Over a four-year period, photographer Caleb Stein has been documenting life in the small American town of Poughkeepsie, where he studied and lived for six years. The recently completed series, Down by the Hudson, earned Caleb the Gomma Grant in 2018, and was included in this year’s Palm* Photo Prize exhibition.
Speaking of his introduction to photography, Caleb remembers: “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 photo books. I was completely blown away. I photographed all the time, I stayed after school to work in the darkroom, and I looked at every photo book I could get my hands on. I was completely hooked from the beginning.”
Caleb went on to complete a BA in Art History at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, a small town in Duchess County, New York State. He says: “I wanted some context and I wanted to look further than photography alone.” It was during his studies that Caleb worked as an intern for Bruce Gilden, eventually becoming his studio assistant and mentee. “That experience taught me something about the power of grit and hard work,” Caleb reflects. Indeed, his approach to his own practice, which mostly takes the form of long-term bodies of work that demand persistent documentation, testifies to a similar determination and diligence.
“For Down by the Hudson, I walked the same three-mile strip of Main Street almost every day for years,” Caleb says. “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, what really happens is that there’s a conversation first and then we hang for a while and see what comes of it. It’s not a mechanised thing.” He tells us: “One boy in particular became my friend. His name is Kaleb (the young boy posing with a slice of pizza). I met him at the watering hole in 2017. That summer we all hung out with his family and swam together. One day while I was working at a local restaurant he stopped in to say hello, and that really made my day.”
Those conversations, and Caleb’s participation in the scenes he photographs, are palpable in his immersive viewpoint and framing. A game of cards is photographed from the perspective of a player, and swimmers tread water on a level with the camera. Caleb states that “one of the main things I’m doing, in all my work, is exploring 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.” This intimacy with the town and its communities is most clearly conveyed in the shots that take place at the river. Children and adults alike swim close to Caleb’s lens, laugh with their companions, float contemplatively, or else dry off on the bank, water flecking their bare skin.
Submersion in water seems to precipitate a mutual vulnerability and companionability between the people in Caleb’s photographs. As he puts it: “I was drawn to the watering hole because it was shared by such a wide range of people. I knew that in the 2016 elections it was almost neck-and-neck Trump versus Clinton in Poughkeepsie. The difference between the two came down to about as many people as you might find in a bar on a Saturday night. 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 watering hole that drew me in.”
Beyond the practical side of his work, Caleb’s practice involves a huge amount of historical and cultural context. His influences are eclectic and far-reaching. He states that “I think it’s important to understand what’s been done before and to understand that my work is a part of a larger conversation.” Apart from photographers – of whom he says “there are too many to list all of them!” – he refers to writers such as Janet Malcolm, John Berger, Joan Didion, Amitava Kumar, Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, and Jonathan Franzen, saying: “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.”
Perhaps because of his background in art history, Caleb also draws on other forms of visual art. A painter he mentions, in particular, is Goya; “I think he would’ve been a good photographer,” he says. His dedication to soaking up art borders on a kind of visual addiction. “This may seem a little crazy,” he admits, “but I just finished looking through the Tate Modern’s entire online collection. It was inspiring to see all of that art in one continuous flow. I started to see connections I don’t think I could’ve made otherwise.”
In dialogue with people, art history, Caleb’s experiences and the various writings and works that have shaped his perception of things, Down by the Hudson is testimony to the way in which place and people come together to form a community – it is, as Caleb puts it, his “ode to Poughkeepsie”.