The magic of ordinary people : The street photography of Harold Feinstein
It is in that look. That glance from the man descending the stairs into the subway.
Yes, he looks curious, but also melancholic and pained, and he carries with him just the slightest hint of annoyance. But, of course, the street photographer has gone before he has time to say anything. Each heading in different destinations.
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Ascending the subway stairs 1970
The black and white photograph was shot in the New York subway as the photographer climbed back toward the street, passing four shadowy figures going the opposite way as he ascends.
Is this a mirror held up to his subjects’ lives? Mere shadows heading to work, with only a long train ride out to their workplace to look forward to? Or, are they returning to the underground and their journey home, drained after a long working day? The reality for most people as they make their way to and from their place of employment?
Of course, we don’t know but it is something great street photographers like Harold Feinstein have in common. The ability to spark curiosity in us. The ability to allow us – in that fleeting moment – to get to ‘know’ that stranger or those strangers and their situation in some small way. To recognise the joy and anticipation of a fairground ride or the angst of necessity etched onto their face (s). To witness their everyday with its exuberant happiness or the sadness of enduring drudgery.
“I wanted to show life as it was,” Harold Feinstein says in the documentary film Last Stop Coney Island . “Whatever that means. But mainly it means people.”
It is the kind of statement that has street photographers, and the acolytes of street photographers, from Long Island to London nodding in agreement.
People as the life blood flowing around the veins and arteries of the street photographer as they physically capture the existential heartbeat of what it is to be alive. In the process capturing a certain geographical location in a certain era with a certain politico-economic backdrop. A visual history and sociology of a particular place at a particular point in time.
A rhythm and energy that is found in the photographs of Harold Feinstein, he was a master of street photography.
From an early age he was expert in catching that ‘decisive’ moment, but he was also a thinking man.
“When your mouth drops open, click the shutter,” he once advised.
In a career spanning 70 years – Feinstein passed away on June 20, 2015 – he produced enough work for eight books, countless exhibitions as well as a black and white and colour legacy of great street photography.
A simple truth endorsed by William Grimes of the New York Times who described Feinstein as : One of the most accomplished recorders of the American experience.
A man relaxes with a cigarette after finishing his meal. He looks pensive, contemplative, somewhat mysterious, surrounded by curiously patterned wisps of curling cigarette smoke as he glances to the side away from the photographer.
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Smoking in Diner 1974
A shaft of light entering from our right as we look on illuminates the curiously patterned smoke trails and gives the image a religious feel – we can almost hear the mellifluous sound of angels.
Could this be this man’s last meal? Is he on the run from the law? A kind of last supper before he gives himself up? Is he simply relaxing after the hard-working day?
Harold Feinstein was born in Coney Island, New York in 1931. He first picked up a camera as a 15-year-old – enterprisingly he rented a Rolleiflex from his neighbour upstairs for $5 a day. Within a few years the talented teenager had attracted the attention of photographer, painter and curator Edward Steichen, who purchased his work for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Two Boys on a pier 1950
Meanwhile Feinstein was already building a reputation as a leading New York City street photographer with a particular penchant for taking photographs around his birthplace of Coney Island.
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Midway on the boardwalk
A family look out at the camera, a man with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth his arm lovingly placed on the shoulder of a young woman (his daughter perhaps?) holding a baby. A woman to the left seems preoccupied with dragging on her cigarette we assume – and it is always, always, wrong to assume – to be the mother of the young lady in the foreground.
But it is in the way Feinstein has composed this shot with the slightly surly look of the young mother, the curiosity-cum-protection of the older man and the disinterest of the preoccupied older female that first makes an impression. These foreground features are then mixed with a background of fairground attractions, the big wheel ride to the right as we look, the big dipper (Cyclone) to the left, and the bustling street scene behind the three.
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Cyclone first climb 1957
We find this genius in the way he captures the joyful look back of these young happy faces anticipating the adrenaline fuelled ride. A particular favourite of mine, I loved the way Feinstein was able to catch these young people with their cares blown away by the thrill of the fair. Who knows what kind of lives they might have returned to, but for the moment this is a celebration of having fun!
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Boxer's right jab 1969
The boxers on the beach at Coney Island sizing each other up. The calm of playful sparring before the storm of battle.
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust World Watcher Quartet 1977
The two older couples compacted onto the bench in the foreground, their expanding bottoms vying for space, as they look out to sea and no doubt reflect on this beautiful, relaxing day, and their rapidly passing lives.
His Coney Island work has become iconic, and synonymous with the name of Harold Feinstein
An exhibition of his Coney Island photographs : A Coney Island of the Heart was held at The International Center of Photography in 1990, and also at the Los Angeles Leica Gallery in 2015.
Other shows have included a Harold Feinstein Retrospective held at the Lumiere Brothers Centre for Photography, Moscow 2014 and the Blue Sky Gallery, Portland Oregan, USA, 2015. The O’ Art Gallery in Istanbul, Turkey, held an exhibition, Harold Feinstein : The Legacy of a Photographer in 2017, while, ‘Contagious Optimism’, an exhibition of Feinstein’s work was shown at the Galerie Thierry Bigaignon, Paris, France in the same year. In 2018 the same Parisian gallery held another Feinstein exhibition ‘Graciously Yours’ and a year later Carrie Scott and Partners presented, Found : A Harold Feinstein Retrospective at Photolondon. Such is the enduring international appeal for the New York-born photographer.
Of course, he also taught through private workshops held at his studio, as well as at numerous institutions including the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Museum School of Art, the School of Visual Arts, New York City, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Maryland College of Art, Windham College, Putney, Vermont and the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts.
Many of Feinstein’s students went on to carve a path for themselves as fine art photographers including Wendy Watriss, Mariette Pathy Allan, Peter Angelo Simon and Mary Ellen Mark ( who coincidently died a month before Feinstein on May 25, 2015.)
“Harold Feinstein’s black and white street photographs are absolutely beautiful,” Mary Ellen Mark remarked of his work in 2012. “They combine powerful content with a perfect sense of graphics. Harold’s photographs are proof of the magic of realism. He has the ability to find something incredible in the ordinary. He is a great artist with the rare gift of a great eye.”
Copyright ⓒ Harold Feinstein Photography Trust Girl in Harlem Window 1954
Feinstein’s photograph ‘Girl in Harlem Window’ shot in 1954 is, for me, a marker for the brilliance of this street photographer. Beautifully framed in her window a young girl glances back at the photographer. She sits serenely as if by instruction but, of course, we know the shot is candid.
The window surrounds look as if they need a fresh lick of paint which nicely contrasts with beautifully ornate and decorative strip beneath where the girl sits.
This is a union of artist and accidental model in the making of a classically styled street photograph. The ‘magic of realism’ as Mark so eloquently comments is captured in this solitary moment. Who is she?
We might never know, but she lives on, as so many do, in the great work of Harold Feinstein.
To Learn more visit Harold Feinstein
WATCH “The documentary film, Last Stop Coney Island premiered in 2018 at NYDOC to a sold out crowd & available for streaming in the U.S. and Canada via the Sundance Channel, and DVD Purchases are available directly from the British filmmaker, Andy Dunn.”
Be sure not to miss!!
On the Sundance Now Channel!!: The Man Who Shot New York
The documentary film: Last Stop Coney Island: The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein
The Kodakery podcast: The Life and Work of Harold Feinstein with Carrie Scott and Andy Dunn
The latest video: A Gallery Walk Through with Harold Feinstein (recreated from recently discovered audio!)
And on YouTube Harold Feinstein Photography Trust
In a blog post written by Harold a few months before he died, he shares how a past student of his wrote to him sharing a memory of how the then curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, John Szarkowski, told her that if she wanted to learn street photography, there was only one expert in the field of streets photography with whom to study, and that was Harold. An Authoritative testimony of Harold’s influence as a street photographer! Read HERE
OUR IMMENSE GRATITUDE TO JUDITH THOMPSON, Director of Harold Feinstein Photography Trust