I’m really grateful to Peter Popham for the great feature article he wrote recently about my work for The Independent, a daily paper in the UK (September 2, 2012). From our phone call, I could sense that he’s the kind of guy I’d like to get to know better. While I appreciated everything he had to say, I had to laugh out loud at his description of my photograph Coney Island Teenagers (1949). Everyone who knows me would tell you that I’ve been a “dirty old man” ever since I was a kid, but Peter’s uninhibited perception of this photograph has taken me to a whole new level of seeing it!
“Coney Island Teenagers”, shot when Feinstein was himself only 18, is a wet dream of a picture: the nicely made-up honeypot at the centre with her full lips, strong teeth and plucked eyebrows lying back, head reclining on the naked back of one young man, arm around another, while a third, on her left, is either asleep or on the point of ejaculation – or perhaps merely enjoying the music, Rudy Vallée or Perry Como, pumping out of the portable radio cradled like a baby on her breast.
All photographers have that one image that seems to most define their work — or at least it’s the one most remembered over time — Ansel Adam’s Moon Over Half Dome; Ruth Orkin’s American Girl in Italy; Robert Doisneau’s Kiss by the Hotel de Ville. For me, Coney Island Teenagers is that photograph. It will adorn the cover of my up-coming book, has been made into a large poster, has been widely collected, and seems to be a favorite of journalists and other photographers. Recently Debbie Hagen, editor of Art New England wrote a column about it. I was particularly gratified when it became the singular photograph to adorn the entrance to the International Center for Photography‘s show “One Hundred Years of Documentary Photography and Photojournalism: Highlights from the Permanent Collection” (1996).
When I first began photographing, someone with a camera hanging from their neck was not that common. Oftentimes, particularly on the beach in Coney Island, young people would call out to me: “Hey mister, take my picture!” — which, of course I did. Now, how could you miss a picture like this? Not only did these kids ask me to take their picture, but they presented me with the gestalt of the photograph itself. How could you go wrong? Many times the interaction between the subject and the photographer can be the key to revealing the photograph, and that’s true here.
Once, when this photograph appeared on a television program, I got a call from someone saying — “that pretty girl in the picture is my aunt, and she’s even more beautiful now!” I would love to see her now and thank her for conspiring to make such a memorable photograph! If anyone knows where she is, let me know!