Over the course of four years, Caleb Stein fell for the small American town of Poughkeepsie. First discovering the town during his studies at the nearby Vassar College, he returned summer after summer to photograph, and in the process, developed a close relationship with its main street and the people that walk along it.
His monochrome portrait Down by the Hudson pays tribute to the community he met along the way, finding its resolution in a watering hole, an almost timeless leisure spot where people come together to escape the summer heat, and the tensions marking American life that have been simmering in recent years. Here, in this “edenic” landmark, Stein waded into the water with his camera to join the summer proceedings.
In this interview, Stein speaks to LensCulture about the photographers that first inspired him, the process of getting to know the town as an outsider, and the wise words given to him by his boss and mentor Bruce Gilden.
LensCulture: Can you tell me a bit about your beginnings in photography? You also studied Art History at Vassar while shooting the project. How did this background feed into your approach to the medium? Whose photography were you first struck by when starting out?
Caleb Stein: When I was in high school, I took a darkroom printing class with a wonderful teacher named Andrew Stole. In between test prints he’d pull me aside and show me photobooks. He showed me work by Lisette Model, Leon Levinstein, William Klein, and Ray Metzker. I was completely blown away. I photographed all the time, I stayed after school to work in the darkroom, and I looked at every photobook I could get my hands on. I was completely hooked from the beginning. That obsessiveness and sense of wonder is something I’ve tried to hold onto, and it’s one way I stay committed to, and engaged with, long-term projects.
At Vassar, I was able to contextualize photography within the history of art. I think that studying Art History helped me see photography as part of a larger conversation, instead of something that was purely ‘documentary’. Halfway through college I started interning for Bruce Gilden, eventually becoming his studio assistant. He became my mentor. I helped him organize his archive and looked through tens of thousands of his prints, contact sheets, and negatives. That experience taught me something about the value of grit and hard work. He always said to me: “There are no geniuses in photography, there are only some people who work hard who have heart.”
LC: Is Down by the Hudson a new step for you in your practice, or would you say it evolves out of other ideas and themes you were already close to in previous projects?
CS: In many ways it was a new step for me. Before that, I spent years photographing my mother’s side of the family. She was going through a separation, but she and her then-partner were still living in the same house with the man who had fathered their children. Photographing my home helped me clarify what was happening and reflect on how I saw my family.
Down by the Hudson is a personal exploration of a small town and my relationship to it, but in some ways it’s very similar to my other work because I’m always interested in community and the dynamic, energetic interactions that take place within it.
LC: Tell me a bit about the beginnings of the project and your initial encounter with the place during the first summer you spent there. What kept you coming back?
CS: I started photographing in Poughkeepsie during my first week at Vassar, in 2013, to try making sense of my new home. But things didn’t come together until 2016, when I started walking along Main Street for miles every day after classes. I wanted to see how my idealized notions of Americana compared with what I saw in this particular small town. My initial conceptions were complicated by photographing.
LC: Can you give a brief sketch of Poughkeepsie, in particular its recent history in these turbulent times?
CS: Poughkeepsie is a small town about an hour and a half from New York City, right on the banks of the Hudson River. It’s the last stop on the Metro-North train’s Hudson line, and it used to be a pretty prosperous place because IBM had its main plant there, until they downsized and left a small ghost town of corporate offices. Then the East-West Arterial cut neighborhoods in half, and Route 9 took all the traffic and moved it out of town.
During the 2016 elections, Dutchess County (which contains Poughkeepsie) was almost neck-and-neck between Trump and Clinton. You could nearly fit the difference between the two into a crowded bar on a Saturday night. It’s similar to hundreds of other small American towns, but I felt drawn to it because of its history and this sense of conflict.
LC: Can you tell me a little about your relationships with the people you photographed, many of whom seem to have led a difficult life. What was it like to encounter the area and its community with the distance of an outsider? How did you negotiate that?
CS: All my photographs are the product of a personal connection, and many of the people I photograph become friends. One such boy was Kaleb, the young boy posing with a slice of pizza. I met him at the watering hole in 2017. That summer I hung out and swam with him and his family. After that, whenever I would see him, he would say, “Caleb with a ‘C!’” I would say, “Kaleb with a ‘K!’” It might seem insignificant, but it’s these kinds of connections that make me feel close to the people I photograph.
For Down by the Hudson, I walked the same three-mile strip of Main Street almost every day for years. That familiarity with a place changes things. I started to anticipate its rhythms. I don’t plan what I’m going to photograph beforehand, I just respond to what’s in front of me. Even when I’m making a portrait, it starts with a conversation that flows naturally into a photograph. It’s not a mechanized thing, and it’s often a collaboration.
I think I bridged that initial distance as an outsider by taking my time and being present. I think most people respond to a well-meaning smile, and many saw the photographing as a compliment—a way of celebrating their personalities.
LC: You’ve been working on Down by the Hudson for the past four years, so how did your perception of the place change and evolve?
CS: My initial idea was to photograph my walks through Poughkeepsie, in particular along a three-mile stretch of its Main Street. I grew up in big cities and my conception of small American towns came from things like Norman Rockwell illustrations, so I wanted to see how what I photographed matched up with those inherited, almost mythologized ideas of Americanness.
Later, I realized that one of the main things I do in my work is explore community and the interactions within it. With this project, I wanted to convey the struggles and beauties of this small town. I tried to do this with care and tenderness, maybe especially because this was the town where I met my wife and fell in love.
LC: When I look at the images taken later on at the watering hole, aside from the more joyful atmosphere, I see a new layer of intimacy—perhaps something to do with the photos you took in the water. Tell me a bit about what struck you at this new location, and what it brought you that you didn’t have before.
CS: All these things discussed above became clearer toward the end of the project, when I started working there. Early on at university, my girlfriend—now wife—brought me to this small clearing on the outskirts of town by a drive-in movie theater. It took me almost four years to actually start photographing there. I think I was waiting for the right mindset and the right camera for what I had in mind. I was on the swim team as a kid, and always loved swimming, so I wanted to be able to float right up next to people, to have the camera hover just above the water, so that we were swimming together.
I was drawn to the watering hole because it was shared by such a wide range of people. As I mentioned earlier, the 2016 elections were extremely close in Dutchess County. Then there was this beautiful, Edenic place where different people came together, let their guard down, and tried to cool off. In this tense political moment, there was something about this that drew me in. The more time I spent at the watering hole, the more I wanted to depict its softer, gentler aspects. This approach extended to how I photographed the town in general.
LC: You were working with Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden at the time. Was there anything in particular you learnt from him that guided you through the project?
CS: Bruce taught me about the importance of hard work, but he also helped me realize that things take time and that the best photographs come from the heart, not from any sort of intellectual or formal polemics.
LC: Did anything else influence you while you were making this work, photographic or non-photographic?
CS: I draw inspiration from a lot of different places. There’s a strand of non-fiction writing that really interests me—Janet Malcolm, John Berger, Joan Didion, Amitava Kumar (who kindly wrote a text for this project), Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, Jonathan Franzen—that type of thing. I like their perspective and the way they volley back and forth between documenting and reflecting. It’s the type of writing that makes me see.
Besides photobooks, I try to look at as much art as I can. This may seem a little crazy, but I just finished looking through all the thousands of items in Tate Modern’s online collection. It was inspiring to see all that art in one continuous flow. I started to see connections I don’t think I could’ve made otherwise.
In terms of photographers, there are too many to list them all here. I think it’s important to understand what’s been done before and to understand that my work is a part of a continuum. To name a few who inspire me—Model, Klein, Levinstein, Gilden, Koudelka, Larrain, Iturbide, Peress, Metzker…the list goes on. Also—Goya. I think he would’ve made a good photographer.
LC: How would you describe the kind of image of Poughkeepsie you wanted to share for others to see?
CS: I think of this project as an ode to Poughkeepsie, and to the gracefulness and resilience of its people. If people looking at it can see some energy or love coming through, then I’m happy.
Editor’s Note: You can check out more of Caleb Stein’s images from Down by the Hudson here.