Harvey Stein is a prolific street photographer with a unique style of engaging his subjects. He’s not one to hide behind long lenses. He teaches classes at the International Center of Photography (ICP) and leads workshops around the world. His photographs and portfolios have appeared in The New Yorker, TIME, LIFE, Esquire, Smithsonian, The New York Times and Harper’s, as well as most major photographic magazines. To date, six books of his work have been published, including his latest, Harlem Street Portraits (Schiffer Publishing, 2013).
“I was always interested in the arts and tried writing, painting and ceramics,” Stein muses. “I could do those things, but not really well.” When he was in his 20s, he got his first camera and started shooting pictures in New York City. He discovered that he was very good at photography and wanted to pursue it further. “It was like love at first sight,” he says. Since he had already finished college at Carnegie Mellon University and was working as an engineer, photography became his hobby. “The camera became a companion to take out on the streets,” he says. “I met people that way.”
Stein earned an MBA at Columbia University in the late ’60s and worked on Madison Avenue. His passion for photography was restricted to shooting on the weekends. As he puts it, “My interest in photography grew and grew, and I liked the business world less and less.” He worked on several personal photographic projects while still employed in the corporate world. One morning in the ’70s, he woke up and said to himself, “I don’t love my job. I’m going to quit and try to do photography full-time.” However, this transition occurred over a period of 10 years, during which he vacillated between a more traditional career and pursuing his passion.
Although he is primarily self-taught, Stein took some photography classes. One of his most important instructors was Ben Fernandez — “a very hot young street photographer” — who documented unions and protest movements. Fernandez took him under his wing, and Stein began teaching for him around 1973. Then, in 1976, Stein got a teaching post at ICP, where he’s been employed ever since. “I was still working full-time in a corporate job but didn’t tell people in the photo world about it,” he states. “I thought that they wouldn’t take me seriously.”
Between 1972 and 1978, Stein completed his first photo project: a study of identical twins. “I took pictures on weekends, holidays, sick days and whenever,” he recalls. E.P. Dutton published his first book, Parallels: A Look at Twins, in 1978. The success of this project and book garnered him a lot of attention, which encouraged his photographic aspirations. “It gave me the courage to say, ‘I can do this.’” In addition to teaching at ICP, he had the first showing of his work at a gallery in Soho.
In 1979, he finally made the decision to leave Madison Avenue and devote himself wholeheartedly to photography. Since then, he says, “I’ve never looked back.” The transition from a safe paycheck was scary at first, but he says that he absolutely loves photography and teaching. “I don’t need to make a lot of money, but what I need is to be happy.” Although he teaches primarily at ICP, he is a frequent lecturer in the United States and abroad, has served on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts, New School University, Drew University, Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Bridgeport, and conducts workshops all over the world. “I like giving back and helping people,” he remarks.
More of this article can be read in the Spring 2015 issue.