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Newburyport

Magnifying a photographer’s lasting impressions

“Puppy Love,” 1987, by Harold Feinstein. (Harold Feinstein) A couple kissing, with a puppy between them licking the man’s chin, Crete, 1987.
“Puppy Love,” taken by Harold Feinstein in Crete in 1987.

The late photographer Harold Feinstein moved to Merrimac in 2000. He was a born-and-bred New Yorker, known for his early pictures of boardwalk life in Coney Island in the 1940s. But he loved his new home in Merrimac from the moment he settled in.

A photo of Harold Feinstein taken by his wife, Judith Thompson, at Coney Island in 2001.

“What’s that old song – ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with?’ ” said Judith Thompson, the photographer’s widow.

Feinstein, who died last June at age 84, was dedicated to that philosophy in all aspects of his life. When failing health prevented him from shooting the spontaneous, black-and-white street photography that was his signature, he began taking vivid color closeups of seashells, flowers, and other things from the natural world.

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To mark the one-year-anniversary of Feinstein’s death, a group of local artists and curators will present “Unwrapping the Gift of Life,” a lecture and discussion of his work, at Newburyport’s Firehouse Center for the Arts on June 29. The event is cosponsored by Asia Scudder of Amesbury’s Blue Wave Art Gallery and Greg Nikas of Newburyport’s Sweethaven Gallery, which is showing a retrospective of Feinstein’s work through July 10.

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Whatever caught his eye, Feinstein’s exuberance shone through in the images he made, said Sarah Kennel, curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. She will join Thompson, Revere archivist Tony Decaneas, and photography blogger Elin Spring of Swampscott onstage at the Firehouse to discuss Feinstein’s legacy.

“There’s definitely such a strong thread of love for the human comedy” in Feinstein’s work, said Kennel. “At this particular moment, there’s something important about looking at those [Coney Island] pictures. They show such a wonderful mix of people, different classes, ages, and races coming together. At some level, that seems to be missing from American culture at this moment.”

Kennel said Feinstein launched his career at an auspicious time for photography in America. When he started taking photos as a teenager, handheld cameras such as the Leica were becoming commonplace. Popular magazines such as Look and Life were devoting more space to photography. And there was a postwar wave of immigration that brought not just new, influential photographers but also “different ways of seeing the world,” she said.

"Sheep Under Clouds," a 1961 image Feinstein created from a sheep photo taken in Ringoes. N.J., and clouds from Coney Island.

Feinstein was happy in Merrimac, said Thompson. He built a studio there, immersing himself in digital technology, and he taught classes out of the house.

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“In his older years he appreciated being out of the city, someplace with a little more natural beauty,” she said. “We would go to dinner in Newburyport and drive home along the river, and he would say how great it was that we lived here.”

But in his formative years, Feinstein was associated with the loosely defined group known as the New York school of photography: artists of the mid-20th century, among them Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Saul Leiter, who were inspired by masters such as Lewis Hine and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

For some time, Feinstein lived in a New York City building that became known as the Jazz Loft for its after-hours jam sessions. There he befriended fellow photographer Eugene Smith, a pioneer of the photo essay. Before he was 30, Feinstein had exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Yet his reputation never quite reached the level of some of his peers, said Kennel.

“It’s been great to get to know this body of work better,” she said. “His love for making pictures is so evident.”

Tickets to the June 29 event are $10 and can be purchased at firehouse.org; James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.