The ICP bookstore hosted a book signing on Friday for photographer Harvey Stein’s most recent publication: Harlem Street Portraits. The publication is a compilation of the portraits Stein took in the streets of Harlem from 1990 to 2012. This rather tame event was a great chance to meet the man in black, chatting in the distance with friends.
I had an interesting conversation with Mr. Stein about his epic photographic narrative and how it compares to more contemporary projects like Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York, in terms of accessibility, credibility, and aesthetics. Certainly Stein has a more narrow focus, photographing people in the same area (Staten Island, Harlem) for decades. Though comparing analog and digital work is a little bit like comparing apples and oranges, it’s intriguing to collate these photographic sagas. I proclaimed my own observations and reactions to the two projects, stating how I found Stein’s work somehow timeless, ambiguous, and poetic. Stanton’s project is very different; I find it does not exist solely in the photographic medium, as the photographs lose a great deal of their profundity without the words and stories that accompany them. His work is also more accessible to younger generations who know how to (and enjoy) following blogs. It is also more accessible in the sense that the entirety of the project can be seen virtually anywhere for free rather than in exhibitions or in publications that cost fifty or sixty dollars.
Stein explained to me that he considers himself a documentary photographer over a fine art photographer when I hinted at my own perception of his photographs as fine art. Something about the humanism of black and white film portraits has always, for me, catapulted photographs into the arena of fine art. These visually compelling photographs are enlightening in their representation of trust amongst strangers. They are emotionally charged; there simply are no dull portraits. From the young to the old, the happy to the sad, each portrait carries with it that simple human want we all possess: to leave our mark somewhere and be remembered.
Review by Isabel Sullivan
Photographs courtesy Harvey Stein "Harlem Street Portraits".