Coney island kid: Harold Feinstein took some of the great photographs of New York at play

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Feinstein’s shots of his Brooklyn upbringing are brim-filled with youthful exuberance. But after he moved away from New York City at the height of his fame, his portfolio was lost to the mists of time – until now…

The child of Jewish immigrants, his father from Russia, his mother from Austria, Harold Feinstein grew up during the Second World War, yet in the photographs he began taking as a very young man around his home in Coney Island, Brooklyn, there is none of the shadow of war – only the exuberance, sensuality, sunshine and optimism of peace.

"Coney Island was the centre of the world for me," reflects the 81-year-old on his youth. "I loved the rides, the hot dogs – I've never gotten over it." In his early work, the boardwalk is a place of warm, naked skin, handsome, confident young faces, the fantasy world of an adolescent that, very wonderfully, is indistinguishable from reality.

"Coney Island Teenagers" (previous page), shot when Feinstein was himself only 18, is a wet dream of a picture: the nicely made-up honeypot at the centre with her full lips, strong teeth and plucked eyebrows lying back, head reclining on the naked back of one young man, arm around another, while a third, on her left, is either asleep or on the point of ejaculation – or perhaps merely enjoying the music, Rudy Vallée or Perry Como, pumping out of the portable radio cradled like a baby on her breast.

The following year, in "Beach Concert" (opposite, top), the music is live, coming out of the guitar of the bare-chested hunk centre-stage, but his musical gift does not set him apart from the crowd pressing around his back. His chum, out of the picture, is giving him a drag on his cigarette. A curly-haired little girl with her sunglasses askew is getting her head patted. A man at the back is picking his nose. Here is the raucous, easy-going, plebeian hedonism of a country that has got its life back. In another 1950 shot, a fleshy, grey-haired beauty with a ribbon in her hair grins at the camera as her fat-gutted guy, holding her neck in a clinch, downs a bottle of beer. "If This Isn't Love," it's titled, "Then Maybe I'm Crazy". "When your mouth drops open, click the shutter," Feinstein likes to say. These pictures are as fresh as today's milk.

Then he got drafted into the army for the Korean War – and suddenly the shutters come down. The sun, the smiles and the sex drain away. Even the faces disappear – in shot after wartime shot, we are looking at men in a faceless mass, men high above us lugging kitbags through the rainy twilight, a soldier on a wet, wintry road with his back turned, gazing into the mist, rifle at the ready.

Yet even the war didn't turn out so bad for this sunny-tempered snapper. "I always feel I had a very lucky life," he tells me. "For example, I sure didn't want to go in the army: when I was drafted in the Korean War, I wanted to go as a photographer. But luckily they put me in the infantry – luckily because the official photographer was photographing the medal awarding and all the official situations. Whereas, because I was in the infantry, I had a camera around my neck wherever I went – in training, on the troop ship, in Korea."

And the exuberance of his early work was merely hibernating. Demobbed and back in the US, he was welcomed into the New York School which included figures such as Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and William Klein, and his work was soon joining the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. He got an introduction to the great W Eugene Smith, 12 years his senior. The relationship had its ups and downs but the older man's influence is palpable in the richer complexity that his later work attained. Smith said of Feinstein, "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 in a beautifully new, in a strong and honest way."

Then, in 1957, at the height of his precocious fame, Feinstein left New York with his pregnant fiancée "because it was too expensive", and went to live in New Jersey. He was a city boy to his fingertips: "For me, being in the country was when I would see the first cow," he says. He k symbolically married the two worlds in a photograph entitled "Sheep Under Clouds" (above): Coney Island clouds and New Jersey sheep, conjoined in the dark room.

During his decades away from the big city, Feinstein became a beloved and highly regarded teacher. "He has a reputation as an extraordinary teacher," says his present wife Judith Thompson, who has been with him for 25 years, "working with young people coming up into photography. People come out of the woodwork all the time and say, 'You taught me 40 years ago and changed my life.'"

The price he paid was that in New York he dropped out of sight. Decades later a collector of 40 years' standing called Jim Fitts visited him at his home in Merrimac, north of Boston, and was amazed by what he found. "I'm driving back from Merrimac," he writes in a foreword to a new retrospective of Feinstein's work, to be published in September, "and my head is swimming." And the hundreds, perhaps thousands of "brilliant" images were "taken by a photographer who, until a few months ago, I knew nothing about".

But for Feinstein the present moment matters more than his lost celebrity. "I love this life," he writes in the new book. "I feel like I am always catching my breath and saying, 'Oh! Will you look at that?' Photography has been my way of bearing witness to the joy I find in seeing the extraordinary in ordinary life. You don't look for pictures. Your pictures are looking for you. Your job is to see… There's an endless and extraordinary reservoir of energy that comes from saying yes. There's infinite nutrition. You are beckoned, and the more you surrender, the more you see."

'Harold Feinstein: A Retrospective' can be pre-ordered through Nazraeli Press (nazraeli.com), priced £40. An exhibition of his work is at Panopticon Gallery, Boston, from 14 September to 30 October. Prints can be ordered through the gallery's website, panopticongallery.com

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit