ANDY Dunn’s documentary on the life and works of American photographer Harold Feinstein – Last Stop Coney Island: The Life And Photography Of Harold Feinstein – is a refreshing piece of work on so many levels.
In putting the deserved spotlight on one of the most under-stated masters of American photography, Dunn shines a light on life itself. Life that must be enjoyed, observed and embraced at every moment. No one adhered to these rules more than Feinstein who died four years ago, aged 84. A life well lived. A free spirit, a force of nature.
Feinstein, born of East European parents in Coney Island, had more women, lovers and wives than good sense – although in the latter years of his life he found true love and real contentment in third wife Judith Thompson.
It was also during this last phase of his life that Feinstein enjoyed his greatest success as a result of pioneering work One Hundred Flowers – a series of stunning pictures of flowers taken with a scanner. This triggered a wider appreciation of his work going back to the 1940s – and which culminated in a series of successful photographic exhibitions worldwide.
Yet before age and Thompson becalmed him, Feinstein enjoyed everything that life threw at him – including LSD, magic mushrooms, alcohol, jazz and sex. Nothing passed him by. He couldn’t stand still. Feinstein needed to experiment and experience new wonders all the time. A nightmare to live with, but a joy to be with.
This is reflected in his magnificent library of work which Dunn’s film pays respectful homage to. Feinstein’s black and white pictures of the 1950s captured the joys of Coney Island and its expansive beaches – and there are plenty included in Dunn’s film.
Photographs of beautiful fresh faced people (Coney Island Teenagers, 1949); sheer joy (Blanket Toss, 1955); and young men you wouldn’t necessarily want to pick a fight with (Bad Luck Tattoo, 1957).
There are also photos taken from the time he spent in the army in Korea in the early 1950s. Naturally, he fell for a Korean woman and ended up living with her in a mud hut (you wouldn’t expect anything else).
Yet it is his pictures of children in particular that are most haunting. Empathy screams from them, a result (suggests Dunn’s film) of a troubled childhood that saw Feinstein leave home in his teens and take up residence at a YMCA. Broken Christ with Children (1950) is quite simply a brilliant piece of work.
Dunn’s film gives plenty more – covering Feinstein’s breadth of work, including his imaginative use of photomontages (no better example than Georgina & Rodin, 1988) and obvious joy in taking pictures of beautiful half naked women (including the visually stunning Woman in Water and Sun – 1982 – and Dorrie Pregnant with Robin, 1957).
There are interviews aplenty with photography experts, lovers, former students (he was a super liberal and laissez faire teacher), wives (Judith and Dorrie Woodson) and son Gjon (daughter Robin predeceased him).
But Dunn’s masterstroke is an interview with Feinstein before his death – which provides the film’s main thread – and also accompanying him on a last trip to Coney Island where of course Feinstein couldn’t stop taking pictures.
This is a masterful film from Dunn about one of America’s greatest photographers. A legend who we can all learn from.