'Last Stop Coney Island: The Life and Photography of Harold Feinstein': Film Review | DOC NYC 2018

Harold Feinstein
A 1949 photograph by Harold Feinstein in 'Last Stop Coney Island'
Quietly vibrant, like its subject.

Revered by aficionados but not widely known, a New York street photographer and his work get the spotlight in Andy Dunn's documentary.

At only 17, Harold Feinstein was rubbing elbows with such luminaries as Cartier- Bresson, Weegee and W. Eugene Smith as a member of the Photo League collective. At 19, three of his pictures were purchased by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. Feinstein photographed jazz greats for Blue Note album covers, his work appeared in group shows with Garry Winogrand, and Anais Nin name-dropped him in her diaries. How and why he stepped away from his rising-star trajectory, and the joy Feinstein found in teaching rather than building an art-world career in red-hot Manhattan, are explored in an engaging new documentary portrait. But director Andy Dunn's chief focus is the photographs themselves: a remarkably sensitive and spirited chronicle of postwar New York.

When Feinstein, who died in 2015 at 84, first picked up a Rolleiflex, a camera was something of a novelty, not a ubiquitous accessory. Coney Island — whose hopeful melting-pot vibe is vividly conveyed in well-chosen newsreel clips — is where the Brooklyn native found his first subjects. Disarming and genuinely interested in people, he worked not from a discreet distance but among the beachgoers and boardwalk strollers, who would often perform for his lens: beaming teenagers, tattooed tough guys. British filmmaker Dunn, also handling DP duties — and abetted by a spare but flavorful score by Mike Smith (of Gorillaz) — often zeros in on the faces within a photo, captured so evocatively by Feinstein, and then slowly moves out to take in the full image, with its elegant geometry and narrative power. 

Those images are in-the-moment but also artfully composed, both in camera and through cropping. In fact, it would be Feinstein's meticulous attention to the framing and sizing of his photos (he was also a master of the now dying art of printing) that would lead to a fateful decision. In the name of artistic integrity, he withdrew from a momentous exhibit, a move that several of the film's talking heads, including Feinstein himself, see as the point where his career short-circuited. 

But his serious and infectious delight in the next phase of his work, as a photography teacher, comes across vividly in footage of him, both in the classroom and as an interview subject. Friends and former students recall his holistic, and frequently acid-fueled, approach to education. "Be creative with your life," he advised. "That's the important canvas." He emphasized essence over methodology. And yet it would be his inventive embrace of digital technology, in an entirely different key from his black-and-white street shots, that brought him late-career attention and a rediscovery of the decades-old work.

Dunn has interviewed a selection of eloquent admirers as well as people close to Feinstein. It might be no surprise that his widow and son speak warmly of him, but it's notable that the fond recollections of an ex-wife and a former girlfriend are no less exuberant. The man's sunniness comes through whenever he's onscreen, in vintage material as well as scenes of him in later years in his rural Massachusetts home or, a year before his death, back in Coney Island with his camera, connecting with strangers with the same ease that infused his early pictures.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Dunn's film makes clear that there's much more to Feinstein's photographs than that breezy affability. Feinstein didn't put too fine a point on it either: Whether it's the dark undertow of childhood poverty or the loneliness of his fellow Korean War draftees, his perceptive eye is inseparable from an openhearted optimism. 

Last Stop would be a welcome tribute at any time, but it's especially bracing when today's constant deluge of visual images can't help but dilute the impact of photography. Dunn's film is fully attuned to the vibrancy and tenderness and sense of possibility in Feinstein's photos, to the life in them. "It's like stepping back into my past," critic A.D. Coleman says of those black-and-white street scenes — or, for native New Yorkers of a certain age, like stepping into the youth of our parents.

Production companies: First Cross Films
Director: Andy Dunn
Producer: Andy Dunn
Executive producers: Jock Miller, James Atton, Stuart Cook, Tony Egby, Stuart Matthews, Carrie Scott, Judith Thompson
Director of photography: Andy Dunn
Editor: Lawrence Huck
Music: Mike Smith
Venue: DOC NYC (Photography on Film)
International sales: First Cross Films

88 minutes