Harold Feinstein is a true photographer’s photographer, and one of the most seriously under-recognized senior figures in U.S. photography. Until the beginning of this new century he was best known as a highly respected independent teacher of photography whose private workshops (conducted mostly in his Manhattan studio) influenced hundreds of people in the field, including Mary Ellen Mark, Ken Heyman, Mariette Pathy Allen and others. Yet at long last, now past the age of 80, Feinstein’s work has become familiar to an increasingly wide audience.
Feinstein was considered by the photo world as something of a child prodigy. Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931, he started taking pictures in 1946 as a teenager, soon caught the eye of Edward Steichen (then the head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art), and by the age of 19 had prints in that museum’s permanent collection—making him probably the youngest photographer so honored. (He turned down Steichen’s invitation to participate in the historic 1955 exhibition The Family of Man, on the grounds that he didn’t want his pictures treated as anything save autonomous works of art—a decision he now reconsiders with chagrin.)
Later he worked with the great documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith for a period of time, before setting out on his own. Smith said of Feinstein’s work, “He is one of the very few photographers I have known or have been influenced by with the ability to reveal the familiar to me as beautifully new, in a strong and honest way.”Widely and internationally published, exhibited and collected since then, Feinstein became one of a small handful of master teachers whose legendary private workshops and art-institute classes—which he taught regularly for more than forty years—proved instrumental in shaping the vision of hundreds of aspiring photographers. Like many who teach, both inside and outside the academic setting, he often set career concerns aside to concentrate his attention on his students’ needs. Nevertheless, over the course of his working life has Feinstein produced an impressive and durable body of imagery.