Discovering Harold Feinstein and his colossal body of work is both a joy and a disappointment. It's a joy because it's easy to see how much of an impact he has had on a whole generation of artists and photographers just through limited interactions. It's also disappointing at the same time because he is mainly unheard of today and we will not see many other mentors, visionaries, and humanists like Harold in our lifetime.
I stumbled upon the work of Harold Feinstein while I was working on my idea board for the magazine. It was just an ordinary day of sifting through the many possible topics on photography and there it was, a video that talked about Harold and his street photography work. It's funny how the same algorithms that pump unnecessary content into your feed can also sneak in a gem or two. This was one of those moments.
A few photos in and I was hooked. I quickly typed away to search for relevant websites that could tell me more about this photography great that I'd never heard of before. I found myself writing an email to Judith Thompson, director of the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust (and Harold’s widow) hoping that I could get permission to write an article about him and his work. Happily, she replied and gave me more than enough additional information for this article.
Harold Feinstein was born in Coney Island in 1931. He started his photography career when he was 15 years old using a Rolleiflex Automat Model 3 borrowed from his neighbor. According to Harold, it was easily the best camera he ever used. With it, he captured both the mundane and the intimate, and it didn't take long for someone to notice his innate ability to bring an artistic and humanist touch to the world of photography. At the age of 17, Harold was already rubbing elbows with some photography greats when he joined the acclaimed Photo League.
Just four years after starting his photography journey, Edward Steichen bought four of his photographs for the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, New York. To this day, he remains the youngest photographer to enter MOMA’s permanent collection. Add to this the fact that he was highly acclaimed as a master printer, a designer of Blue Note record covers, an original inhabitant of the legendary Jazz Loft, and a collaborator of W. Eugene Smith all before the age of 28, and you can understand why he was called a child prodigy.
To be thrust into greatness at such a young age must have been exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time. Imagine being constantly surrounded by great talent and skill on a regular basis—it would be easy to think you're way over your head, but not Harold. From the very beginning, he felt the inspiration of his calling loud and clear and never wavered from following his creative passions wherever they led him in his nearly 70-year career. He never doubted his own inner authority as a creator, even at a young age, and insisted on doing things his own way.
Curator Philip Prodger, who wrote the introduction to Harold’s only black-and-white monograph to date (Harold Feinstein: Retrospective, Nazraeli, 2013, now sold out), described him this way: “Part artist, part guru, part force of nature, Feinstein never sat too comfortably in the photographic establishment. His iconoclasm, individuality, and creative mischief meant that his most original contributions occurred outside easily defined circles of influence.” He passed away in 2015 and he is remembered by his friends and colleagues as an artist, master photographer, and mentor. He was all those things rolled into one vibrant, endearing package.
One of Harold's greatest gifts was his ability to recognize the extraordinary in so-called “ordinary” moments. In the full-length documentary Last Stop Coney Island: The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein directed by Andy Dunn (a must-watch for any photography enthusiast), we get to see this in full effect. In most cases, Harold worked quickly with his camera. He was a master when it came to giving importance to fleeting moments. He had an uncanny ability to capture masterfully composed images quickly.
One photography expert, Philippe Garner, formerly the Director of Photography at Christie's Auction House puts it this way: “It’s almost as if the pictures happen–as if he’s a conduit…as if the picture emerges before he has time to think about it. Yet something inside him knows how to piece it together inside that frame and capture it. It seems very intuitive and it’s a very rare quality.”
The breadth of his work is broad, including nudes, still life, portraits, army life, and later his breakthrough work with color scanography, which resulted in seven books published by Little Brown. However, Harold is perhaps best known for his street photography, most notably those that were taken at Coney Island which he aptly called his "treasure island." Some of his best work was taken here, with its amalgamation of cultures, races, and experiences. No other place was more perfect for Harold than Coney Island because he was able to bring out the picturesque in the simplest of scenes.
He used to describe his creative process as simply “being available to receive” whatever came his way, not planning or giving much forethought to a day of shooting, but rather allowing his “appreciative eye” to take over and be drawn to the miracle of everyday life wherever it met him. On the other hand, he had a way of making opportunities happen, albeit unconsciously. As French curator Francois Cheval commented, Harold’s own joy and delight in the things he saw created a rapport with his subjects such that many pictures seem more like a partnership between photographer and subject.
They say that those who can't do, teach, but that wasn't the case for Harold Feinstein. He knew what it takes to make good photographs and he wanted to share that experience with his pupils. Photo historian and critic A.D. Coleman called him “a teaching artist whose legendary private workshop and art institute classes helped shape the vision of generations of aspiring photographers.” Some of his students included Mary Ellen Mark, Louis Draper, Ken Heymann, Mariette Pathy Allen, Wendy Watriss, and hundreds of others.
He was a nurturing figure to his students, helping students to recognize their own particular visual vocabulary and strengths. He was a strong believer in using appreciation, not criticism, in cultivating each student’s gifts. He also welcomed all students who had a sincere desire to take pictures, regardless of whether or not they were just beginning or more advanced. When other teachers were gatekeepers, he would be the one to open doors.
"And I think that maybe one of the reasons why I believe in reincarnation is that I'll need another life at least to get to know all there is to know or even a semblance of it. We live within a miracle and we don't appreciate it. And that's sad." - Harold Feinstein in an interview with Ted Forbes of The Art of Photography
Harold Feinstein was a giant in terms of skill, talent, and creative vision. And a generation of artists and creatives stood on his shoulders. From leading by example to mentoring others, he made sure to impart what he learned in his career that spanned almost seven decades.
And, while it’s mystifying that his work and life are not better known, that is now changing. More and more people are discovering his incredible body of work and the influence he has had on the history of 20th-century photography and will continue to have on coming generations who get swept up in his contagious enthusiasm for bearing witness to life.
He was a prodigy, a nourishing teacher, and a man who inspired curiosity in others. If he indeed were to be reincarnated in the future, we have no doubt he'd do it all again in a heartbeat—even without the accolades.
We would like to thank Judith Thompson and Carrie Scott of the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust for sharing their time and resources with us. Visit the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust to learn more about Harold's work and stay updated with the latest events and gallery exhibitions. Activities of note include:
- A crowd-funding campaign to produce the first-ever posthumous podcast created from Harold’s own audio recordings of his master classes. Check it out here.
- A new line of limited edition fine art posters from 10 of Harold’s most iconic images making an affordable option for owning his work.
- An upcoming 100+ print retrospective at the Mougins Center for Photography in France opens on June 30, 2023 and closes on October 8th.