LONDON — It was his early images of ordinary, carefree, sun-seeking people on the boardwalks and beaches of postwar Coney Island that led Harold Feinstein to become known as a prodigy among photographers in his native New York.
Feinstein, who died in 2015, was just 15 when he borrowed his neighbor’s Rolleiflex camera and started shooting scenes of everyday life in the place where he grew up.
There was no shortage of inspiration for the young photographer: a crowd sitting on the boardwalk stairs; a girl shouting from a fairground ride; an unsure looking, dirty-faced gypsy girl standing by a carousel. In one shot, a topless young man, playing the guitar, is given a drag of someone else’s cigarette. In another, a man looks down the lens with disdain, his “Bad Luck” tattoo visible on his naked arm.
Feinstein also captured moments of sheer joy and playfulness: a girl crawling through a line of legs in the sand; a boy thrown high in the air as his laughing friends clutch a blanket ready to receive his fall, and one of his most iconic images, “Coney Island Teenagers.” In it, a group of beautiful, sunbathing teenagers lie across one another, including a broadly smiling young woman who has one arm clutching a transistor radio, the other draped around her grinning companion. Both appear to relish Feinstein’s attention. Snapping that photo in 1949 at the age of 18, Feinstein would not have been much older than his subjects.
“Coney Island always was and always will be my Treasure Island,” reflects Feinstein in the documentary “Last Stop Coney Island: The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein.” The film was screened alongside the first UK show of his work, “Found: A Harold Feinstein Exhibition,” which had a brief run at a central London arts venue last month.
The exhibition’s selection of black and white prints included over 20 images of Coney Island taken in the 1940s and ’50s, as well as examples of his street photography, still lives, nudes and landscapes. There are plans in the works to bring both the film and exhibition to Israel.
Born in Coney Island in 1931, Feinstein grew up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. He was the youngest of five children born to Jewish immigrant parents, his mother from Austria, his father, Louis, a meat wholesaler from Russia. But Feinstein’s childhood was not a happy one, and at the age of 15 he left home to live in a room at the YMCA to escape from his physically abusive father.
In 1952, Feinstein was drafted into the US army and sent to Korea. He turned his lens on the experience, taking pictures wherever he went and a few images from this period were shown in “Found,” including an overhead shot of a group of laughing GIs that is strikingly reminiscent of “Coney Island Teenagers.” Another shows a GI resting on his rack in his barracks, a beam of sunlight streaming at his side. “It was a sad time in many ways,” Feinstein recalls in the film, “but I took advantage of it.”
Feinstein found fame quickly. In the 1950s, he became one of the most prominent figures in the New York street photography scene and, at 17, the youngest member accepted into the Photo League, a cooperative of socially conscious photographers whose membership and supporters included W. Eugene Smith, Margaret Bourke-White and Ansel Adams. After Feinstein’s first meeting with Edward Steichen, director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the museum acquired three of his pictures for its permanent collection. Feinstein was only 19. By 1957, he had been included in shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at MoMA.
“I think I was drawn to his story because I was drawn to the images,” says “Found” curator Carrie Scott. “They are hopeful. Optimistic, even. But they aren’t at all cheesy or saccharine.”
Much of Feinstein’s work is evocative and joyful, however the film does refer to the dark side of his personality. In his later adult years, he struggled with alcoholism and some of his photographs, particularly of children, infer sadness. “It was his way of bearing witness to them,” suggests a contributor, “but also to himself.”
Feinstein established himself as a keen observer of New York street life and sought out humanity and compassion on the subway, in diners and on the city’s public benches.
“When I look at those pictures, it’s like stepping back into my past,” comments photo critic A.D. Coleman in the film. But, as the exhibition demonstrates, Feinstein’s work was enhanced by his remarkable composition and skill as a master printer. His use of deep, dark tones is especially apparent in his shots of people walking down the steps into the subway, to the extent that they have an almost film noir quality about them.
Feinstein’s images are balanced and considered, says Scott: “They are the most dynamic compositions with seriously compelling crops and borders.”
“Found” showcases Feinstein’s dynamism, curiosity and fascination with people. He often came up close to his subjects; an approach which gives his images an engaged and palpable intimacy. He had a face that drew people in, describes his son, Gjon Feinstein in the documentary, saying that it immediately made them people at ease.
Many of Feinstein’s photographs exude compassion and a sense of empathy, be it sailors sitting on the subway or a tender moment between a naked mother and child. Part of his enduring appeal, thinks Scott, was an ability to frame the beautiful things in life so that they are impossible to miss.
But his renown was short-lived. This was primarily due to Feinstein’s decision to withdraw his participation in a large group photography show at MoMA called “The Family of Man.” The exhibition went on to tour the world for eight years, and was viewed by over 9 million visitors.
Steichen had requested to have Feinstein’s negatives so that they could be cropped, but Feinstein refused to relinquish his control. He was someone who played by his own rules, but later admitted it was “probably… the most foolish decision of my career.”
While his contemporaries, such as Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus gained increased attention, Feinstein left the New York art scene for Philadelphia to take up a teaching post. In “Last Stop Coney Island,” he didn’t deny that he ran away from the establishment, “just as running away from home was important.”
Throughout his life, Feinstein continued to take photographs. For several decades, Coney Island remained his constant muse and he referred to it as “America’s playground for the working class… a place that was always magical, no matter what changes occur.”
But he died in relative obscurity. His obituary in the New York Times referred to him as “one of the most accomplished recorders of the American experience.” Despite a resurgence of interest in Feinstein’s early work shortly before his death, much of his photography remains largely unknown. The hope is that now the exhibition — and film — will go some way to correct that and give him the recognition he deserves.