Harold Feinstein's Coney Island State of Mind

Photographer Captures Brooklyn Lives in Black and White

By James Sullivan

Published December 14, 2012, issue of December 21, 2012.
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At age 81, the photographer Harold Feinstein is developing cataracts. But he’s been wearing glasses since he was a boy, and he scoffs at the idea of surgery.

“Imagine someone telling me I’ll see better,” he said with an impish grin beneath his flowing white beard. Feinstein is not one for false modesty. Early in his career, he may have suggested that his favorite photographer was Henri Cartier-Bresson, or the British master Bill Brandt. Yet for most of his life, he says, his favorite photographer has been Harold Feinstein.

And with good reason. Feinstein’s decades-long obsession with Brooklyn’s Coney Island, where he began taking pictures as a teen novice in the late 1940s, produced several images coveted by the museum curator Edward Steichen for his landmark exhibition “The Family of Man.” (Feinstein declined.) Feinstein went on to a long career as a beloved teacher, and in the past decade he has published several monographs featuring dazzling color studies of tulips, seashells, butterflies and other natural wonders.

Now the photographer’s work has been collected in “Harold Feinstein: A Retrospective” (Nazraeli Press), a long-overdue collection of 80 of his finest black-and-white photos, ranging from the rich pageantry of Coney Island at midcentury to Feinstein’s candid shots while serving in Korea for the U.S. Army and to his later nudes and landscapes.

Feinstein’s uncanny ability to capture a wide range of human emotions — bliss, defiance, melancholia — in the fleeting facial expressions of strangers on the subway or on the boardwalk marked him from a young age as a gifted shutterbug. Later in life, when he began to explore the female form, as so many of his predecessors had done, his gaze was unfailing.


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