In the United States, the antsy college student is as archetypal as the protagonist of the hero’s journey: a child of Middle America itches to leave their hometown, moves across the country or overseas to go to school and pursues a life loftier than anything at home. The common route is from the comforts (and restraints) of a small town home to a harsh and vibrant city.
Caleb Stein grew up in London and New York, graduating from Vassar in 2017 with a degree in art history. Recently, he won the Gomma Grant for Best Black & White Documentary Work for his series “Down by the Hudson.” Contrary to the conventional college journey from town to city, Stein’s creative maturation explored small-town life.
During the summer of 2016, Stein was a studio assistant for street photographer Bruce Gilden, who worked near Poughkeepsie. Almost every day for two years, he documented his walk from Vassar to Gilden’s studio, expanding his conceptions of the American pastoral.
After graduation, Stein worked as a waiter, moved downtown and photographed. Frequenting a three-mile stretch of Poughkeepsie’s Main Street, he captured its residents with a candor and intimacy we don’t associate with, for instance, Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want,” the iconic and idealistic Thanksgiving dinner painting. “Freedom from Want” was initially published in The Saturday Evening Post with an essay by Carlos Bulosan emphasizing that those who strive for “economic peace” vary in socioeconomic status, that they occupy “violent factories, crowded tenements, teeming cities” (“Carlos Bulosan’s ‘Freedom from Want,’” The Saturday Evening Post, 12.21.2017). But Rockwell painted the American politics of the 1940s, not the people. The family at the table looks happy but disconnected; the face of a man in the back is covered.
Although Stein’s initial conceptions of American small towns were informed by such images, his photos of Poughkeepsie don’t possess the same squeaky clean quality or artificiality. A woman named Nikki grips a lighter. She holds a cigarette in her other hand, which wears a ring on the middle finger. There is something biblical about her posture, which is warped and squarish like Picasso’s ailing “Old Guitarist,” conjuring the sweeping gestures of figures in Christian Renaissance art. Although her body looks deliberate, hip cocked and arms bent, her face is less focused: Nikki’s lips are parted and she gazes off camera. Her hair blows in the wind and the camera angle is cocked, creating a sense of urgency. She looks scared.
Stein also visited the basketball court by Market Street. In an email correspondence, the photographer said, “I loved watching the games and the way they brought people together.” A young man in a tank top stands with hands on his hips and a dignified air. The boy to his left and the man to his right hold basketballs. Spots of sunlight paint the court. In his junior year at Vassar, Stein visited a watering hole by a drive-in theater: “It really feels like an Edenic space where many people can come together and enjoy.” A girl, shoulder-deep in water, clutches her chihuahua. Two women, Emily and Belinda, muse, swimming in front of a gnarled tree whose roots touch the water. Three boys float on their backs, profiles forming a pretty pattern.
The Hudson Valley, like so much of the United States, knows economic hardship. Roughly one in five Poughkeepsie residents live below the poverty line (“The People of Poughkeepsie,” DailyMail.com, 12.29.2017). The establishment of the Poughkeepsie Galleria Mall in the 1990s, construction on the highway and the downsizing of IBM’s local headquarters have contributed to the city’s decline. When Professor of English Amitava Kumar appraised “Down by the Hudson,” he first mentioned this hardship: “I don’t know what post-industrial decline means. It is a vague notion in my head. Boarded-up homes, the husk of dead factories with broken windows and overgrown grass, businesses gone to seed.” (Eyeshot, “Caleb Stein,” 01.21.2019)
Doubtless many of Stein’s subjects in “Down by the Hudson” have experienced the vague and faceless “post-industrial decline.” Documenting the people of Poughkeepsie is documenting hardship, but unlike Rockwell’s illustrations, Stein’s photos are about individual stories rather than a tragedy that makes examples out of stories. He talked for hours with subjects; they posed voluntarily. His conceptions of small American towns changed as he walked the same place for years, talked with its people. “Down by the Hudson” is shot in black and white, its human subjects in royal pose or looking forlorn, close enough sometimes to feel suffocating.
Of course, Stein mentions “inequality and violence” when he talks about his series, but he emphasizes that “people are very tough and find ways of surviving and enjoying life” (Us of America, “Through the Lens: Caleb Stein,” 01.03.2018). Documenting the residents of small-town America provides a lofty and complicated portrait of human nature, of how people converge and cope.