Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
Harvey Stein may have taken 22 years to shoot Harlem Street Portraits but it doesn’t take very long to see that he has produced an engaging testament to the spirit and vitality of the largest, most famous African—American community in the country. Harlem has its own storied history, of course, with a future that is now being shaped by rapid and sometimes unsettling gentrification.
Starting in 1990, Stein eschewed the usual candid point, shoot and keep moving style of the street photographer for a more casual, relaxed approach and began taking what he calls “collaborative portraits” of people of all ages encountered on Harlem’s streets. In fact, about 90% of the 166 black and white images in the book appear to be collaborations. Some people weren’t interested in having their pictures taken, but many did welcome the opportunity to be immortalized. By conversing with his subjects and establishing trust, Stein managed to get up close and personal, in fact very close – sometimes just three feet away. Using a 21 mm lens, he often captured his subjects looking at the camera while uninvolved people in the background add another layer of interest. One example is the girl holding a flag up to her face with nine people around her seemingly uninvolved, not interested in the portrait session occurring in front of them.
In his preface, Stein admits to feeling like an outsider when he first began shooting but the warm welcome he usually received brought him back dozens of times to Harlem’s streets. Throughout the book, that warmth is often evident in the smiles of children and adults alike. But not everyone is smiling; Stein has captured a range of expressions that keeps you looking to see what’s next. There’s no smile on the young cheerleader in her “Riflettes” outfit, pompoms on her wrists, who stares intently at the camera and connects with us while her teammate stands a few yards behind her, slightly out of focus. Stein includes several very effective sequences, such as the 14 pages of children’s pictures that include a football player in full uniform, a ballerina, kids in their Sunday best. (His image of kids playing on scaffolding in front of a boarded-up building reminded me of Helen Levitt’s work.)
Stein uses car windows to frame some of his subjects in a look both formal and casual. Another memorable sequence is the 12 pages of people in T-shirts, some bearing messages (“You say huge like it’s a bad thing”) or designs. I did wonder why the school crossing guard image was included here. Elsewhere there are loving portraits of parents and kids, grandparents, muscle-bound guys showing off, young athletes flipping footballs and basketballs, memories of civil rights protests, etc., graffiti scarred walls. Harlem will be on our minds, thanks to this book.