Henry Horenstein: Tales from the 70s at Scott Nichols Gallery

Shotgun Review

Henry Horenstein: Tales from the 70s at Scott Nichols Gallery

By Tess Michaelson February 13, 2018

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Tess Michaelson reviews Henry Horenstein: Tales from the 70s at Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco.


The Scott Nichols Gallery’s exhibition of the historian-turned-photographer Henry Horenstein showcased work from his recent publication, Histories: Tales from the 70s (Honky Tonk Editions, 2016). Horenstein’s background—a BA in history from the University of Chicago—seems to have propelled him into the realm of documentary photography, where his fascination with stories motivated his explorations of cultures untold. His photographs unearth the people and places that fester along history’s wayside in the 1970s: musicians, gamblers, road racers, and elderly neighbors unsure of what a smile is. All these figures and more are connected by Horenstein’s obsession with turning the ordinary delectable, and his attraction to American vulgarity.

These photographs make a moment everlasting. He uncovers the world that lives within a single instant, portraying a richness that viewers must willfully pluck themselves from—or risk drowning in its folds. Horenstein’s subjects include things that one usually might not consider depicting: a reckless leg dangling from its seat, the fresh engravings of worry in a woman’s face, and the flailing dancers at Wanda’s or Tootsie’s or whenever Friday night was. The simultaneous sloppiness and vitality of the bodies in Drunk Dancers (1974) exude a feeling common to Horenstein’s whole collection. In the swell of a moment, undaunted figures swing their weight across melodies. In these moments, he captures the cheeky, the brazen, those with guts for living.

Horenstein’s 1970s feel like an era on the precipice of its fall, making each of the moments he wrangled from life’s incessant flow even more laden with indescribable richness. The era through his lens feels pre- a lot of things: pre-too cool, pre-faces ashamed of being faces, pre-embarrassed for living sincerely. The photographs’ vitality rings now with a certain kind of tragedy, as a memorial to a time of undaunted liveliness moments before the end. Horenstein’s more eerie photographs, too, slip noiselessly between these exuberant ones and seem to foreshadow this imminent despair. These perspectives show how bleak and haunted a room becomes when stripped of human messiness. They reveal how incredibly dull life can feel, or, in turn, how violent. In Sister’s Living Room (1972), Horenstein’s penetrating focus and allowance of murky lighting turn the fish, the doll, and the rocking chair into spirits, relics of a life never to be lived again. The discordance of Horenstein’s scenes within this collection—those empty and full—meld into a portrait of a time that resists description but resonates more strongly with the way it actually feels to live.

Henry Horenstein: Tales from the 70s is on view at Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco through February 24, 2018.

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