See Harold Feinstein’s early photographs of New York

We spoke to the curator of a retrospective exploring the legacy of a lesser-known American master – the youngest individual to have their work included in MoMA’s permanent collection

A couple of weeks after he died, Harold Feinstein’s wife Judith Thompson published a touching blog post titled ‘Life is on your side’. She explained how the master photographer was an inspiration and source of joy.

“He was a man who woke up laughing and went to bed with gratitude,” she wrote. “Each and every morning he would sit at the breakfast table and say, ‘Well, I guess I’m just going to have to resign myself to another happy day’.”

For his obituary, The New York Times described him as “one of the most accomplished recorders of the American experience”. Yet, while his work sits in the collections of prestigious museums, corporations and individuals, he is not that well known outside the US. Paris’s Galerie Thierry Bigaignon seeks to change this by presenting a giant retrospective of his work, the first of its kind in Europe. It starts with an exhibition of his early photographs from the 40s and 50s.

One of Feinstein’s greatest leg-ups as a photographer came from the Museum of Modern Art’s director of photography Edward Steichen. Before he died, Feinstein published an article detailing their first encounter.

“In 1950, I walked into the museum unannounced asking to see him,” writes Feinstein. “The man at the front desk called Steichen and I was invited up to his office to meet him. That day he purchased two of my photographs, which was pretty heady stuff for a 19 year old street photographer – and still is even at 84. They were the first I had ever sold.”

Feinstein became the youngest person to have his work included at MoMA’s permanent collection. He was a child prodigy.

At the same time, Feinstein was a member of Sid Grossman’s famed Photo League, a socialist co-operative comprised of photographers like Richard Avedon, Weegee and Robert Frank. In 1954, after returning from the Korean War, Feinstein inhabited the Jazz Loft, which was frequented by musicians including Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and Chick Corea, and famously documented by his friend, the photographer W. Eugene Smith.

“Harold Feinstein 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”, said Smith at a later date.

Feinstein spent six decades photographing New York’s streets. His approach to photography, like that towards his life, as observed by Judith, was always appreciative. Before the launch of the retrospective in February, we caught up with its curator, gallery director Thierry Bigaignon.

Why did you want to do this retrospective?

The very first time I heard about Harold Feinstein was from a video by American photography journalist and [Feinstein] expert Ted Forbes – I watched it online a few years ago. I instantly fell in love with Feinstein’s work.

I got in touch with him and his wife Judith and proposed we should do an exhibit in Paris. However, at that time I was an independent curator working mainly for corporations. I felt putting up a show in a company was not the best choice for such a master. His work needed to be in a museum – or at least in a gallery. So I waited for the right opportunity and when I was to open my gallery, that project came to life again.

Did you ever meet Feinstein?

Unfortunately not. This is one of my deepest regrets. But believe me, when you speak to Judith and hear the way she speaks about him – with so much love, so many character details, so many stories spanning six decades – you end-up feeling like you have met him in person.

As a fellow curator, what do you think Steichen saw in Feinstein’s work that was so special?

Steichen liked the fact that Harold was so young and had such a well-developed vision. He found a consistent body of work even when Harold was 19 and wanted to support him. He liked Harold as a person too and appreciated his spontaneity and enthusiasm, which was evident in his photographs. Harold’s sense of awe and wonder about everyday life was appreciated by Steichen.

Feinstein later learned that Steichen himself found early encouragement in the same manner. When he was 21, Steichen met [the photographer and curator] Alfred Stieglitz in New York, while on his way to Paris to study painting.

Stieglitz was impressed and purchased three of Steichen’s photographs for the sum of five dollars each. Steichen was elated and abandoned painting to devote himself to photography. That incident must have influenced Steichen to adopt the tradition of encouraging young and promising photographers by purchasing their work for MOMA’s permanent collection.

Several years later, Steichen asked Harold Feinstein to contribute a number of his photographs to the Family of Man exhibition. Harold turned him down and later recognised that this decision was probably the most foolish one of his career. At the time, he felt that the purpose of a museum was to show art. Not because it fit into a specific theme; an opinion he totally renounced later.

The exhibition was, and still is, widely considered the most important one in the history of photography to date. And the book, which sold over four million copies, is probably the most widely-viewed photography book ever published. Not surprisingly, Steichen considered the exhibition his greatest creative achievement.

Could you speak about the Photo League and why it was so influential?

The Photo League was a place where photographers began to discuss and share the potentials of photography as a way to highlight social conditions. So it really was a breeding ground for a more political way of viewing the world in terms of inequalities, poverty, etc.

Also, not unlike the jazz scene, the Photo League was a place where there was racial co-mingling when it wasn’t happening elsewhere in society. It was very ahead of its time. Harold’s photos from a Photo League meeting were of great interest in the photography world when we published them in the blog because they showed the diversity of the group.

This is why the McCarthy commission labeled it a subversive organisation and eventually shut it down. Harold was the youngest member of the Photo League, joining in 1948 at the age of 17.

Do you think going to war, or at least engaging with it in some way, was a right of passage for many of the great photographers of the 20th century?

For Harold, it was the first time he left his neighbourhood in Brooklyn. But as Phillip Prodger, who wrote the essay in the retrospective book said, Harold brought the same sensibilities of appreciation and love for humanity into the photographs from his Draftee series. The guys he portrayed could’ve come straight off the boardwalk in Coney Island and through his images, maintained the same level of innocence even in the midst of a growing fear about going to war.

How did Feinstein get involved with the Loft. Was it by chance?

When he got back from Korea, he was broke and was divorcing his first wife – they married at 19 or so. He wanted to leave Brooklyn and moved into Manhattan and some friends told him about a couple of other artists living really cheaply in the Loft. They had absolutely no idea that the place would ultimately become a hotbed for jazz and the whole jazz scene. Initially it was just a way to live on the cheap.

Which musicians was he mingling with?

Harold said: ‘My earliest memories are of Thelonius Monk, Charlie Mingus, Teddy Charles, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Art Blakey, Duke Jordan, and Pee Wee Russell.’

Why is it that Eugene Smith is so well known for his work in the Loft scene, yet Feinstein less so?

Harold was 23 when he moved into the loft in 1954, one of the first four people – alongside painter David Young, and musicians Hall Overton and Dick Carey – moved in. After Feinstein passed it over, Smith became associated with the loft because he wired it for sound. While a lot of negatives were discovered, it was the recordings that captured the most imaginations. Harold is in fact quite well-associated with the jazz loft as an original inhabitant, but his name wasn’t as well known then. We are changing that.