Harold Feinstein: Contagious Optimism

When he died in June 2015, Harold Feinstein was declared by the New York Times as “one of the most accomplished recorders of the American experience”. The artist however, despite being at the forefront of metropolitan photography in the 20th century, is relatively unknown in Europe. A critical retrospective at Galerie Thierry Bigaignon, Paris, aims to redress the balance and to shed light on an expansive oeuvre for the first time on the continent. The Early Years (1940s-1950s): Contagious Optimism is part of a series looking back at his immeasurable talent and legacy. The exhibition is structured over several years and chronologically maps each stage of his career.

At the age of 15, Feinstein dropped out of school and began capturing the people of his native Coney Island. Four short years later, photographer and curator Edward Steichen purchased the compositions for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Feinstein became the youngest person to be included and is regarded as a child prodigy in the industry. The record-breaking nature of his practice also paved the way into the historic Photo League founded by Sid Grossman at the tender age of 17.

In 1954, Feinstein returned from the Korean War and he turned his attention to the legendary “Jazz Loft”, a  Manhattan space in collective cultural memory renowned for the development of the music genre. It was in this period that he met the American photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, with whom he collaborated with for the celebrated Pittsburgh Project. The ambitious visual essay was a construct through which the conflicts of 1950s America were revealed, reflecting the complexity of both the city and the wider world. The series combines hope and despair, poverty with affluence and solitude with comradery offering a poignant commentary on society.

Feinstein spent six decades photographing the streets of New York, a prolific career, which was defined by an emphatic portrayal of the human condition. Although the critical eye focuses more on the Coney Island work, his breadth is far greater, ranging from the everyday urban, portraits to still life and the intimate depiction of the life of a conscripted solider in the Korean war.


Harold Feinstein, The Early Years (1940s-1950s): Contagious Optimism, Galerie Thierry Bigaignon, Paris, open from 3 February – 30 April. Visit: www.thierrybigaignon.com

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1. Harold Feinstein, Coney Island Teenagers (1949). Courtesy of Galerie Thierry Bigaignon.