“The second my photography teacher showed me those photo books I knew I wanted to be a photographer,” London-born and New York based artist, Caleb Stein, says. “To see some of the narratives that I’d seen in film noir – something I was really steeped in as a kid – distilled in a single frame really struck me on a visceral level.”
Just over 10 years later and now aged twenty-six, Caleb’s career has begun to take-off. His work has exhibited across the world, featured in publications such as Vogue, Lens Culture and i-D and led to invitations to speak at global art institutions like Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
His projects Down by the Hudson (2016-20) and Long Time No See (2018-20) are key reasons behind this.
“Down by the Hudson is a personal response to Poughkeepsie, a small town in upstate New York. I lived there for 5 years, went to school there, and it’s where I met the woman I fell in love with. It was a very formative place and moment in my life. The photographs were a way of understanding my relationship to the U.S and exploring the interactions between the communities that make up my adopted home.”
For several years, Caleb walked along Poughkeepsie’s main street for miles every day, forming relationships with the locals and documenting what he saw.
“As I was growing up, I inherited ideas of what a small American town looked like - and I wanted to compare those narratives with the reality. Walking along the main street of Poughkeepsie, it became obvious that this was a country in crisis. A crisis in the job market with lots of racism, police brutality and people whose labour was exploited because they were undocumented workers. On top of that, in 2016, it was neck-and-neck between Trump and Clinton in Poughkeepsie. So I was interested in documenting and responding to all of that.”
It was during this time that Caleb began going to a watering hole, an “Eden” tucked behind a local movie theatre on the outskirts of the town where, amidst all of the tensions, people came and let their guard down. It was to become a central part of the project.
“It was a counterpoint to the tensions on main street where people from all walks of life who would usually have nothing to do with each other came to cool down from the heat of the summer. It became this space, this haven, which brought something better out of people.”
Continuing to grapple with his relationship to the U.S. and exploring communities and their internal human interactions, Caleb’s next stop was Vietnam.
Created alongside his wife, video-artist Andrea Orejarena, Long Time No See explores the memory and legacy of the Vietnam war from the perspective of Vietnamese veterans and their descendants.
The project brings together paintings, photographs and videos made in a collaborative exchange with veterans and younger generations who live at Lang Huu Nghi, a residence in Hanoi that was specially built for those affected by Agent Orange, a chemical weapon used by the U.S. during the war.
“In 2015, we visited the residence while we were at university. We found so many people eager to engage and tell stories about the war with not one ounce of anger in their faces - it was so different to the feeling in America. Then we went back to university and couldn’t forget the experience – it flipped our understanding of the war on its head and we realised the war was a really good way of understanding the U.S and its relationship to the world. So we got permission to come back and began collaborating with the people living at Lang Huu Nghi.
Over the course of the two-year long project, Caleb and Andrea both learnt Vietnamese sign language, adapting to the dynamics of a community that was profoundly affected by America’s use of Agent Orange, which often causes victims to become deaf. This allowed them to build deep relationships with residents of Lang Huu Nghi, many of whom transformed and freely edited images and works made during the project. “When your deaf the auditory part of your brain gets taken over by the visual, so even though they didn´t have previous artistic experience, their work was very strong,” Caleb says.
Visually tying Down by the Hudson and Long Time No See together is Caleb’s use of monochrome photography. I ask him why it’s so constant in his work.
“I’m interested in its relationship with memory and how it’s synonymous with the past. It’s also a unique way of seeing the world and abstracting things. But I’m not committed to just working with black and white, in the next projects there’s going to be a more fluid mix.”
So what does the future have in store?
“I’m interested in continuing the conversation between my audience and my work. It’s a way of crystalising my own position to move forward with a greater sense of understanding. I’m also working on two book projects for Down by the Hudson and Long Time No See. But the best thing is just continuing to make work.”
You can enjoy more of Caleb’s work on his website: https://caleb-stein.squarespace.com/
And on his Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cjbstein/?hl=en