We have a rich tradition of great photography. Some of us know the names of a few great photographers:
Wynn Bullock, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Lewis Wicks Hine, Dorothea Lang, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, W. Eugene Smith, Brett Weston, Edward Weston,
Clarence White, Margaret Bourke-White and so many more. But many people have not been introduced to other great photographers.
In a time when we are exposed to more images in our daily lives, than at any other time in history, it is a good to sit back, take in and appreciate, the amazing art of photography that these great photographers have created.
Rfotofolio is honored to feature Harold Feinstein, a photographer whose work should not need any introduction. His work spans from 1945 to the present. He has not only been recognized as a great photographer, but has also shared his knowledge of photography as an educator. His students have shared their love and appreciation of his encouragement and style. Today, he shares his love of photography with us all. Harold is a true Artist, as we think you will all see.
Harold first and foremost thank you for sharing your time, your art, and your spirit.
Thank you to Judith Thompson for making this interview possible.
Thank you to Cherie Burton for help with the images.
We look forward to Parts ll and lll.
Harold Feinstein Part l
What brought you to photography?
I always liked things that are easy. Way before I took up photography (at 15) I was a precocious artist. I still remember a teacher in the 2nd grade teacher saying, “Harold, you’re an artist!” and I thought, “you mean there’s a word for this?” And with the camera, all I had to do was click the shutter. A fellow who lived upstairs from my parents had a Rollieflex that I would rent for $5 a day — which was a lot of money then! And I fell right into it. I love to look and the camera made looking even more enjoyable.
Could you tell us about your photographic career?
I began at 15 with my neighbor’s Rollieflex mostly at Coney Island and the streets of New York. At 19 Edward Steichen purchased my work for MOMA. That year I joined the Photo League and was probably the youngest member at that time. It was a wonderful place to dive into the arguments and debates about “is photography an art?”, which was a prevailing question at the time. I was drafted when I was 21 and served in the Korean War for a couple of years, and took my camera with me to document daily life as a draftee. Upon returning I moved into the jazz loft at 821 6th Avenue and became a close collaborator with W. Eugene Smith who was a memorable figure in my life. I began teaching in my 20’s and it’s an aspect of my work that I’ve always loved. I love anyone who wants to enter in to photography and became pretty well-known as a teacher. I have primarily taught from my own studio, but have also taught at the Annenberg School of Communications, the Philadelphia Museum School, the School of Visual Arts in NYC, the U of MD, UMass, Windham College in VT and Holy Cross College. Teaching got me traveling a bit and so, while much of my work has been street photography, I have loved rural scenes, still life, nudes and portraits as much. My eye comes alive where I am. In the late 90’s I got into digital color work, which opened up the door to the seven color books I have and the Smithsonian Computerworld award for digital photography — which is a bit ironic since my b & w work has always been my mainstay. Still, as I said, I’m ready to convey my love of life wherever I find it.
I recall seeing that you enjoyed working with the Olympus Pen camera. Would you share with us what other cameras you have enjoyed shooting with? Are you currently using film or digital?
I loved the SLR cameras and when they first started to come out I went right to them. Because they had a finder in which you could clearly see the entire image unlike the Leica, which I used before. It was mechanically a great camera, but had a finder that was like a pinhole. I had to buy an auxiliary finder to see clearly the image I was photographing. My first SLR camera was a Pentax and over the years I moved toward Olympus because they are small, simple and allowed me to work quickly without too many bells and whistles. Currently I still have my old Olympus OM-4, though I don’t shoot a lot anymore because of my mobility!
You have worked on a variety of subjects over the years. Could you give our readers a few thoughts about what made each of them interesting to you. Do you have any favorites?
I don’t really have favorites, because I love to look and I have an appreciative eye which sees beauty in most things. Of course Coney Island is a place I have photographed a lot over the years and for which I’m well-known. I like to say that I feel like I fell out of my mother’s womb onto the beach to the sounds of girls screaming on the Cyclone. For me, it was home sweet home. With all kinds of street photography in general, whether it’s Coney Island or the streets of New York or Paris, what makes all photographs interesting to me is people. Wherever I am, I’m always wanting to call out “will you look at that! ” There is so much to see. They say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and I am always a beholder — and I’ve never gotten over it — whatever “it” is!
With my draftee portfolio I was lucky NOT to be designated as a photographer in the war, even though that’s what I thought I wanted. If I had been I would’ve been relegated to official ceremonies, awards and handshakes. Instead I just took my camera with me wherever I went and was able to capture the day-to-day life of being drafted, going through basic training, and on the front lines. I liked being able to show the humanity and camaraderie of the young guys just like me, who were caught up in the craziness of getting drafted.
When I was only shooting b & w film, people would ask me — “What about color?” And I would answer, “In a beautiful b & w print there’s all the colors of the rainbow.” But then, when I began photographing flowers and other still-life subjects — along with all their other beauty, the variations of color were intrinsic to the photograph.
The truth is, I do have a lot of subjects — from fast camera shooting on the streets, to slow digital scannography for my color — what links them all to gather is my love of life and of the beauty that surrounds us. That’s why my favorite exclamation is “L’Chiam!!” — to life!
What did you hope to capture in your photographs?
It always ends up being more than I expected, but while I’ve heard it said “less is more” — for me much more is more! And I love it! The primary difficulty of photography is that it’s easy and most photographers whom I’ve heard speak talk about the complications. What I hope to show is my love of this life — in whatever photographs I take. Whether it’s a still life of My Mother’s Curtains, or kids screaming on the cyclone, I just appreciate life and want to celebrate it. So I guess that’s what I hope others will see.
Which photographer’s work do you like? How did they influence you?
The most important when I was much younger, was Henri Cartier- Bresson whose book, “The Decisive Moment”, set a standard for photographic books that has seldom been matched. The other photographers whom I loved influenced me more as people than photographers — such as W. Eugene Smith, who became a close friend and colleague over many years. His influence on me was less photographic and more about his ideals as a photographer. He truly wanted to make a difference in the world, and he did. Of contemporary photographers I am a real admirer of Salgado because he immerses himself in the subjects he’s photographing in a way similar to W. Eugene Smith.
What got you started taking photos of Coney Island?
Coney Island was my treasure island and my home turf. The question was never where the photographs were, but where was there NOT a photograph at Coney Island. It’s a voyeur’s paradise and the place I ran away to continually throughout my childhood. I just kept coming back every year for decades! When I was a boy, my father would give me 45 cents on a Saturday or Sunday and I would go to Coney Island on a trolley, which cost 3 cents. Of course I’d spend the rest in 20 minutes. Then I would draw portraits of people on the boardwalk for 15 cents each as a way to get more money for rides and food. I would end up hitching on the back of a trolley car to get home.
What was it like designing record jacket covers for Blue Note records? Any stories that you would like to share?
Alfred Lion, who owned Blue Note photographed the musicians himself and mostly gave me the design work to complete, with a few notable exceptions where I used my own. When I first began I had never heard jazz before, however, I soon became so immersed in the jazz world, which at the time was at its zenith, that I listened to little else. I loved the whole world of jazz and was happy I could use my artistic sensibilities to make my own contribution.
Would you share how you go about editing your photographs?
Well the most important way for my b & w work is blowing up my contact sheets with an 8 x 10 enlarger so that each individual image is about 2 x 3 inches and then of course Judith, my wife, looks also and often sees ones that I over-looked! It is an ongoing task and we’re still editing my photographs from the 40’s and 50’s, let alone more recent work. Always returning to earlier work again over the years, because things will pop out at you that you simply didn’t catch the first time around. I’m finding it really enjoyable to look at my early work now and marvel at how that young guy saw things.
When editing, you need to be ruthless and only choose the greatest images you have without compromise. Luckily my wife Judith is an extraordinary editor! It’s important to get other people you trust giving their feed-back. Realize that over the years you will build up a catalogue of classics so you want to be careful not to add too much to your portfolio. On the other hand, we’re still finding classics. Some of my most popular images, like, “Smoking Man”, “Man with daughter at the Sideshow”, were discovered almost 20 years later by my wife. And another, “Old Couple on Park Bench”, was just discovered last year!
To learn more about Harold Feinstein please visit the Harold Feinstein Page.
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