Capturing the candour of life, we take a look at the significance of 20th century photographer Harold Feinstein
In a new exhibition showing from 18 June to 14 August, London's David Hill Gallery celebrates the largely unknown photographer who documented the American experience.
- Jyni Ong
- 6 July 2020
Declared “one of the most accomplished recorders of the American experience” in his New York Times obituary, the photographer Harold Feinstein is largely unknown today. Born in New York in 1931, the son of Jewish immigrants began practicing photography at the age of 15 when he borrowed a Rolleiflex camera from a neighbour. Rising through the scene alongside contemporaries such as Diane Arbus, Walker Evans and Garry Winogrand, Harold Feinstein cemented his name in the art of photography with his sensitive depiction of the human condition.
Capturing life candidly throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the American photographer’s work is celebrated in a new exhibition currently on show at David Hill Gallery. Titled Boardwalks, Beaches & Boulevards, the exhibition is running from 18 June to 14 August at the central London venue, reopening its doors for the first time since lockdown by honouring Feinstein’s monochromatic works. On the significance of Feinstein’s photography, the exhibition’s curator Carrie Scott tells It’s Nice That: “Harold’s work has changed for me because of lockdown. After so many weeks sheltering at home, when so many images we saw were of cities and streets apocalyptically abandoned, and when so many of those images were then quickly replaced with endless pictures of violence in our streets, I now long for the sort of scenes Feinstein captured so expertly. They aren’t nostalgic anymore. They capture the things I want for.”
She notes the intimacy, joy and sense of character evoked in his work. Even in Feinstein’s harder images, the lively presence in each composition reminded Carrie of the world pre-pandemic. The photographer’s ability to capture the subtle tact of a subject shines through. Pointing his lens at the glittering hubbub of Times Square, the daily passings of Harlem to crowded beaches and smoke-filled coffee shops, Feinstein captured the humanity in any given situation.
Of this intention, the photographer stated: “Everywhere people live out their own personal story, yet are tied together through the universal emotions of love, loss, curiosity, humour and compassion… My street photography is a small sampling of my photographic journey bearing witness to the beauty and mystery of this human life.” For Carrie, it’s this intimacy that sets Feinstein apart from his contemporaries. Though his work documents a different time, the physical closeness we can experience through his images acts, in Carrie’s words, as an “extension of Feinstein’s incredible empathy.” She goes on to say: “The work is optimistic. It is happy. It is beautiful. It’s what I need in a way.”
The curator explains how, for a long time, “these aren’t things we’ve wanted in photography.” Deemed somewhat trite or cliche in the ordinariness of the subjects, photography has often favoured spectacle over the every day. But now, given the extraordinariness of our times, Feinstein’s frank photography is yearned for. As Carrie puts it: “I think he saw happiness and beauty in everything. He embraced it with his lens and with his spirit. These images aren’t banal. They aren’t sentimental or cliched. They speak a truth we are sometimes willing to forget, a truth that brings us as people together.”
A particularly meaningful image for Carrie amongst Feinstein’s extensive body of work is the Couple in the Subway Door. Centred on a young couple leaning casually against the metal open doors of the New York subway, the striking image exudes effortless affection, drenched in style. Having never exhibited this particular piece of work before, Carrie was excited to see the print in person. Shipped over from Feinstein’s archive in the States, the curator was “blown away” by the quality of the print which, she says, “is frankly insane.” Carries continues: “There are these deep, velvety blacks that balance against the light brushing away every edge and detail.”
She points to the curvature of the young woman’s shoulder. The way the silvery light touches the pole inside the train and the perspective of the man’s face is perfectly positioned for the light to bounce off, and highlights his expression. “There is just so much dimension here,” she says, “and that’s before you even start to look at the detail in the two figures.” Sculptural and ballet-esque yet comfortable at the same time.
Another favourite of Carrie’s is Lady of the Lake, a stunning composition taken from close range as a young woman glides naked through water. “No matter how many times I look at it (and I do look at it a lot as I have one of the editions) I always think about Harold’s role here.” The photographer must have seen the girl cutting through and water and been “so overcome by ‘the idea’ of the shot that he waded into the water and held his camera over her.” The point of perspective is unique, filled with Feinstein’s characteristic urgency mixed in with a sense of calm. Carrie goes on to say: “The water is so still that it looks like she’s floating in a pool of mercury. Each strand of hair is magnified, motionless. Her face is completely serene, as if Feinstein wasn’t there taking the picture.”
Blanket Toss 1955 Original
About the Author
Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.