HAROLD FEINSTEIN was a warm and humane man with a strong iconoclastic streak and a mischievous sense of humor. None of these qualities endeared him to the US Army, so when his sergeant discovered him as a draftee selling sandwiches in the barracks after hours—“Subs! Torpedoes!”—his superiors decided to ship him out. The scheme was typical Feinstein, in one stroke giving the GIs something tastier than canteen food, thumbing his nose at authority, and earning a few bucks in the deal. But the army was not amused. What could have been a cushy post, stateside, quickly transformed into combat duty in Pusan. No matter, with an audacity that might have made Robert Altman blush, Feinstein rented a house a few miles away from the front, moved in with a local Korean girlfriend, and began taking pictures of his fellow soldiers.
The army knew Feinstein had trained as a photographer, but using him in any official capacity was out of the question. One of the last great photographers to study at New York’s notoriously pinko Photo League, the way the military saw it, his patriotism could not be trusted. Ironically, official indifference gave Feinstein license to do precisely what he did best, portraying the personal side of the war and the day-to-day reality between battles in all its tedious, anxious, mundane ingloriousness. The men and boys he served alongside (if that is the right phrase) came from similar backgrounds to his own. So he photographed them the same way. Not heroic, but heroes nevertheless.
Feinstein will always be remembered best for his photographs on Coney Island, especially those he made from age fifteen, in 1946, through the 1960s. If his near contemporary Diane Arbus used the camera to reveal awkwardness and absurdity in people, Feinstein did the opposite, infusing his pictures with a grace that transcended physical appearance. Skinny, fat, with bad skin, a combover or an overbite, Feinstein could not have cared less. Or rather, if he did care, it was because he identified with their circumstances. Growing up a working-class Orthodox Jew in Coney Island himself, underdogs were his people. So he portrayed them playfully, affectionately, throwing themselves into the rides with joyful abandon. Feinstein rejoiced along with them.
In 1950, at age nineteen, Feinstein approached Edward Steichen, then director of MoMA’s photography department, for advice. Steichen bought some works for the collection, and invited him to show in a new exhibition he was developing, “The Family of Man.” Feinstein, never one for official self-righteousness, declined the opportunity. In retrospect it was one of the decisions that consigned him largely to cult status. His photographs did appear in other group shows, at the Whitney in 1954, and at MoMA in 1957, but it was too little, too late. While his work did occasionally have popular reach, it was normally in association with other photographers, for example collaborating with his close friend W. Eugene Smith on Smith’s “Pittsburgh Project,” 1955–57. Like Smith, Feinstein also became a habitué of Manhattan’s Jazz Loft scene in the late-’50s and early-’60s. But compared to the legendary Smith, Feinstein remained in the shadows.
After the Korean War, Feinstein ran private classes from his living room in a small apartment in a Philadelphia housing project. These were ostensibly lessons on art and photography, but in reality they were thinly veiled exhortations on life itself. He preached resistance to The Man in all his forms—Kodak, camera makers, universities, parents, the government—all of whom he accused of inhibiting free will. Unsurprisingly, corporate sponsorship was not forthcoming, and he got by doing occasional pieces for Life, Popular Photography, and other magazines, as well as selling his blood and semen. His students loved him, and still do, with a passion more befitting a religious leader than a man with a camera. Some of his followers became photographers themselves. Others worked in schools and community centers, volunteering for at-risk children, or helping refugees. Most became better people.
For his own part, Feinstein never lost his optimism or his restless nonconformity. Until the last, it was his habit to literally greet each day with a smile. He loved being alive. And why wouldn’t he? He had seen the worst in people, and found the best. He suffered for his art but made a difference. His photographs—uplifting, intimate, and without a hint of irony—are evidence of a singular talent, and a life well lived.
Phillip Prodger is head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London.