In Caleb Stein’s imagery, community triumphs over the individual. In this interview, he speaks with us about his photographic approach, his fascination with small-town America, and the soothing power of water.
How and when did you get into photography and Leica photography in particular?
I started photographing when I was in High School. I photographed constantly, I stayed after school to work in the darkroom, and I looked at every photo book I could get my hands on. I was completely hooked from the beginning.
I started using a Leica M10 with an Elmarit 28mm lens last year. I’d always known that Leica was a great camera, and I wanted something light and high quality. What I like about the camera is that it’s just about taking pictures. There’s no fuss.
What was your initial idea behind Down by the Hudson? How long did you spend taking pictures there?
My initial idea was to photograph my walks through Poughkeepsie, in particular along a three-mile stretch of its Main Street. I grew up in big cities and my conception of small American towns came from things like Norman Rockwell illustrations; so I wanted to see how what I saw matched up with those inherited, almost mythologized ideas of American-ness.
How would you characterize the atmosphere in the town of Poughkeepsie?
It’s a dynamic, energetic place with its own struggles and beauties. IBM used to have its headquarters there, and so it’s a symbol of sorts for the post-industrial economic decline of many small American cities. I love Poughkeepsie. It’s where I met my wife and fell in love.
How would you characterize the people living there?
There’s a wide range of people living in Poughkeepsie. I was drawn to it in part because during the 2016 election it was almost neck-and-neck Trump vs. Clinton. The difference between the two came down to about as many people as you might find in a bar on a Saturday night.
How did the people react when you told them about your project?
Most people saw what I was doing and opened themselves up. I’m grateful to them for their trust and vulnerability.
Please tell us a little about your photographic approach. Do you prefer to take the pictures spontaneously or do you plan your day of shooting in advance?
I work on long-term bodies of work and I walk a lot. For Down by the Hudson, I walked the same three-mile strip of Main Street almost every day for years. That familiarity with a place changes things. I started to anticipate the rhythms. I don’t plan what I’m going to photograph beforehand, I just respond to what’s in front of me. Even when I’m making a portrait, what really happens is that there’s a conversation first and then we hang for a while and see what comes of it.
What do you want to show and tell with your images?
I’m interested in contradictions and uncertainty. I like how things can look like one thing and another thing at exactly the same time, depending on how you look at it; but most of all, I simply want to show how I saw something in a particular moment and allow for people to make up their own stories.
What moved you most about this project?
I realized that one of the main things I’m doing is exploring community and the interactions within it. This became particularly clear towards the end of the project, when I started working at the watering hole. While I was at University, my girlfriend – now wife – brought me to this small clearing on the outskirts of town by a drive-in movie theater. It took me almost four years to actually start photographing there. I think I was waiting for the right mindset and the right camera for what I had in mind. It was Edenic because many different people shared the space, let their guard down, and tried to cool off. In this tense political moment, there’s something about this watering hole that draws me in.
Is any continuation of Down by the Hudson planned?
I’m interested in continuing to photograph in small American towns. But more immediately, I plan to continue working at the watering hole.
Born in London in 1994, Caleb Stein graduated from Vassar with a degree in Art History. From 2015 to 2018, he worked as a studio assistant for Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden. His work embraces community and the interactions within it. The series Down by the Hudson (2016-19) is an intimate photographic exploration of the struggles and beauties of life in Poughkeepsie, a small town in up-state New York.
A portfolio with Caleb Stein’s work just appeared in LFI 6.2019.
To see more of Stein’s photography please visit his website.