Henry Horenstein: One of the Great Documenters of Americana

One of the great documenters of Americana, the US photographer Henry Horenstein captures everything from stock car racing to country music artists. He talks about living life on the go.

When Henry Horenstein first came across the writings of left-leaning English historian EP Thompson, he was a student at the University of Chicago. He soon traveled to England and enrolled for a term at the University of Warwick. There Thompson was a lecturer, on the advice of his tutor.


Henry Horenstein’ learnings from Thompson

Horenstein tells me over the phone from his home in Boston, “I went specifically to study with him, having read his book The Making of the English Working Class.” A few years later Horenstein’s interest shifted from history to photography. Thompson continued to have a significant influence on his work, rivaling that of the renowned photographers Horenstein studied with at the Rhode Island School of Design, including Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan.

Horenstein l aughs, “I quickly realized that the life of a historian was rather dull, whereas the life of a photographer wasn’t.” But what Thompson taught me, I tried to bring to my photography. I sought out working people whose voices would not usually get out there.”


Since then, Horenstein has compiled a sizable collection of photographs, primarily of “regular” people. He has also written several photo books about working-class American pastimes including baseball, horse racing, and country music.

The next collection is Speedway 1972, a collection of early, moving black-and-white photographs taken at stock car racing events at circuits in Seekonk. He describes his brother-in-law, a speedway racer, as his initial connection to this grassroots culture of damaged cars and reckless velocity. He said that “What I’m drawn to is community.”

Henry Horenstein
Henry Horenstein

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The authenticity of Horenstein’s portraits

Time has given Horenstein’s photographs an even stronger sense of realism. The least of which is the fact that his blue-collar, white, small-town subjects are from an era when traditional American workwear was more functional than trendy.

The youth choose denim and plaid, their wild hairstyles a monument to the lingering legacy of the hippy 60s. While, the majority of the men wear grime-stained T-shirts, shapeless work pants, and heavy boots.

The fact that stock car racing offered a family night out in rural villages where the best drivers were frequently local idols is attested to by teenage couples and groups of kids.

Henry Horenstein
Henry Horenstein

What is Horenstein’s work characterized by?

Horenstein is predominantly a portrait photographer, although his work also exhibits a strong sense of place. He created formal portraits of country music legends like Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, and Ralph Stanley for his best-known book, Honky Tonk. The book was first released in 2003 and reissued in an expanded edition in 2012.

He also included lesser-known artists like the Willis Brothers, who occasionally accompanied the great Hank Williams. And also DeFord Bailey, a pioneering prewar African American country musician and founding member of the Grand Ole Opry. He also took pictures of folks dressed in western and country attire waiting in line outside the Opry.


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