New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 31 October 3 to 9, 2012

Memphis Blues
Henry Horenstein
Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music
Ed Barnas
Dolly Parton by Henry Horenstein. Source:
Henry Horenstein, "Dolly Parton"

Country music has gone through a number of transformations over the decades. Growing up on country music, Henry Horenstein was already a regular at Boston-area honky tonks when, as a student at RISD, he started to photograph the country music scene in 1972.

His black & white photos on view at Clampart provide an intimate view of both artists and fans in the 70’s at a time when changes were coming with the move of the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman Auditorium to Opryland and the onslaught of urban cowboys in the 80’s.

The “portraits” fall into three distinct categories: First, there are the portraits of the country stars themselves, seen offstage, not in performance, caught in the wings in Nashville or on tour around the country. Some look like taken on the run while others are more posed (Jerry Lee Lewis lighting a cigar sitting in front of a upright piano at a airport Ramada Inn).

Second, there are the images of the fans and aspiring players. Most of these are taken in honky tonks and old-school bars like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville. These are a far cry from the somewhat sanitized rockabilly revival that would come on the scene in the 90’s. Images of a woman collecting tips for the band and bouffant-haired fans waiting backstage called to mind the work of Diane Arbus while the photos from Tootsie’s reminded me of Weegee’s photos from Sammy’s on the Bowery.

Waylon Jennings by Henry Horenstein. Source:
Henry Horenstein, "Waylon Jennings"

Third, there are the unpeopled portraits of the places and things that enhance our understanding of the environment. The hillside houses (with privies) overlooking a stream and a jukebox fronting a wall of framed portraits and album covers, in particular, reminded me of Walker Evans in their quiet witness. The only non-70’s image on exhibit falls in this category: a cardboard cutout of Garth Brooks covered with messages from fans (which some may read as a commentary of the changes in country music).

In retrospect, it is hard to tell which influences were conscious and which simply the tenor of the times. The 70’s were a period of transition in photography as well, with traditional documentary approaches being influenced by conceptual approaches from the art world. Whatever the case may be, these images form an important record of a transitional time in both the country music culture and its environment.

Henry Horenstein
Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music

521 W 25th St. Ground Fl
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Thursday, September 6 to
Saturday, October 13, 2012
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