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Though Feinstein has not lived in New York City in ages, he remains a quintessential product of the boroughs. As a young man he worked as a soda jerk at a busy shop in Brooklyn where he could make six egg creams at once, as he still likes to boast. Years later he was approached on the street by someone who recognized him. Thinking the man was about to praise him for his photos, he had to laugh when he said, “Didn’t you make those great egg creams?”
Feinstein says he was initially attracted to photography because of its simplicity. For years he had a self-imposed rule: Don’t crop.
“The quickness and your relationship to the moment determine the image,” he said. “Sometimes I didn’t even pick the camera up to my eyes.”
Yet over the years he has found inspiration in darkroom techniques and digital manipulation. He was an early adopter of Photoshop. For him, it’s all the same, whatever the purists might say. He just loves to make pictures.
“I still remember drawing a picture in the second grade, and the teacher said, ‘Harold, you’re an artist,’” he recalled. “It was the first time I heard that word.”
For him, the ubiquity of cell phone photography doesn’t dilute the form at all: “My feeling is, ‘Jump in — the water’s great.’” That’s how he always taught his classes, in which he preferred to take on the beginners because he could, he felt, “make the most important impression on them.”
He began teaching in 1959, at what was then the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school, and he taught over the years at institutions in New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. Feinstein’s classes often began with the instructor regaling his students about the power of openness. “The word ‘yes’ is a key word in what I believe,” the instructor would say. “There are a hundred reasons for ‘no,’ but they never produced anything.”
Barbara Alper, who has work in the collections of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Museum and now shoots for Newsday, is one of many accomplished photographers who have studied with Feinstein. She signed up for one of his private classes in the early 1980s on the recommendation of her friend A.D. Coleman, the first photo critic for The New York Times.
As a teacher, Feinstein was “always very upbeat and encouraging,” said Alper, who has stayed in touch with him over the years. “He helped you fine-tune your vision…. He has a sense of wonder, a joy about life.”
Even now, as his memory begins to take on the haze of overexposure, he’ll find something to catch his eye out the window of his bedroom. When your mouth drops open, he is fond of saying, click the shutter.
“Wait till you see the pictures I haven’t taken yet,” he said.
James Sullivan is the author of several books, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a regular contributor to the Boston Globe
An exhibition of Harold Feinstein’s photography opens December 17 at Aperture Gallery, 547 West 27th Street- 4th floor, New York, NY 10001