Through the Lens: Caleb Stein

“This photograph was taken at a watering hole near a drive-in movie theater on the outskirts of town. Their names are Emily and Belinda. I spoke to them for hours about their lives. They said they hadn’t been swimming for years because they’d both been in terrible car accidents that limited their mobility.” ©Caleb Stein, July 2018.

“This photograph was taken at a watering hole near a drive-in movie theater on the outskirts of town. Their names are Emily and Belinda. I spoke to them for hours about their lives. They said they hadn’t been swimming for years because they’d both been in terrible car accidents that limited their mobility.” ©Caleb Stein, July 2018.

From July 2016 until the end of July 2018, London-based photographer Caleb Stein walked the same 3-mile strip of the Main Street in Poughkeepsie, NY over and over again. “In the summer of 2016, instead of returning home, I stayed in Poughkeepsie,” says Stein, who had been studying at Vassar College. Working as a studio assistant for renowned street photographer (and Us of America contributor) Bruce Gilden in a town nearby, Stein decided to stay in Poughkeepsie and document his commute between Bruce’s studio and college for “almost every day for two years,” even after graduating from Vassar.

The result of this two year project was Down by the Hudson, a record of his time spent in small town America – of the places he went and the people he met along the way. Says Stein, “I guess half the reason I started the project was because that was where I was living and the other half of the reason is that I wanted to know more about life in a small American town.”

Here he speaks to Us about Down by the Hudson, small town America, and working with Bruce Gilden.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in London and then New York City. I never really felt English or American – maybe that’s why I can live practically anywhere.

When did you begin to take an interest in photography?

I took a darkroom photography class as a freshman in high school and totally fell in love. The whole thing was magical. At first it was a lot about the process and then it became more about forming my own view of the world. I always loved film noir movies as a kid so photography became my way of keeping that flame alive.

I had this idea of what small American towns would be like...almost something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

How would you describe your work/aesthetic?

I like pictures that are well formed with a lot of meaning and emotion. I think a picture’s good if people can tell their own story.

How much planning goes into your work?

I started working on ‘Down by the Hudson’ while I was still studying in university. I was juggling a lot but always tried to find time for my work. After I graduated I got a job as a waiter and moved downtown to continue my project. I photographed on my days off and on the walks to and from work.

Now I’m working on a project in Vietnam for the next six months. It took a lot of time to organize everything. Apart from finding the time and the money, the main thing is just doing the work and looking at work and pushing myself to continue.

Can you tell us more about your project, Down by the Hudson?

I come from London and didn't ever spend much time in small American towns until university. I had this idea of what they'd be like...almost something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration. So I decided to walk the same 3-mile strip of Poughkeepsie's Main Street over and over again. I walked the same strip hundreds of times. I made a lot of friends. Eventually I wanted some sort of a counterpoint to the life I saw in the city's downtown area so I started photographing at a watering hole by a drive-in movie theater. I tried to document this extraordinary space and made new friends. It felt almost like an Eden because all sorts of people came together to enjoy the water and they all treated each other with respect. I'm planning to continue working in small towns in America. I think the project is about connecting with people and looking at my own initial ideas of what small town American life is like and how that's changed by walking, talking, and looking. 

Is there a particular person or memory from the project that had a profound impact on you?

There are a few. I was with a woman named Virginia when she found out her son had died of an overdose. I stayed with her a few hours while she waited for her cousin to arrive. That’s a very sad memory.

There were other moments that were very joyful. The 4th of July at the watering hole was wonderful because there were so many people there all enjoying the water and trying to stay cool.

What were your feeling towards America before the project? Did it change along the course of the project?

I didn’t realize how little I knew about America until I started this project. The whole image of the wholesome family sitting at a table with a big turkey was the only real image I had of America outside of its big cities. Obviously it’s much more complicated than that, and that became apparent very quickly as I started to walk and talk and photograph in Poughkeepsie. I think the reality is that there are large portions of this country that have seen better days economically. There’s so much inequality and violence in this country, but at the same time people are very tough and find ways of surviving and enjoying life.  

What was it like working with Bruce Gilden? What did the experience teach you?

Bruce is a good friend. I admire his work and his honesty. I’ve learned a lot from him. The experience taught me to be tougher.

“This picture was taken in my last day in Poughkeepsie.” ©Caleb Stein, July 2018.

“This picture was taken in my last day in Poughkeepsie.” ©Caleb Stein, July 2018.

©Caleb Stein, Market St. Basketball Court.

©Caleb Stein, Market St. Basketball Court.

What do you hope to express through your work?

People are beautiful and life is complicated.

What do you find so appealing about capturing the American landscapes, cities, and people?

I moved to NY the week before 9/11. Since I spent the majority of my life going back and forth between England and America. I’ve always felt like I’ve had one foot in and one foot out. There are times where I look at it and think ‘this is my country’ and there are times when I’m completely fascinated by America as a foreigner.

Favorite place to shoot?

©Caleb Stein, Kaleb. White Gate. 2017.

©Caleb Stein, Kaleb. White Gate. 2017.

I don’t have a favorite place to photograph.

Who/what inspires you?

My wife.

What’s your go-to camera?

Leica M-10 with a 28mm lens.

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

I have no idea. I’m sure there are things that I could do, but that doesn’t mean I want to do them.

Song of choice for your American road trip?

“Police & Thieves” by Junior Murvin.

What’s next?

I’m working on a project in Vietnam in collaboration with Vietnamese soldiers from the Vietnam-America War. When I return to the U.S. I’d like to continue photographing in small towns. 

You can find out more about Caleb here.

Words: Emily Freedman