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“I had a thing for looking, period. I was a natural voyeur,” he said recently, sitting at the long country dining table of the home he shares with his wife of 25 years, Judith Thompson, in semi-rural Massachusetts. Though he left New York City for towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania decades ago, he’s stamped with vivid, carnivalesque memories of growing up in Coney Island.
“I think I was still nursing on my mother’s breast when I heard the screams of the girls on the Cyclone,” he said, adding that he still pictures himself with a Nathan’s hot dog in one hand and a custard (“They didn’t call it ‘soft-serve’ ice cream back then”) in the other.
Eventually, however, he had his hands full with something else — the 35 mm “brick,” the popular, budget-priced Argus C3, which he got as his first camera when he was 15. Feinstein’s father, a Russian immigrant who worked as a meat wholesaler, paid for it, despite his misgivings about photography as a career path for his youngest son.
But his parents were the encouraging sort, Feinstein recalled. “As long as you could make a living,” he remembered them saying.
Throughout his life, Feinstein has demonstrated a unique ability to balance innate confidence in the value of his work with a certain lightness of being.
“I took myself very seriously right from the beginning,” he said, “but I didn’t make a whole megillah out of it.” After serving in Korea, Feinstein took up residence in an almost mythically bohemian loft space in New York City, a vermin-infested commercial walk-up on Sixth Avenue. The cast of characters there included painter David X. Young, composer Hall Overton and, a little later, the legendarily obsessive photographer W. Eugene Smith, who began recording the many jazz musicians (among them Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins) who sat in on after-hours jam sessions on the upper floors of the building that became known as The Jazz Loft.
Feinstein gained recognition quickly, earning exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Museum of Modern Art before he reached 30. He designed album covers for Blue Note and other jazz labels, and he worked for Modern Photography and Popular Photography magazines.
Still, he never quite achieved the same level of acclaim as some of his contemporaries, such as Smith, who once praised his close accomplice as “one of the very few photographers I have known, or have been influenced by, with the ability to reveal the familiar to me in a beautifully new, in a strong and honest way.”