Describing the moment he shot “Coney Island Teenagers,” the most widely recognized photo from his nearly seven decades wandering the world with a camera, Harold Feinstein made making enduring art sound easy.
“I was walking along the beach and there were these kids there, and one kid said, ‘Hey mister, take my picture,’ ” he recalled in a 2011 interview with Art New England. “I came over and looked down and the picture was already there. All I did was click the shutter. The thing is that pictures are everywhere. The question is, why don’t we see them?”
He saw more than most. Though critics began applying the phrase master photographer to Mr. Feinstein when he was only in his 20s, he might have argued that his true mastery lay in his approach to life, as expressed through the camera in his hands.
“When I look back at so many of these older pictures I ask myself, how did I do it? The key word is yes. I follow my inclination to say the word yes – yes to this and yes to that,” he told Art New England. “That does not mean that every time I press the shutter there’s a great photograph, but who knows?”
After a heart attack last year, Mr. Feinstein went into hospice care, only to leave and live for months before dying of congestive heart failure June 20 in his home in Merrimac, where he had lived since 2000. He was 84 and had been in Greater Boston since 1994, when he took up residence in Arlington.
In 2011, the year Mr. Feinstein turned 80, Evan Sklar wrote for The New York Times that his “pictures are rife with youthful exuberance and the satisfaction of their maker being present. We share the pleasure of watching as a hot summer afternoon melts into a warm evening. Carnival barkers, kids, seniors and characters of questionable content mingle, move, and mix in a place and time that we faintly recognize and will no longer find.”
There also was exuberance in photos he shot while serving in the Army, along with haunting poignancy. “What makes so many of Feinstein’s photographs so interesting to look at is how vividly they capture the tedium his sitters were experiencing,” the Globe’s Mark Feeney wrote in a 2011 review of a show at the Panopticon Gallery in Boston.
Mr. Feinstein’s “Making the Best of It, Troopship to Korea, 1952,” which photographer Elin Spring posted in a tribute to him on her blog, is a sort of military equivalent of the Coney Island teens photo. The soldiers lie in a tumble, too: grinning, bodies scrunched together. Then in “Bare Tree – Lone Soldier, 1952,” another from the “Army Draftee” series, a solitary man in uniform stands on an empty road that disappears into distant fog. The bare tree of the title commands the photo’s left edge, its branches as menacing as the rifle in the soldier’s hands.
“When I was drafted during the Korean War, I asked to be a photographer, but they stuck me in the infantry,” he said in 2014 interview with The Guardian. “It was a lucky escape – because if I’d been an official photographer, I would have had to shoot official occasions. Being in the infantry meant I could photograph life among the GIs and in Korea as I saw it.”
Mr. Feinstein first glimpsed life through the prism of the Coney Island neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was the last of five children, 20 years younger than his oldest sibling. His mother, the former Sophie Reich, was an Austrian immigrant. His father, Louis, was a Russian immigrant and a meat wholesaler.
When Mr. Feinstein was a boy, his father would give him a little money to spend on the boardwalk. Mr. Feinstein supplemented those funds by drawing portraits of passersby. At 15 he borrowed a neighbor’s camera and began shooting photos. Dropping out of school the next year, he soon joined the Photo League cooperative in New York and was only 19 when he sold two photos to Edward Steichen, director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department.
After returning from the Korean War, his photos were included in group shows in New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art. He exhibited all his life and his most recent show is on view at the Lumiere Gallery in Atlanta through the end of July.
Always welcoming, his work drew decades of admirers, particularly when he captured moments of pure engagement, such as a girl screaming in joy while riding the Cyclone at Coney Island. Perhaps best known for images from the neighborhood of his youth, he also photographed street scenes and still-lifes, butterflies and flowers, nudes and the sculpture of Rodin. “Everywhere, people live out their own personal story, yet are tied together through the universal emotions of love, loss, curiosity, humor, and compassion,” he wrote on his website’s blog.
Mr. Feinstein’s first two marriages ended in divorce. He had two children with the pianist Dorrie Woodson, whom he met when they lived in New York. Their daughter, Robin Kovary, a writer and dog trainer, died in 2001.
In 1988, he met Judith Thompson, who cofounded Children of War, an international youth leadership organization, and was a peace fellow at Radcliffe College’s Bunting Institute. “Harold was just a joy,” she said. “He was an exceptional, rare kind of person who was so appreciative of life.”
They were a couple for many years before marrying in 2000, and after he died, she wrote on his blog: “He was a man who woke up laughing and went to bed with gratitude. 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.’ ”
Mr. Feinstein wrote for the blog that he had “two favorite times of day — when I wake up in the morning to see my wife’s face, and when I go to sleep at night with her beside me. And then, of course, there’s everything in between.”
A service has been held for Mr. Feinstein, who in addition to his wife leaves his son, Gjon of Santa Cruz, Calif.
Mr. Feinstein “felt that his calling in life was equally distributed between being a teacher and being a photographer,” his wife said. He taught in his studio and at colleges, abandoning grading and preferring to mix beginners and experts in the same class. Learning, he believed, was a collaborative experience between student and teacher, seasoned professional and newcomer.
“The advice I give my students is this: when your jaw drops, click the shutter,” he said in The Guardian interview. As for his success capturing so many iconic images, he told Art New England: “On my camera, I have a little button that says masterpiece, and I press that.”