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Icons through Nikons, soul on film: photographer
Barry Feinstein by Ross Rice

When world-renowned photographer Barry Feinstein was working for Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures back in the early 60’s, he managed to capture an interesting collection of behind-the-scenes glimpses of Hollywood in decline. One day he showed some of them to a good friend, who happened to be something of a poet—who then found himself inspired to set words to the images. This sort of thing could happen with Bob Dylan hanging out at your house in the early 60’s.

“Bob didn’t even remember. I was saving them up for a rainy day.” But, when Barry finally released the forty year-old project—titled Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript—for publication, neither he nor Dylan had any creative control, and it looks like the book got rush jobbed by the publisher in time to hit the middle tables at Barnes and Noble by Christmas 2008. To say that Barry was disappointed in the results would be very much an understatement.

It shouldn’t have been this way: the photos are amazing, sharp and witty observations of the time and place, with uncanny access. The matching poems are distilled essence of Dylan, near the full peak of his word-smithing prowess. It’s a cool representation of a great collaboration and friendship between two legends…and it should have been much more lovingly handled.

But what’s done is done, and there’s so much more to Barry Feinstein, who was there, camera in hand, right in the middle of When Everything Changed: the end of the Eisenhower ‘50s giving way to the national Freak-Out of the ‘60s, and the Decadent Hangover of the early ‘70s. Like Bob Dylan’s music, his images provide an almost perfect window into the soul of those times. And there’s more to come…

Bob Dylan

Philadelphia-born Barry Feinstein discovered his photographic talent as a teenager, working at a racetrack in Atlantic City in 1955, when some photos taken for fun turned out better than expected. When later that year he was hired as an assistant to a photographer for Life, covering the Miss America pageant, he got hooked on the excitement, the access, the social interaction…and realized this could be a pretty sweet way to make a living. But not on the East coast; the real action was out West.

Barry made his way to Los Angeles and through family connections managed to secure a start-up job at Columbia Pictures as an all-purpose go-fer, later working as a production assistant and in the research department. He got a pretty solid education in the movie business, shuttling between departments, and in the process saw a lot of moments worth capturing. “I found Hollywood so fucked up and crazy, beautiful and visually interesting. But I didn’t want to photograph the glamour end of it. It was the ‘behind the scene’ thing—that part of Hollywood that nobody thinks about or looks at.”

Not being officially technically trained, Barry’s not being in the union at the time was also an impediment professionally, but with the help of some of the guys at the lab, Barry was able to get some much needed darkroom time, and learn by trial and error how to fine tune both the printing and the process. Being often told “you can’t do that” only added motivation, and a true rebel photographer was born.

It all paid off when his personal friendship with Steve McQueen resulted in a Look Magazine assignment covering the actor; the resulting photos got everyone’s attention, and the phone started ringing. He even got the call when Marilyn Monroe “committed suicide.” Instead of the sensationalist shot of the dead star, he photographed the pill bottle by the bedside. It was classic Barry; revealing the subtext beneath the glittering surface.

Barry met and befriended legendary manager Albert Grossman at the LA nightclub Renaissance in 1958, and Albert hired him to photograph a new act of his: Peter, Paul & Mary. Barry and Mary hit it off, got married soon after—the marriage lasted three and a half years—and the trio became internationally huge, embarking on an around-the-world tour, with Barry aboard as tour photographer. Afterwards, when they were taking a needed break back at their place in New York City, Mary took Barry to see a young up-and-coming folksinger down in the Village, one Bob Dylan.

“I had to figure it out. I knew he was interesting—I mean, you knew this kid had something going for himself. After a while with him, you knew you were in the presence of greatness.”

Dylan must have felt somewhat the same way about Barry, as they became good friends soon after that night, and Albert Grossman requested that Barry shoot Dylan for his next LP cover. It only took ten minutes outdoors on the patio of an East Side high rise and Barry had the shot: the smooth-cheeked legend-to-be with the intent expression on the cover of 1964’s The Times They Are A-Changin’. And Dylan had a new photographer.

Bob Dylan

The friendship was cemented when Barry and Dylan drove Albert’s Rolls Royce cross-country from Denver to New York . . . and it was while in Colorado with Barry that Bob Dylan actually first heard his music on the radio. Such was the bond of trust between the two that when Dylan did his seminal electric tour in 1966, he would request Barry to accompany him. Life also hired Barry to take photos for a big spread, so Barry was onboard for the hugely controversial tour, and has nothing but fond memories of it. And, as fate would have it, Barry later ended up in full possession of the photos, due to a little “mishap.”

In a previous 2007 interview, Barry revealed that he had been the one to take Dylan to the Bronx dealer to get his first motorcycle. Not long after that, Barry got word of the accident from Albert, and though he would never dispute the official story, still tantalizingly refers to it as the “so-called” accident, and maintains that real accident or not, Dylan was in need of a break from the constant maelstrom of touring and recording. As a result, Life opted not to do the spread, and returned the negatives to Barry.

The results are a jaw-dropping documentation of great historical significance: Real Moments- Bob Dylan 1966-1974 (Omnibus Press, 2008). Though he does have his share of great ones, Barry tends to eschew the performance shot—“Go to the concert. Spend that money. Be there in the moment”—so most of the photos are private, personally revealing moments of Dylan backstage. Some photos that show the audience portray the inherent tension of Dylan’s electric “transgression,” while Dylan himself seems calmly defiant, seemingly unmoved by the passionate love/hate being cast at him. Photos taken in a working-class section of Liverpool have Dylan cutting loose, goofing off with the decidedly un-star-struck children. Dylan in the car, smoking, oblivious to the adoring young girls just outside the glass—no doubt you’ve seen some of these shots before.

Barry tends to favor black and white film in his Nikon L 35mm camera, using natural light when possible—no flash—and his photos are crystal clear, perfectly captured moments that are naturally composed, and though technically spot-on, what really makes them special is the unique relationship between subject and photographer; the subjects manage to be more their real selves than their personas in the presence of his lens. (Barry is also not a big digital fan, particularly the use of fix-it-in-the-box Photoshop software. As he puts it, “you’re never really going to become a good photographer that way.”)

While Dylan recuperated, Barry and his new business partner Tom Wilkes formed the graphic design company Camouflage, and were in high demand for album cover artwork. Barry shot some legendary covers: Ike and Tina Turner’s 1969 Outta Season—Barry convinced them to shoot it in whiteface, eating watermelon! The toilet stall of the Rolling Stone’s Beggars Banquet. George Harrison surrounded by garden gnomes for the cover of All Things Must Pass. And the sumptuous color photo of Janis Joplin on the cover of Pearl….taken the day before her fatal overdose. Barry was also a cameraman for the filming of the Monterey Pop Festival, and later directed You Are What You Eat (1968), a now cult favorite which could be described as a movie-length music video: footage of interesting people interacting over a variety of tunes, with very little dialogue. Though the footage looks charmingly dated now, it’s still an accurate reading of the zeitgeist.

Barry stayed at the top of the game, providing the color photography for the cover and booklet of the LP release of George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, from which also came the luminous blue cover shot for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II, Barry again capturing Dylan in a performance moment, but from behind, looking to the side. And, though reluctant to hit the road again, even with an old friend it’s hard to say no to, Barry agreed to accompany Dylan’s 1974 European tour (Before the Flood) with the Band, and once again gets the lightning in a bottle, in full color. Barry had such a good time, he swore he’d never tour again—nothing could beat it. And he hasn’t since.

Bob Dylan

“You know what I learned from Dylan? Not to go backwards. Once you do something, you can always fix it, make it better, whatever…don’t worry about it. Just go on to the next thing, and remember what wasn’t good about the last thing. Try to make the next thing better.”

Barry had long been good friends with motorcycle artist Von Dutch, who is basically the founding father of pin-striping, and in the seventies documented him creating the curved lines and designed filigree on a variety of motorcycles…a phenomenon whose ubiquity later extended to vehicles of all kinds. Barry stayed in demand for special projects through the ‘80s and early ‘90s—including photos for Dr. John, The Crusaders, and a photographic portrait book of the sybaritic paradise island of Mustique—but was also settling into domestic life “on sabbatical” in Woodstock with new partner Judy Jamison. Though briefly married to Carol Wayne after breaking up with Mary Travers, Barry got together with Judy in 1976, and their union brought Judy’s sons Jasper and Jake to join the now extended family, which included Barry’s daughters Alicia and Erica (with Mary) and son Alex (with Carol). Barry and Judy had an official marriage ceremony in 2000.

Rock behind the scenes was also getting less interesting, and as previously noted, Barry was not fond of shooting artists in performance, though of course he has, and quite well. “Some of the people I love to photograph, they don’t give you any time anymore. They just get on the stage and sing as well as they can, then they get applause, they walk off stage, hand their guitar to somebody, get in the bus…and by the time you get out of the men’s room, they’re 20 miles away. So you don’t get that real feel of the moment (anymore).”

Unfortunately, the sabbatical became somewhat more permanent when Barry had a nearly fatal car accident in 1993, hit by a drunk driver who ran a red light on Route 32 in Catskill—seriously damaging his ability to hold and operate a camera. The long recovery and convalescence since has given Barry an opportunity to ignore his own advice, and “look back” through his priceless collection of images and—the disappointment of the Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric book notwithstanding—Barry and Judy do have plans to let the world see more of them.

The response so far has been ecstatic. 2008’s UK tour of the Real Moments book—which is coming out in paperback this month—was a huge success, and Barry is being honored there this May through September with a show at the National Portrait Gallery, which as a rule exhibits only British photographers or subjects, but for Barry they’re making an exception. (Barry hopes to be feeling well enough to make the trip, but he has had a few recent setbacks.) When asked what’s next, he says he’s thinking about a large retrospective of his work, with a book and a few large-scale exhibitions, most likely in New York and London.

And though it’s tempting to say “don’t look back,” it’s also important not to lose or ignore what moved us forward in the first place. For years photographers had a limited technology whose success depended completely on the equipment, the moment, and the exceptional eye; no digital fix-ups, no undo button, it’s got soul or it doesn’t. Well, we all need more soul…and it’s safe to say when it comes to getting soul on film, nobody’s done it better than Barry Feinstein. —R


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