Barry Feinstein didn’t much care for photographers, who are — by nature — observers. He preferred men and women with strong opinions and passionate beliefs, individuals who scrawled memorable graffiti on the boundaries of an increasingly walled-in, walled-off world. His liberation from almost two decades of illness and pain is a merciful reprieve from the years he fought with supernatural strength against many “conditions” wanting him dead. In the end the conditions won. They always do. But Barry’s life defies extinction — it’s a wild ride, ten thousand stories deep. What we can print of his career is that he was hands down brilliant; what we can remember of his appetites are that they were gargantuan, and what we can say of his marriage in 2000 to his true love, Judy Jamison, is that a bad boy grown old could never ever get so lucky twice.
Born in Philadelphia in 1931, the only child of Rose and David Feinstein, Barry never told me much about his childhood except, “If you were foolish enough to reach across my father’s plate your wrist would know his knife.” Full grown he stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall, but he was tough and unbelievably fast. In High School Barry played running back and attended the University of Miami on a football scholarship. If he believed in a fight he was in it, consequences be damned. That loyal ferocity translated into his friendships, love affairs, business dealings, and off-the-cuff conversations seldom embellished with tact. Barry was no poet until he picked up his Nikon. Then no nuance escaped him, available light became his life-long friend, and “lucky” compositions clicked into place because he saw them coming and caught them on the fly. Barry shot first and asked questions later. If, that is, anything else really needed to be said.
Honorably discharged from a stint as Bosun’s Mate in the Coast Guard, the untrained fledgling photographer first found work shooting “the action” at the racetrack in Atlantic City. He apprenticed briefly in the photography department of Life magazine. Breakfasting one morning with the legendary architect Louis Kahn, Barry was told: “go west young man.” After consulting with an uncle owed a favor by the Hollywood mogul Harry Cohn, Barry took the advice. What followed was the education of a natural.
By day, Feinstein shot publicity portraits for Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor, and Judy Garland, to name a few, learning his craft and cashing a check. Meanwhile a growing portfolio of grittier images taken during off hours accrued like the pages of a first novel — gutsy, funny, sexy, sad and always precise. In May of ‘61 Cohn’s clout cleared Barry to photograph Gary Cooper’s funeral at the Church of the Good Shepard in Beverly Hills and his two previously compartmentalized styles collided head-on. Edward G. Robinson with his famous grimace prepares to disembark from a limo, but the pain etched on his face is unscripted. And the reflection on the window? A faceless figure in a trench coat lifting the cuff to check the time. It’s late. For this isn’t just the funeral of a beloved movie star, it’s the demise of the entire studio system. Here’s a misty-eyed Marlene Dietrich, who wiped her mouth of lipstick and died in Coop’s arms in their glory days, and now? The lipstick is in place, but she doesn’t do close-ups anymore, except that the young photographer doesn’t ask permission. The sun is setting on old Hollywood and row upon row of identical black limousines have ground to a halt at the boneyard. Barry got that shot, too. He’s taken important pictures before. But this is the first time he takes control of an event. There are newsreels on YouTube of the same occasion that tell us nothing. Barry’s still black and whites say everything we can bear, and a bit more.