Harvey Stein is a professional photographer currently living in New York City. Stein is an educator, author, and curator. He currently teaches at the International Center of Photography in New York City. He is a frequent lecturer of photography in the United States and abroad. His photographs are in 58 permanent collections including the George Eastman Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Stein’s photographs are represented by Sous les Étoiles Gallery in New York City. His website is www.harveysteinphoto.com.
Stein has been obsessed with Coney Island for decades, returning more than 600 times in over 50 years. He has documented many of those visits with his book, Coney Island People – 50 Years, 1970-2020.
10 am Saturday, August 26, 2023
Upper West Side, Manhattan, New York City
It’s a Saturday morning and not a lot of traffic while I traveled from my hotel in the Gramercy District to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. My Uber driver pulled up to an older apartment building situated just a block from Riverside Park. From the car I took out my two bags of camera equipment and a tripod. I set them down on the cement sidewalk, bent down, glanced in through the passenger side window and thanked the driver for the ride.
The driver took off and I looked up and down the street to get my bearings. I was recently in the neighborhood two days before, albeit a few streets south, meeting with Peter Turnley, photographer for Newsweek magazine and who has residences in Paris and NYC. What a difference a few streets make in terms of the architecture. Two days earlier, I walked among a gothic-style set of row houses that date from 1894. Today, I am surrounded by the pre-war brownstone buildings.
Carrying my bags of equipment, I strolled in through the entranceway of Harveys’ building and was greeted by the doorman.
“May I help you?”
“Hello, I’m Charlie Hahn here to see Harvey Stein.”
“Just one second.”
The doorman picked up a black phone resting at his deck and dialed a number. “Hello, a Mr. Charlie is here. I will let him know.” He placed the phone down and turned toward me, “Mr. Stein will be right down.”
From around the corner a tall man with a receding gray hairline appears. Harvey is wearing a pair of blue jeans and a light gray t-shirt with ‘Coney Island’ written with black letters on the front. From photos I’ve seen I immediately recognize Harvey.
“Hello Harvey,” I said. “I’m Charlie. Nice to meet you.”
“Hi Charlie. You’re from North Carolina?”
As we talk, we slowly walked through the foyer area and entranceway and out of the building. The sound and energy of the city fills the air, and we found ourselves standing on the sidewalk outside the building.
“I’ve never been there. I’ve been to Charlotte, Raleigh, and Duke doing workshops there.”
“Winston-Salem is somewhat of a college town with Wake Forest,” I said.
“Yeah, I’m from Pittsburgh originally, and I follow the University of Pittsburgh football team and they play Wake Forest.”
Harvey and I started walking. We came to the first corner and made a right turn toward Riverside Park which now appeared very close to us on the opposite side of the preceding street corner.
“Are you still teaching photography?” I ask Harvey.
“Oh yeah. I start two classes in October, and (firstly) I have a weekend workshop that I’m doing here (in NYC). Then I’m doing a long workshop in India that’s just forming now. I love India. I‘ve been there six times. I’m working on a book on Indian street people. All portraits. It’s pretty cool. The people of India pretty much came up to me as I photographed them. 99% of the people say yes when I asked. They feel it’s an honor to be photographed. I do candid shots, but I mostly ask (their permission) when I go up to people, if I like them.”
We came up to the park and entered through a gate where a few park benches encircle an oval shaped fountain. The benches were empty except for one fellow who sat at a bench at the opposite side of the fountain. Ignoring our presence, he was consumed with an open newspaper on his lap.
“Are you still teaching at the school here in New York (International Center of Photography)?” I ask.
“Yes, and I also teach at the Los Angeles Center as well. It’s an on-line class. Since Covid, the ICP classes have been on-line.”
Harvey Speaks about His Preference of Film
“I still have a darkroom in midtown which I share with a few other people and it’s private. I develop my own film in my place which is a little tiresome after doing it for 40 years,” Harvey jokes. “I prefer film but while on the India trips, I shoot digital.”
“I prefer film over digital,” I tell Harvey. “I’m old-school and will not over edit my photos in Photoshop or Lightroom. Whatever choices I am limited to in the darkroom such as dodge, burn, and cropping my photos, that is what I try to maintain in the digital world and for my film photographs. I feel like I am cheating myself if I over edit my film photographs.”
“I agree with you. Kids today have never been in a darkroom. Most of my students have never seen a darkroom,” Harvey adds.
Meeting Diane Arbus
“I met Diane Arbus in 1971. She interviewed her prospective students which I was one of. Arbus was teaching on her own because there were no schools back then. She had an ad in The Times in a photo column of The Arts section. It wasn’t an ad, but a notice of an available class to take. She lived in a famous apartment complex called the Westbeth Apartments known to house artists in the West Village. It was subsidized housing for artists in which you could apply to live there. I can remember when I met her; we sat in these folding chairs facing each other in the basement. She accepted me, but I didn’t do it. I took another class taught by another photographer named Ben Hayman. I thought I’d take Hayman’s workshop and then take Diane Arbus’s class after that. However, soon after I met with Arbus, she killed herself. So now I say, she killed herself because I didn’t take her class,” Harvey joked. “The Westbeth Apartments are still there, but it’s impossible to get in there.”
“Ben Fernadez was my photography hero. He was the best in the early ’70s. He was an Hispanic-American who lived in East Harlem. A rough guy and he was fabulous. He photographed King, with several books on Martin Luther King. He was teaching, and he took me under his wing. He took me to his house and I used his darkroom. He then kicked me out because I was getting too good,” Harvey joked. “Fernadez said, ‘You’re getting too good and I don’t need the competition.’ That’s always important for a photographer to have maybe one person to mentor you.”
During our time at Riverside Park, I continued to shoot photos of Harvey while we chatted about our mutual love of photography. Due to a commitment Harvey had, our meeting was cut short after 90 minutes. I felt a need to ask a few more questions of Harvey, so I arranged to speak with him on the phone a week after I returned home to North Carolina.
I slowly placed my Rolleiflex twin lens camera gently in my camera bag. My Minolta Hi-Matic 35 mm film camera and a small mirrorless digital camera were also systematically placed.
Harvey and I exchanged small talk as I folded up my tripod.
“Harvey, before I go, how about a selfie?” I asked.
Harvey in the fountain at Riverside Park
Photo by Charles Hahn
Phone Interview with Harvey
Monday, August 31, 2020
“Hello Harvey, how are you?” I asked.
“Good, good. Just got off the phone with my wife. She’s in Warsaw at the moment,” Harvey said.
“Did you have a great trip to New York?” Harvey asked me.
“Yes, I did. I love New York; it’s the place to be.”
“There’s a lot of energy. I’ve lived here since 1966. I came here to go to Columbia for grad school and I stayed.,” added Harvey.
Your book, Coney Island People had taken you over 50 years of your dedication and time. What do you like about Coney Island that keeps you so interested?”
“The thing that keeps me going with it (Coney Island) are the people. It’s not the place, although the place is kind of neat. Have you been there?” Harvey asks me.
“Yes, we went to Coney Island last year, and I can see what you mean about how the people are special.”
“People are happy there or they’re looser. I don’t feel totally comfortable shooting on the beach itself. I don’t necessarily like to interrupt people doing things. I would have to be in the mood for it. I’m usually always in the mood to photograph it, but sometimes I feel more aggressive than other times.”
“What attracted me originally in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s was that it was really funky and dangerous. Now it’s much improved and renovated. There weren’t really a lot of rides in the old days. There were drunks and drugs. It was really falling apart, especially in the 70s when I first started.
“Do you still go back to Coney Island?” I asked.
“Yeah! There’s a group of people called the Polar Bear Swim Club. It’s the oldest swim club in America, founded in 1803. They swim in the Atlantic Ocean from mid-November to mid-April. They go in the water at 1 pm on each Sunday in those months, and I would go and photograph them. There are good events there (at Coney Island) that I would try to make.”
“There’s the Mermaid Parade they have in every June. It’s probably one of the best parades ever. If you could come up for that (to photograph) it’s incredible. It’s held the third Saturday of each June. I’m trying not to go to Coney so much, and it’s time for me to move on from it after photographing it for fifty years. I’ve done three books on Coney Island. I think I’ve done what I want to do there.
Other Boroughs of New York
New York has really gentrified since I’ve been here. Like Soho (lower Manhattan) used to be a warehouse area and now you can do a lot of shopping, and also there’s a lot of galleries there. It has totally changed. Times Square was very dangerous.”
“Every neighborhood was very different, and now it’s very homogenized. Now I like photographing out in the boroughs more. Jackson Heights in Queens has the largest population of Indians, Tibetans, and Afghans. Jackson Heights has more languages spoken than any other place in the world. Seventy-three or seventy-six languages. I started going there maybe five or eight years ago and now I go there a lot. Every kind of restaurant or store could have a different ethnicity. It’s very universal. The neighborhood of Flushing in (the borough of) Queens is like you’re in China. There’s hardly any English spoken. That’s really what I like (to photograph in). I don’t like Park Avenue or Madison Avenue or even Broadway. What’s really neat too are the events that occur. I just went to a topless march; I wouldn’t call it a parade. Women topless. Protesting the fact that they just can’t take their shirts off if they want to as men can. There’s not equality. So, half of New York State women CAN take their shirts off, be bare chested and not be arrested. But they don’t do it because they would cause too much of a commotion. I got an earful from the participants.”
“An earful or an eyeful?” I joked.
“Well, it was funny because out of the older women, only one woman had nice breasts to be honest with you.”
“You know who Bruce Gilden is right? Bruce and I hung out a lot and it was kind of wild,” Harvey said.
(Bruce Gilden is a New York City Street photographer who became popularized for his street portraits using a strobe or a flash while getting very close to his subjects.)
“We went to Naked City, Indiana to photograph. They had the Miss Nude America contest. It was a nudist colony essentially and it was kind of wild.”
A photo I shot of Harvey at Riverside Park
Harvey’s Artist Project
“I did a book of artists which I spent six years working on. It included 165 different artists, and I interviewed them all. Abrams published the book and we sold 10,000 copies. It was a beautiful book with very famous artists and some not so famous. Therefore, I know what you’re going through with your project (Harvey, speaking of my project of interviewing famous and not-so-famous photographers). At the time of my artist project there was no email of course, so I had to call everyone. It took me three years to get through to Andy Warhol. He never said no but he never said yes. I think he tested me and said, ‘Oh, I’m busy now, call me in six months.’ He thought I wouldn’t. But I wrote that down and I called back in six months. You have to be persistent and not in an antagonistic manner. Warhol only gave me ten minutes, but I got a really good interview out of that. These were very famous artists and I was very naive as I set out on my project.”
“Artists were interesting by how they look or behave. I photographed them in their studios with some of their work. There was never a lull in their studio with their work. I was able to photograph artists, and I managed to put them into their work to make a satisfying a composition. Art was big and popular in the ’80s. I got refused by some, but I always had a reference and wouldn’t be some Joe Blow off the street.
Selfie by CH
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