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'Last Stop Coney Island' – The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein

Here, we have a film that brings new life to the timeless work of American photographer, Harold Feinstein.

Coney Island Teenagers(1949) by Harold Feinstein

Feinstein was a massively underrated master of his craft. One look at his photography (and, in my opinion, especially photographs from his time in New York and Korea in the 1950s) is enough to understand the overwhelming humanity of his eye and work. The attention to human closeness, facial expressions, and general moods is tangible in each snapshot of social situations, and manage to carefully find the balance between humanistic and sentimental.

A project five years in the making, Andy Dunn, filmmaker and photographer himself, has created Last Stop Coney Island, a documentary chronicling the life and work of Feinstein. It is a brilliant feat of storytelling, editing, and use of carefully gathered information. We are gifted with an intimate look into Feinstein’s upbringing in a Jewish-American family in 1940s Brooklyn. His photography began in 1946, when he borrowed a Rolleiflex camera from a neighbour. A mere four years later in 1950, at only nineteen years old, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) purchased three of his photographs for their permanent collection. Developing quite a reputation for himself, many museums in the United States held exhibitions of his work; work that so clearly cut to the essence of people, at once possessed universal and timeless qualities, but also encapsulated that specific time period. Above all else, the fascinating nature of his work in Coney Island captures the explosion of New York’s post-World War Two melting-pot of cultural and ethnic diversity. His collection of photographs during the Korean War as a Draftee particularly struck me, as not only is my visual culture of the Korean War quite limited to episodes of M*A*S*H*, but also because Feinstein managed to photograph the expressions of men a long way from home, catching their expressions of laughter, missing, longing, and waiting. Browse through them here:

A testament to his mind, soul and approach to life, Feinstein became an incredibly respected teacher at many art schools and universities across America, including Maryland’s Institute College of Art and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The film explores this career choice as his search to find a greater purpose and meaning to his life, to share and educate the passion for the craft with the next generation of cultural commentators and collectors.

Granted the opportunity to meet with Feinstein’s widow, Judith Thompson, Carrie Scott, curator of the UK’s first Harold Feinstein exhibition, and Andy Dunn himself, creator and director of the film, I was able to ask some questions I felt appropriate for the subject matter. Below are all three interviews, each one giving a glimpse at the fantastic people involved and behind this special project.

Strand Magazine - Questions for Judith Thompson (Feinstein’s Widow):

Would you say your husband was a part of the Beat Generation? Or do you not ascribe any meaning to that for him?

I don’t think he would’ve called himself that, but it would be true to say that the basic spirit of the Beat Generation was woven into his lifestyle. He wasn’t influenced by it, but rather was a part of the Zeitgeist of that time: artistic freedom, experimentation, inner exploration, breaking out of conventional ways of seeing the world, self and life... all these things were very much a part of his own way of being. I think the label as a label would not really be something he would’ve embraced, however.

When looking at his work now, how would you define Harold Feinstein’s photography?

Life affirming. Harold related to the world with real immediacy. He had a love affair with life itself. The Yiddish expression “to life to life L’Chaim” really says it all.

How do you experience the world?

Big question! I believe that we live, perceive, experience the world from the inside-out. How we cultivate and experience our own consciousness is how we experience and receive the world. And Harold really knew this too. Cultivate joyfulness and you will experience, create, receive and offer joyfulness. And of course, the opposite. So learning how to be deeply mindful of one’s own state of being and cultivating wholesome, compassionate heart and mind is the way. My personal creative output has been in the realm of social artistry. I had been involved in the theory and practice of social healing most of my life—reconciliation, dialogue, and trauma healing after and during conflict. The central inspiration is about human beauty, human potential and the ability to build bonds of healing through compassion. I have built organisations, facilitated projects and written and spoken widely about compassion and social healing (I did my PhD in Peace Studies). Harold and I often thought we would do a book together about beauty as a common thread in our ways of perceiving and experience the world—in his case, from the viewpoint of an artist seeing the beauty of creation and in my case, from the viewpoint of a social healer—watching the transformation from alienation to beauty that happens when people heal from historic conflicts or trauma and embrace the other.

What has been the most healing revelation you’ve ever had?

I think I expressed this above mostly. The most healing revelation would be something I’d want to digest more, but I think at its core. The lesson I keep learning over and over again that has led to more and more creativity, peace and freedom has to do with the wisdom of “letting go”. Most suffering is a result of clinging to something out of fear or ignorance. So, letting go and surrendering to trust is—at least currently—my sense of what has been most healing over time. Letting go of ego, letting go of fear. As we let go, we experience the luminosity of awareness, of life itself. It’s all much greater than we realise!

Strand Magazine - Questions for Carrie Scott (Curator of the Exhibition at 180 Strand):

How did you come into contact with this project?

Andy Dunn, the Director of Last Stop Coney Island and I were filming The Art Show together in New York. He mentioned he’d done a master interview with this incredible, but unknown, photographer called Harold Feinstein. While my interest was peaked I didn’t take full notice until Andy showed me some of Harold’s work. I was almost immediately hooked. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know a photographer who had such an incredible eye and such a remarkable career. That was four years ago.

How would you describe Feinstein’s photography?

Harold had the most intuitive eye. His compositions frame everyday moments in a way that make it impossible to overlook the ordinary. They are sharp, and refreshing, and quite minimal in a way.

What was the biggest obstacle you’ve ever faced and how did you overcome it?

Gosh. The somewhat great thing about my job is that with every new project there’s a new obstacle to over come. Nothing is ever the same. During the installation of Found: a Harold Feinstein Exhibition, there was a moment when it looked like the hoarding was going to come down on the 180 Strand building. If that had happened, we wouldn’t really have had street access, thereby making it very difficult—if not impossible—for people to come to the show. There were about ten minutes when I wasn’t entirely sure how to solve this particular problem, but I tried to keep my cool. In so doing, we reached an agreement with the contractors and all was well.

What is the best thing about being a curator?

As I said, no two projects or days are the same. I am able to work with a huge range of artists, on a huge range of exhibitions in a huge range of spaces and venues. There’s never an element of repetition or boredom. It’s always a challenge in the best possible way

Strand Magazine - Questions for Andy Dunn, Director of “Last Stop Coney Island”:

How did you get involved in film and photography?

I’ve always loved movies, growing up in the 80s and 90s I was into Scorsese, Tarantino, John Hughes, Robert Rodriguez, Larry Clark etc., then I studied photography at college alongside English Literature. So, arts documentaries followed naturally.

What do you look for in creating your art?

I'm always attracted by an atmosphere. I love documentaries and movies that create a feeling as much as the literal action or story being told. Also (obviously), great natural light. Visually speaking, quality of light is everything.

What is your favourite subject to focus on?

I’d say, broadly speaking, inspiring people. People who are brilliant at what they do but are also kind and easy-going. I don’t have much time for anyone, especially artists and public figures who treat people badly—that’s not cool and life is too short and precious to put up with that; even if you are mega talented, being a p***k to other people is a massive turn off for me.

In your career so far, what has been your largest obstacle, and how did you overcome it?

I think I’m my own largest obstacle. The balance of taking risks versus being responsible and playing it safe. As Harold Feinstein said, 'you shouldn’t look to external obstacles, as it all lies within you'. So, that’s my obstacle and I’m still working on it!

Any words of wisdom to aspiring creatives?

Just keep doing your thing, stop looking around so much and worrying about what others are doing. We’re all on different paths, at separate speeds, and I do think that everyone has that one book, one film, one song in them that is unique to them and is as good as anyone else’s. So try to get to know that thing inside you that is uniquely you, your voice.

How would you define Feinstein’s photography and impact on Culture?

It's hard to define someone’s art and Feinstein’s impact on culture is ongoing, evolving. What’s for certain is that he had a huge impact on individuals he spent time with during his life. He literally changed people’s lives by making it okay for them to follow their dreams, muses and artistic urges. I think his pictures have impact every time people look at them; they mean different things to different eyes, but because of the honesty in how he captured and printed these photographs, the impact is strong on the viewer.

Ex-New York Times Photo Critic AD Coleman said Feinstein was a ‘lyric poet’ of photography. I think this talks to two main aspects of Harold’s photography: firstly, it was very personal. He was unguarded and that rubbed off on the people he photographed—so there’s this great authenticity in the pictures and they illustrate how open and unprejudiced he was. He had compassion for people of all ages, races, genders. Secondly, he wasn’t a photographer who had pre-defined concepts or projects he worked to. He just roamed through life with his eyes and heart wide open.

There’s a reassuring confirmation of the true beauty of life in so many of his works and it is that spark they communicate to the viewer that makes his work so timeless. As Max Schenk says in the film, 'It gives you an overwhelming hope for humanity'; Harold stops moments and says, 'No, we’re worth saving'. And that's something we all need to be reminded of sometimes: when the world seems like it has lost the plot and you feel helpless, don’t give up—we’re worth saving.

More information about the film:

Harold Feinstein with his Rolleiflex in Brooklyn (1947)

'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'.

Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor, and Eloïse Wright, Film Editor

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