I’ve been looking at art for nearly 50 years. I rarely get a surprise anymore. I was about a quarter of the way around the front gallery at Blue Sky when I thought, “Holy smoke, who was this Harold Feinstein and why didn’t I know about him before?”
I was looking at Blanket Toss, 1955, a photo of activity at Coney Island. In a broad void of blank sky, a guy in swim trunks flies high above the tossers below. The tossee flails in a gesture that would never be found in painting because the angle produces a hard-to-grasp view of the anatomy—in painting it would not be believable. We would think that the artist had exaggerated, or misunderstood anatomy.
But in photography we believe it because it is a photograph, something that records what is actually there. Especially long before Photoshop. The awkward gesture of the tossee is important, but I think the key to the picture is the pair of boys at the front foreground, who have turned away from the action to smile in our direction. In these pictures Feinstein often makes the spectators as important as the performance.
Coney Island was the key subject for Feinstein. He said:
I was born in Coney Island hospital in 1931, and I used to say that I dropped from my mother’s womb straight into the front car of the Cyclone roller coaster! As a boy my father would give me 25¢ for the day. A nickel would get me a ride on the trolley to Coney Island and for the rest of the day I’d use up the money on rides, attractions, and plenty of sweet treats. I’d earn a little more to spend by drawing portraits on the boardwalk, then I’d hitch a ride on the back of the trolley hand get home penniless and happy! When I first picked up a camera at age 15, I headed straight for Coney Island. I continued heading there year after year for the next six decades! (www.haroldfeinstein.com)
He picked up a camera at age 15, and early on seems to have had a sense of “anything is possible” when photographing. Kids Ride the Whip, 1950, depicts a couple of small boys in the car of an amusement ride. They’re whipping along a circular track. They’re pretty much in focus while the background is a blur. We see the joy of the boys against the black-and-white abstraction of lampposts, ironwork, and an umbrella, behind. So where was the photographer? He must have also been on the ride, in a car on opposite side! At 19 years of age Feinstein showed intuition that parallels the thinking of photographer Garry Winogrand: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
Throughout this show, one gets the feeling that Feinstein’s camera was always at the ready, loaded with a 36 exposure roll of Tri-X, and another handful of rolls were in his pockets. He’s shooting black-and-white probably because then it was much cheaper than color. He’s just itching to photograph. Nowadays, we carry our camera phones everywhere. Color isn’t expensive anymore. Shooting pix is free!
Linus Pauling said, “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” The best way to make good photographs is to take a lot of pictures. Most of the show is “slice-of-life” pictures. Boardwalk Stairs, 1950, another photograph taken when Feinstein was 19, captures a moment when a couple dozen people are just hanging out on those stairs. I’d love to see the contact sheet from which this photo was chosen. I can’t believe this just one lucky shot. There must have been a sequence of pix of this scene and here’s the one that gets it all. The kid in the bottom step, with his cotton candy. The little girl in her sweater, bobby socks and mary janes a couple steps up, perhaps looking longingly at the cotton candy. The little boy in shorts with his foot in mom’s lap. A man in the middle reads his newspaper. A guy at the railing with his cigar. This is a time when little boys wore shorts, even when it is cold enough that most adults wear coats and jackets.
There’s something about Feinstein’s photos that draw you into all the little stuff that’s going on. Cartier-Bresson might have called that the “decisive moment.” What if the kid didn’t have cotton candy? What if that guy didn’t have a cigar? What if Feinstein hadn’t been there with his camera?
A draftee during the Korean War, Feinstein made great pictures from the mundanity of army life. Boots Stowed Under Cot, 1952, (he was 21!) is a vertical picture divided horizontally across the center by a bunk railing with its stenciled stock number. Just above is a sleeping GI, face mostly covered by his blanket. Below are boots and shoes, placed in neat order. But what makes the photo is the inclusion of an old dented coffee can, probably a cigarette “butt can” on the floor.
“You learn to be a photographer by being a photographer. To move right into it,” Feinstein said. This show demonstrates that he always moved right in. He had a long career. He died just over a year ago.
There’s a nice short video on Vimeo: “Uninterrupted Seeing – a film about Harold Feinstein”.