieutenant who got out. We were friends and we drove around Europe for three months. I had a camera and I took travel pictures. That was the first time I really photographed a lot. It was a big thing, it was every day taking pictures and driving just about every day. We went to five, seven, eight or nine countries for three months driving around.
RG: Let's go back to Pittsburgh. What was your upbringing like? You were Jewish and you were bar mitzvahed, I believe you told me.
HS: Yes. I lived in a Jewish neighborhood, in the neighborhood where the synagogue recently was attacked. Squirrel Hill. It's a very well-known Jewish neighborhood. It's not all Jewish but most of the kids I went to school with were Jewish. I was in that synagogue for some bar mitzvahs, but it wasn't my synagogue. I had a lot of friends, I went to a good school, public school, and I was high honored. It was very competitive. I played ball, it was a happy childhood. I was the poorest kid on the block, probably. We lived in an apartment. Most of my friends had houses and cars. We didn't have a car. I was in a high school fraternity, I was on the tennis team, I was the manager of the basketball team. I liked athletics, and I studied a lot and got good grades and I got into Carnegie Mellon. I studied there four years and the day after I graduated I left Pittsburgh because I knew I wanted to come to New York. But first I got a job in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and I worked at Bethlehem Steel as a metallurgical engineer.
RG: You're kidding?! I actually know Bethlehem.
HS: I lived at the University Club with all these graduates of colleges and worked at this company for nine months, then I went into the army for two years, came back to Bethlehem Steel for another six or seven months, then I left. I quit there and went to Columbia and got the master's degree.
RG: And now there's no more Bethlehem Steel, it's a casino.
HS: Right, right. I went back once or twice, I had a friend or two. But yes, that's long gone.
RG: It's interesting to me your description of all of these things you were interested in because you've been describing yourself as an observer, not a participant, and yet for much of your life you've also been a participant.
HS: Yes. I mean, I've taken hold of my life. I changed my life. I have a lot of friends, high school friends, I'm still friendly with and they all say, 'Wow, you're the only one that changed their life.' I mean, they’re doctors, they're businessmen, there's a lawyer or two. I quit what I was trained to do to do my art and they all admire that. I'm the poorest one in a way because they all were pretty successful monetarily. But I'm doing all right and you know, I'm happy. I think they're happy in a way but I'm really happy. I am happy because I am doing what I love to do every day. I feel I am a participant in some ways. I'm an observer but you know, I do things! I have an active life.
RG: When you say that you changed your life, what kinds of things were stirring your imagination when you were a kid versus maybe what stirs your imagination now? With all the traveling that you've done, for example.
HS: Well as a kid I thought I was going to be a doctor and find a cure, a great discovery for an illness or something, or somehow I'd save the world. I guess we all had those fantasies, and I always thought I had a lot of potential and I looked forward to realizing that potential. So now, I know what I am and who I am and what I've done. I still look forward, though. I'm always working and I feel good and I hope I'll be around a long time to continue doing what I'm doing. I don't feel I've slowed down that much. A little bit.
RG: Are there things you've found over time with photography that are sacred to you, or holy to you? I'm using those words intentionally, to just get a sense of meaning.
HS: Things in photography that are holy or sacred?
RG: Things that have become that way to you. You talk about changing yourself. I know you've had a certain intimacy with Mexico. On your website you talk about shooting in India as nirvana.
RG: I'm wondering if there are things you found over time that have become truly important to you, meaning sacred, that maybe were a surprise to you.
HS: I don't know. Thinking that I could do this one thing for so long, I think, is a revelation. Thinking I could work on one project for 40 years and be consistent and patient and coherent about it, maybe that's sacred to me. I mean, loving New York. I don't think I'd be the photographer I am without New York. New York gave me permission to be what I am. I love New York for that. I couldn't probably be that in Pittsburgh because it's too small, because I have family there, they would be bothering me to get a job, do this, do that. I could be independent here and away from family, actually, not that I have a bad family or a big family. Again, it's all up to me and New York gives you that freedom and photography has given me freedom, and so that's holy and sacred. America has given me that also, allowing me to be what I would truly want to be, and I feel blessed and lucky because not everyone can say that.
I don't have to work 9 to 5 at a job that I really hate. I've arranged my life that way. I don't have children. I have a very wonderful wife and she's understanding of my needs, I guess. Although sometimes she's not happy when I go away but she allows me or gives me that permission. I'm happy that I'm born in this time where photography exists. Photography was invented in 1839. It's one of the youngest arts around that we know. I mean, video photography, film, I'm living in a time where photography exists. For most of creation it didn't. I have running water, you know? Half the planet doesn't have running water, and I need running water to develop my film. So all of that, I feel very fortunate, I really do. I don't take it for granted. I feel in a way blessed, without being religious. I don't know who's blessing me! I feel lucky, and I feel I've taken advantage of that. I have made my own life the way I want it to be.
RG: I don't know you but I feel there is a fearlessness about you as well.
HS: Maybe I'm oblivious to it! I do what I want to do, pretty much. I mean I never want to hurt anybody, I always want to be kind. I believe in the individual, I really do believe in the individual, but I'm a Democrat, I'm not a lousy Republican. I'm not generous to the point of giving away money because I don't have a lot of money, but in spirit. I love my fellow man but from a distance usually! I don't want to cause anyone any harm or trouble or dismay, and I want to a