Caleb Stein’s photographs explore romantic and mythologized notions of America

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Caleb Stein’s photographs often give the impression of belonging to another era. Whether it’s his agonizing images of a Vietnamese community ravaged by chemical warfare, It has been a long time, shot in collaboration with Andrea Orejarena, or his lighter work capturing his family along the coast of the Outer Hebrides, I love this cloud under which I am (or even his quarantine photo diary for iD) a timeless cinematic quality ties his work together.

“I think my interest in photography came first from my fascination with films,” he says. “My whole family is movie-obsessed, so I grew up watching all kinds of old-fashioned black films. Looking back, I think what attracted me to these films was not so much the stories or the scripts, or even the acting, but the cinematography and the ability of these filmmakers to distill a narrative into a picture.

His first camera – a Bugs Bunny with a 12-frame cartridge – sparked a growing obsession that culminated in the high school darkroom. “One day I came out of the darkroom with a fingerprint and [the teacher] told me it sounded like something Ray Metzker or Harry Callahan would have done. He took their books from his shelf and I fell in love completely. Callahan and Metzker, in my mind, were the photo equivalent of film noir.

That was almost ten years ago now, and in the years since Caleb graduated in art history and helped the legendary Bruce Gilden. These days, he says, he’s interested in taking photographs that can work on two levels. “I want photography to carry a strong energy that can be recorded viscerally, the moment someone begins to engage with it. And I also want a photograph that can stand over time, that reveals itself in stages. To do this, he seeks to find photographs that contain “radical vulnerability, mystery and a sense of poetry.” “I am interested in photographs that exist in a state of grace, in photographs that somehow ‘distance’ from their creator and come to life on their own.

Rodrigo, By the Hudson

What was it like working under Bruce Gilden?
Bruce taught me the importance of working from the heart. He understands that an artist’s work is part of a larger conversation, and because of that, it’s important to look broadly and try to understand the history of photography. On top of that, Bruce made me realize that the most important thing is work. This is the whole story.

I realized over time that as artists, but perhaps also more generally, we can only be ourselves. It is better to accept this and get to work.

Skyler and Malikai, Down by the Hudson

Skyler and Malikai, Down by the Hudson

How do you define your photography style and what stories are you looking to tell?
I’m drawn to black and white because of its relationship to memory and myth-making, but that’s not necessarily the only way I’d like to make it work. The next project I’m working on will be an artist duo with Andrea Orejarena and will most likely be a mix of color and black and white work.

I gravitate towards moments that contain possible contradictions, or tensions that can be further developed by looking at them photographically. I want my photographs to express grace, mystery, intimacy, vulnerability and poetry. I am interested in how photography can be a point of connection, a way of questioning and a way of celebrating.

Torso and legs, Down by the Hudson

Torso and legs, Down by the Hudson

Tell us about Down by the Hudson – where did this project start?
I studied at Poughkeepsie for four years and after graduation I worked in a restaurant as a waiter and then for Bruce who lives nearby. I grew up in big cities, between London and New York, and I was drawn to this small American town in large part because of the romantic and mythical notions of “Americanity” that I had inherited from things like illustrations by Norman Rockwell and Grant Wood paintings. I wanted to photograph Poughkeepsie to understand my relationship with him. I think a lot of my job, in this job and others, is understanding my relationship with the United States, which is my adopted homeland.

Three Quarter Portrait of Michael, Down by the Hudson

Three Quarter Portrait of Michael, Down by the Hudson

You have returned to the Hudson to photograph it over time, what makes you recoil in the landscape or the subjects you encounter?
I walked the main street of Poughkeepsie every day for three years, and after graduating I lived just off the main street, so I know a lot of neighbors that I saw on a daily basis.

All the photographs I take are the product of a relationship, so there is always an exchange that accompanies the act of photographing. Some of these exchanges last only a few minutes, others extend over years, but in all cases the photographs come from a place of love, from a desire to celebrate this small town. I try to approach my work with care and tenderness, perhaps especially because it is the city where I fell in love. When I approach someone, I share with them an overview of my work and explain my intentions to them. And after that, I always send photos to the people I work with. I want my work to be transparent. I am inspired by what Glissant said: “I can change, through exchange”.

Work on By the Hudson taught me that working in a place of love is the best and the only way for me to work. And this repetition and this time are critical aspects of my practice.

Allegory of War, Long Time No See

Allegory of War, Long Time No See

Tell us about It has been a long time
It has been a long time offers a complex calculation with a conflict that lives not only in American and Vietnamese cultural memory, but in the bodies of Agent Orange survivors and heirs.

It was produced by Andrea Orejarena and I over a two year period with Vietnamese veterans and younger generations in Vietnam. The initial desire was to find a way to create an environment for a collaborative visual exchange to explore the memory of the war and the legacy of the chemical weapons used by the United States in that war, but we had no preconceived notions of what it might look like. As. We walked in and asked how people wanted to collaborate, and they told us, and the process developed from those conversations.

We worked with the residents of Làng Hữu Nghị, a space in Hanoi for many generations of those affected by Agent Orange, to bring together a constellation of paintings, photographs and videos that explore the memory of war. Our process challenges the rigid divide between “subject” and “author” and seeks the radical vulnerability and dignity that come from person-to-person engagement with our collaborators.

Huong

Huong, long without seeing

The paintings that appear in It has been a long time were created by the younger generation of Làng Hữu Nghị residents during a workshop we led. Having no prior artistic experience, these teenage residents use self-portraits to combat the memory inherited from war. Our photographs follow several of these same adolescents for two years in Làng Hữu Nghị; Reflective and collaborative, the photographs often depict residents with their own artwork – and at times the people photographed contribute by drawing direct inspiration from the photographs. Videos, dreamlike vignettes co-produced with Vietnamese veterans, blur the boundaries between memory and reality, dreams and wish fulfillment. Through a series of freely associated images, the videos in It has been a long time focus on first-hand experience and strive to mend some of the trauma of official narratives.

Andrea and I have been helping each other on personal projects for several years now, but this was the first time we had worked together as an artist duo. Andrea was born in Colombia and came to the United States with political asylum as a child, and much of her work, like mine, is an exploration of her relationship with her adopted country.

Hai Dan and Manh, Long Time No See

Hai Dan and Manh, Long Time No See

Has this year shaped or changed your perspective as a photographer?
The past year has reinforced my belief that we are all deeply connected and that the only way to work is to be in a place of love and respect.

The long periods of confinement have always helped me realize that I shoot in bursts, with long periods in between where I look through the work and think about what I should do next. It helps me to see things more clearly and, when I work, to approach everything with all my passion and energy.

Tan et Duc with drawing by Nguyen Tien Hung, Long Time No See

Tan et Duc with drawing by Nguyen Tien Hung, Long Time No See

Khoi Bedroom Designs, Long Time No See

Khoi Bedroom Designs, Long Time No See

Bui Thi Hoa People in the trees, long without seeing

Bui Thi Hoa People in the trees, long without seeing

Allegory of War, Long Time No See

Allegory of War, Long Time No See

    Manh in his room with his ghost drawing, Long Time No See

Manh in his room with his ghost drawing, Long Time No See

Credits


All images courtesy of Caleb Stein

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