Many of the most iconic photographs of the second half of the 20th century were taken by Barry Feinstein. As someone who did the cover photography for over 500 music albums including the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Frank Zappa, and across the genres of Jazz, Folk, Blues, Rock, and Gospel, it would be hard for even an amateur music aficionado, regardless of age, to be unfamiliar with his work. Specific examples are his cover shots used for Janis Joplin’s Pearl, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’. He is best known for his photo documentation of Bob Dylan and the Band’s 1966 British tour; a photograph from this was used as the poster for Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary film on Dylan, No Direction Home; a book of that tour, Real Moments, was released in 2008.
Barry Feinstein wasn’t only a music world photographer, he also photographed other bold-faced names of the day, from political figures such as JFK and Nixon to Hollywood stars such as Judy Garland and Marlon Brando―his work appeared in Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and The New York Times, and has been exhibited in MOMA and London’s National Portrait Gallery. One Hollywood star that he worked with over many years was the actor and “King of Cool,” Steve McQueen, who is the subject of a just released book of photographs entitled, Unseen McQueen. The book is accompanied by exhibitions in London, New York, and galleries around the US.
The term “Unseen” in a photography book title often refers to the unpublished photographs from an already published shoot, the “out-takes.” Here, this is not the case. Many of these photographs are from series of shots that were never published and, in many cases, were never printed.
Like the Dylan book, Real Moments, this new book documents McQueen in both official “studio” mode and off the set in candid normal-life situations. It contains images from his twin passions, his car-racing and his acting; he is quoted as having said: “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts.” The photographs span eight years, starting with racing images beginning in 1960 through to film set shots in 1968. The film McQueen was working on at the time was Bullitt which became one of his most famous. In addition to those shots there are numerous candid shots of McQueen off-camera: hanging out with the guys, conferring with the director Peter Yates, and bantering with small boys on the street. The photographs have a timeless quality not least because McQueen’s style is in fashion once again―his costume for the titular character, Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, reflected his personal style, and with its narrow-legged trousers, turtle-neck sweater, and herringbone jacket, would be as much at home in this month’s Esquire or GQ as it would have been in a magazine in 1968 when the film was made.
As Dave Brolan writes in his introduction to the book, “Barry [Feinstein] was a brilliant documentary photographer with the eye of a fine artist. He would work almost unnoticed and be at the center of the action for the vital moment.” The truth of this statement is evident in this collection in that, unless the subject is directly interacting with the photographer, the presence of the photographer feels absent. Feinstein was notoriously selective about which photographs should and should not be published. He had no interest in compromising his art or in capitalizing on his famous subjects. He and his family lived a modest life in Woodstock, New York, with an archive of photographs that could have earned him a fortune. When pushed to publish images that were good and/or interesting, his standard response was that he wasn’t interested in good, interesting, or even unusual: “I’m only interested in printing great photographs.” Consequently his archive consists of thousands of images that have never been seen and, said Brolan, many that are not only good and interesting, but great. It is normal practice for photographers to shoot rolls of film to get one or two really good photographs but, according to Brolan, Feinstein seemed incapable of taking a mediocre, let alone a bad, picture. Brolan has been a longtime collaborator of Feinstein’s and worked with him on selecting the images for the Bob Dylan book in 2008. For this book, he worked with Feinstein’s widow, the artist Judith Jamison as, alas, Barry Feinstein died in 2011 at the age of 80.
In light of Feinstein’s extreme prejudice when it came to his own work, I asked Jamison and Brolan about their responsibility to Feinstein’s legacy when choosing the photographs for the new book. Both agreed it was daunting and each photograph was examined with great care before making the cut, although, Brolan admits, if left to Feinstein’s critical eye, some would probably remain unseen. Certain exclusions were easy decisions, not because they were merely good or just interesting, but because they were private.
Although Feinstein was constantly behind the camera, he always drew a clear line between the private and public lives of his subjects. If he deemed a photograph to belong to the private realm, there was no persuading him to publish that picture, and Brolan and Jamison adhered to that principle. For example, Brolan related an anecdote about some pictures of one of Bob Dylan’s children’s birthday parties, which Brolan had thought would be an excellent addition to the Real Moments book, but that Feinstein dismissed out of hand. In a last bid to include just one image from the series, Brolan suggested a particularly brilliant shot of Dylan blowing up a balloon in which there were no children or other guests visible in the frame. Feinstein, looking incredulously at Brolan, repeated, “But it’s a private party…” End of story. It was this sensibility, and sensitivity, that gained Feinstein the trust and confidence of his subjects and allowed him the freedom to be present with people and situations in unguarded moments.
Brolan and Jamison are also aware of their responsibility to the memory and legacy of the subject―Steve McQueen died of cancer in 1980 at the age of fifty.
Feinstein and McQueen were more than photographer and subject: they were old friends and soul-mates. They shared a great love of fast cars and motorcycles and had a similar laid-back approach to life. While McQueen was known as the “King of Cool,” Feinstein had, reputedly, been dubbed “His Triple Hip-ness” by comedian and rant poet Lord Buckley. When McQueen is looking at the camera, you can see the open friendliness in his expression that goes beyond a smile-for-the-camera.
Feinstein wasn’t big on cropping―he framed his photographs through the viewfinder and they are beautifully composed. In most of his outdoor images the figures are backlit against white sky, which created an interesting time in the darkroom for master printer Pete Mauney. Yes, these are analog images and were printed in a darkroom. Mauney is another important link in the chain from viewfinder to the book and art galleries (details of the latter below). He first started working with Feinstein twenty years ago and he has an unambiguous understanding of Feinstein’s preferences with regard to scale, tone and texture.
The problem a printer encounters with images with such strong back lighting is retaining the detail in the background without losing the foreground to a silhouette; so a great deal of darkroom finesse was required to realize Feinstein’s vision. One virtuoso example of this is a photograph of McQueen wearing sunglasses, astride his bike at the top of a San Francisco hill with the ubiquitous cigarette hanging from his lips. The road behind him swoops down and up again in a wash of subtle greys. The contrast in the tones of McQueen’s figure in the foreground is perfectly calibrated so that the viewer can even make out the pattern of the actor’s tie. Another nice touch, which Feinstein loved, is the presence of the onlooker. In this case a man, also wearing shades, watches the action from an open-backed truck at McQueen’s right shoulder. In front of the truck, barely visible but also watching, are some girls in a car. We, the viewers, are also locked on McQueen. This shows how Feinstein was as interested in the whole picture as he was in the subject. Although he shot a lot of portraits, he was not a portrait photographer per se; he liked his subjects to be in a context.
Aside from the occasional quote from McQueen, the photographs in the book are untitled and uncaptioned. According to Brolan, Feinstein was adamant that his pictures speak for themselves. He rarely explained any concept beyond, “I try to do something good and then try to do something better.”
Steve McQueen had the reputation of being a rebel and outsider and, in fact, he was a kid from the streets who made good. Born Terrance Steven McQueen in 1930 in a suburb of Indianapolis; his father was already gone and his mother too young and ill-equipped to raise a child. As a teenager he got caught up in gangs and petty crime, and was eventually remanded to a home for troubled youth (the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California). His time there gave him a life-long sympathy for disenfranchised children and he periodically visited the institution for the rest of his life. Things turned around for him when he joined the United States Marine Corps in 1947.
After a difficult beginning he distinguished himself by saving the lives of five comrades in an Arctic exercise. In 1950, he was given an honorable discharge and decided to try acting school on the GI Bill. As his star rose, McQueen’s bad-boy reputation and choice of anti-hero roles, including that in the film Bullitt, fitted well into the ‘60s counter-culture zeitgeist. Nevertheless, the final quote from the actor in the book is: “I’m trying to be a sensible human being who’s a credit to his profession.”
Accompanying the release of Unseen McQueen, is an enormous exhibition entitled, “Live For Myself, Answer To Nobody,” in London’s Brewer Street Project in Soho, from 28 November – 14 January 2014. Mach Schau and the Vinyl Factory, collaboratively known as “The Custom Factory,” will exhibit the limited edition prints for the first time. The prints will be shown alongside other contemporary artists’ work dealing with the overarching theme of the “outsider” and rebel culture. In addition, there is an exploration through the work of Bill Ray, Von Dutch, Sam Christmas, and other custom car and bike creators, of the legacy of biker culture in contemporary society, where the same rebel spirit lives on. There may even be a Mustang! Two 1968 Ford V8 Mustang GT-390 Fastbacks were used for the famous chase scene down the hills of San Francisco in the film Bullitt―it was the mother of many future cinematic car chase scenes. Both cars were loaned by the Ford Motor Company to Warner Bros. as part of a promotional agreement. Whether or not one will be procured for the exhibition was still in question at the time of writing.
All photographs are courtesy of the Barry Feinstein Photography Archive.
Unseen McQueen by Barry Feinstein, edited by Dagon James and Tony Nourmand, published by Reel Art Press:
In the United States, the books are available from the publisher,
from Amazon, and from The Morrison Hotel Gallery, 124 Prince St. NYC
In Europe, the book is available at www.amazon.co.uk
Editions of prints are limited to 25 or 50 according to size.
They are available by e-mail at:
Prints are also available from the following:
Belstaff on Madison Ave, NYC — *exhibition opening on Dec 10th
The Morrison Hotel Gallery, 124 Prince St. NYC from Wed. Nov. 27.
The Morrison Hotel Gallery at the Sunset Marquis in LA.
The San Francisco Art Exchange will be selling prints from Dec 2.
Re: the London exhibition.
The Custom Factory Project Space is on the 3rd Floor NCP, 32 Brewer Street, Soho, London, W1F 0ST.
The exhibition runs from 28th Nov. until 14th Jan. 2014.
For more visit: TheCustomFactory.com ~
Further enquiries email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Claire Lambe is an Irish born painter whose works have been exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic; she is a graduate of the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and holds an MFA in painting from the City University of New York. In addition to her art-making, she is also the company manager and designer for The Woodstock Players Theater Company —as the company designer she is responsible for everything from the website to the set design. Writing credits include contributing author to Teen Life in Europe (part of the Teen Life Around The World series), and articles and reviews for this publication.