BEVERLY — The first LP Henry Horenstein owned was “Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams.” Not bad for a kid in New Bedford as the ’50s were turning into the ’60s.
Of course Horenstein wasn’t just any kid from New Bedford. He’d later study history at the University of Chicago, decide to become a photographer, earn an MFA at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he’d be taught by Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind (not quite the Johnny Cash and Hank Williams of photography, stature-wise, but close). Eventually, he’d join the RISD faculty himself.
Horenstein has devoted photography books or portfolios to dogs, other animals, burlesque, baseball, horse racing, and various sorts of people (a different form of “other animals”). He’s also published several very useful photographic manuals.
Clearly, he’s a man of many interests. Country music remains one of them. (It’s worth noting several of his friends at UChicago later founded Rounder Records.) Horenstein’s country music book, “Honky Tonk,” came out in 2003. An updated edition appeared two years ago. An exhibition drawn from the photographs in the book, “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music,” runs through Oct. 17 at Endicott College’s Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery, in its Manninen Center for the Arts.
The subtitle may look like a misprint. Shouldn’t that be portraits of “musicians”? Yes, there are multiple portraits of singers and instrumentalists among the nearly 30 black-and-white photographs in the show. Most of the images are from the 1970s; the latest was taken in 2008. Some of the musicians are quite famous: Loretta Lynn, Doc Watson, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, Mother Maybelle Carter.
But what appeals to Horenstein — and what lends “Honky Tonk” an appeal even to someone who wouldn’t know Conway Twitty from Kitty Wells — is the world of country music. And for all that he loves the people who inhabit that world — the fans and little-known performers no less than the stars — it’s the whole shebang that fascinates and delights Horenstein.
You can see that fascination and delight in the many details he so lovingly captures. Some of them are details you might expect: the beehive hairdos and too-wide ties, the cowboy boots and cowboy hats, the white suits and white shoes. Others are so spot-on specific as to suggest a beneficent recording angel.
A beagle stretches in the background of a portrait of banjoist Don Stover, and the curl of his tail could belong to a G clef. Presiding over the parking lot of a Kentucky dive called the Ponderosa is a Dr Pepper sign so cheery looking in that glum setting it could be Dan Blocker welcoming visitors to that different Ponderosa, the one seen on NBC on Sunday nights. A can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sits on a barroom table, open — and presumably empty. Its presence offers a visual bow to a great country verbal flourish, the title of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 1968 hit “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).” Jerry Lee’s picture is in “Honky Tonk,” too.
“All along, in my historian’s mind,” Horenstein has written, “I saw all this as a disappearing world that I wanted to preserve on film.” “Honky Tonk” blends record-keeping and wonder. Yet just as Horenstein’s much more than just a fan, so is he much more than just a documentarian. There’s the occasional irruption of surrealism in “Honky Tonk” (as there can be in the music). Forty years ago, Tex Ritter posed for Horenstein at Boston’s late, lamented Hillbilly Ranch — and behind the singer Horenstein captured a woman holding up a Ritter publicity photo. Art imitates life imitating art, or something like that. A life-size cut-out of Garth Brooks is covered with messages to him written by fans. It’s as if his image has become made up of words.
Horenstein makes the viewer appreciate the richness and variety of this world. His work shows us how it extends far beyond Tennessee to Los Angeles and Billerica and Reeds Ferry, N.H. (home to another long-gone New England c&w institution, the Lone Star Ranch). The world of country music as shown by Horenstein claims sites sacred, like the Grand Ole Opry’s Ryman Auditorium; profane, like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, in Nashville; and unexpected, like Symphony Hall.
That’s where Horenstein shot a seraphic-looking Dolly Parton, dressed all in white and with eyes upraised. Maybe it wasn’t God who made honky-tonk angels, but that particular day in 1972 Henry Horenstein surely photographed one.