Q&A: Caleb Stein


Have you recently been living by any life philosophy? I grew up in London and New York City, with family in both. I’ve found that living in big cities can make people a little jaded at times. I really want to shut out that type of outlook and learn to appreciate my surroundings. I’d like to be open. I really like the quote by Martiniqian philosopher Édouard Glissant: “I can change, through exchange.” Are you aware of any conspiracies? Marcellus Wallace’s soul is in the brief case in Pulp Fiction. What is it that interests you about photography? Photography is a way for me to engage with the world, to remain open to people. It’s a way of saying yes. I love the duplicity of photographs – that they describe the real but are anything but. Photography enables me to express myself, to communicate an emotion, to document how I saw something. I feel inspired by Winogrand’s remark: “I photograph to see what things look like.” What is the worst thing about city life? I get the feeling that cities are the story of Sodom and Gomorrah incarnate. Jacob’s Ladder (1990) captures how I feel about cities pretty well. I think they can bring out the worst in people. That said, there’s good and bad everywhere. What part of the planet would you like to explore? I’m interested in continuing my project right here in Poughkeepsie. Longer term, I’d love to expand this project to examine other small and medium size cities in the United States. One of the things that interests me about Poughkeepsie is the contrast between the elite institutions and the local communities. Maybe that’s something that could be considered in other North American cities. What do you think is the most plausible of the supernatural? Extra-terrestrial life sounds fairly plausible to me, although I’m not sure that counts as supernatural. What moment have you most wished you’d had a camera when you hadn’t? There are lots of moments that I wish I’d taken a photograph and didn’t because I didn’t have a camera. There are also a lot of moments when I didn’t take a photograph because it didn’t feel right. While working candidly in a city or at large gatherings makes sense, it doesn’t feel right for the work I’m doing in Poughkeepsie. The portraits are always taken with permission, often after hours of talking. I’m amazed at what people are willing to share if you just take some time to listen and notice. Whenever possible, I share the photographs with them. In this way, it’s a collaboration of sorts. Two weeks ago I met a woman in her late forties wearing a beautiful dress. It was clear that she’d suffered a lot in her life but that she was still strong. She told me that there was a small creek nearby where she’d made a foot pool to cool off during the summer and that she loved to collect four leaf clovers. I was drawn not only to her creativity and curiosity, but also to a tension between vulnerability and hardness that I saw in her. After an hour or so I asked her if it’d be alright for me to take her photograph, and if she’d be willing to let me take it by the creek, by her favorite spot. We walked over there together and just as I was about to take her photograph two people came up to her and told her that her youngest son had just died of an overdose. She broke down and cried. Her husband and her oldest son were already dead, also because of drug overdoses. She was inconsolable, but I stayed with her for another hour until her cousin and her best friend arrived. I wanted to help in any way I could, although there was little I felt I could do. What struck me was that she was crying one minute and cracking a joke the next. I guess life isn’t as clean, neat, or simple as in the movies. She kept apologizing to me, saying “I’m sorry, I know that this might make a good photograph, but it’s not how I want to be seen” and I kept telling her that the moment she found out the news I’d completely dropped the idea of photographing her that day. I told her there’d be another day and that we’d take the photograph when she was comfortable. 
All of this is by way of saying that I want to make strong photographs without making other people feel like shit.

Choose a job you would be willing to do for free on the side. Stay-at-home Dad (one day, but not for another ten years or so). Describe the most important photo you’ve seen. Bruce Gilden’s up-close portrait of Terry at the Iowa State Fair in 2014 from his FACE series. It’s a photograph that hits me in the guts. For me, the FACE work is some of the strongest portrait work of our time, if not the strongest. Bruce is my favorite photographer, a mentor, and a friend. I think a lot of people misjudge him because they don’t know him or his past. I continue to learn a lot from him and his work. There are a number of other photographers, photographs, and bodies of work that seem to be in perpetual orbit inside my head. A lot of them are the usual suspects. Weegee, Lisette Model, Walker Evans, Robert Frank…William Klein, Shomei Tomatsu (the photographs he took after the bomb dropped; I’m always struck by his photograph of a warped bottle), Kikuji Kuwada (the photograph of the dirtied and crumpled Japanese flag), Lee Freidlander (such a range of subjects realized with extraordinary wit and formal acrobatics), Josef Koudelka (his energy, his exuberance, his patience), Sergio Larrain’s Valparaiso (he was a true poet but apparently a total nut), Mark Cohen (for his attention to gesture and detail, and for Grim Street, which he made in Wilkes-Barre, a small city), Antoine D’Agata (for the strength of his photographs, for the way he photographs what he knows and who he is), Alec Soth (for his subjects and his beautiful books), Jim Goldberg (for the way he tells a story, for his use of text and image, in particular Rich and Poor and Raised by Wolves). In terms of younger photographers, I admire Piotr Zebierski, Eli Durst, and Antoine Bruy. I also enjoy Daniel Arnold’s work and his sense of humor (the same goes for Aaron Berger). How often do you take other people’s advice? It depends on the person. Some people, often. Other people, never. Describe a personal hell. A cubicle. And a cubicle plant. It’s funny in Lars Tunbjörk’s pictures, or in The Office, or Office Space (1999) but in real life it’s terrifying. Which living person do you most admire? My partner. She’s the most intelligent, genuinely good person I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. She makes life worth living. On what occasion do you lie? Honesty’s the best policy, otherwise people can get hurt. The only exception is when you’re dealing with a corporation.

What was the last crime you witnessed? I see small, unremarkable crimes regularly. Although, apparently, a lot of petty crimes (urination, carrying an open container, noise disturbances) have now been decriminalized in New York State. The one incident I’ll never forget was when I saw an intoxicated man in Grand Central Station whirling a metal chair around in an effort to fend off soldiers, police officers, and police dogs. What is the best way to educate yourself? Reading, talking, walking, looking. Watching movies. School. Mentors. Time (I keep trying to remind myself of this). I think photobooks are immensely valuable resources. They’re like permanent exhibitions; they can function as complete, albeit miniaturized, visual worlds. Sometimes I remember photographers more by their books than by individual images. In any case, a book can provide a new level of insight into how someone works. What is the next book you want to read? I’m working my way through Robert Hughes’ book on Goya. I’m excited to read Amitava Kumar’s latest book Immigrant, Montana: A Novel. After that, Allan Sekula’s Photography Against the Grain. The list goes on… What object do you want? A first edition copy of Kikuji Kuwada’s The Map and a 3D printer. What object do you need? None that I can think of right now. How would you explain the internet to someone from the 1950’s? With great difficulty. Pick an historic moment from the last hundred years to bring a camera to. I’ve always loved film noir – I was six when I saw my first Humphrey Bogart movie. When I first started photographing I was obsessed with Ray Metzker (along with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, who both taught Metzker at the Chicago Institute of Design). That type of high-contrast, chiaroscuro visual — and all that it symbolizes — has always fascinated me. So if I had to pick, I’d say either the Bowery in New York City or anywhere in Chicago (in the 1920s), or a major North American city (in the 1950s and 60s). That being said, there will always be Golden Age livers. It’s easier to look back than to be in the present moment. I love what Brassaï once said – that a photograph, if formed well, can crystallize a moment and produce memory. The challenge for me is to photograph right now, right outside my door. Are impulses more important than consequences? I think it’s important to follow your gut, but I’m also someone who likes to think things out. There’s a balance and, in many ways, I’m still trying to find it in my life and in my work. Which talent would you most like to have? The gift of gab. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? Wait to see if I get scheduled to work any busser shifts this week, write my grandfather a letter, finish unpacking with my partner, organize my photobooks, take an epsom salt bath, and open a bottle of wine with my partner to celebrate moving into our first apartment.

‘Down by the Hudson’ is a record of my walks and interactions (mostly along a 3-mile strip of Main Street) in Poughkeepsie, NY. Poughkeepsie is a small city – population around 32,736. Approximately 19% live below the poverty line. Recent years have brought a great deal of economic hardship to this lively, character-filled place. Some people attribute this to the downsizing of IBM’s local headquarters. Others say that fault lies with the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall, or the additions to the highway system, both of which have de-emphasized the role of Main Street. Some blame local colleges – Vassar, Marist, the Culinary Institute – for their lack of engagement with the community. In any case, Poughkeepsie is still a beautiful, resilient city with beautiful, interesting people. Lots to learn from them, no question about it.

Caleb Stein, b. 1994 in London, Vassar College ’17, currently living in Poughkeepsie, NY while interning for Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden. — Website / Instagram.