Journey into the Unknown: Musings on the gift of life

Breezy Curtains, Vermont, 1975
Breezy Curtains, Vermont, 1975

Recently Harold had a short stay in the hospital. Afterwards he was reflecting on the things that have mattered the most in his life and I taped a short conversation between the two of us about his thoughts on life and photography.

Judith: As a photographer for 67 years now, and a teacher to hundreds of students over five decades, what would you most want to share with other photographers, artists – or anyone – about the meaning and importance of photography in your life.

Dancers'  Arms, 1978
Dancers’ Arms, 1978

Harold: I would say our work is a form of prayer – a manifestation of the gift we’ve been given. That famous quotation “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is true! It’s important for us to give recognition to what it is we behold. Not in judgment, but simply in acceptance — so that it can live a life of its own. What emerges will always be a surprise taking many forms that we may not even have thought about.

Our primary gift is in giving recognition to what is. Sadly, this is what rarely occurs in education. What is called education is often an attempt to replace “what is” with what “should be.” Yet, the journey into the unknown is so rich that it challenges all preconceptions of what “should be.”

Judith: And when you talk about the journey into the unknown, you’re talking about… ?

Harold: I’m talking about saying “yes” to the gift – whatever our gift is. Because each of us has a gift – a form of expression of the uniqueness of who we are – and the job of the educator is to encourage that gift in our students. To live life truly and authentically is to allow that full expression to come through. Why else are we here?

Horse’s back, 1974, Vermont © Harold Feinstein Photography Trush

The most important word in the creative process is “yes” – even before we know where it will lead us. “No” is dead in the water. So I say, come wander in your wonder. And that’s the journey into the unknown. All you really know about it is that it’s the truest aspect of what you are – and yet is has nothing to do with you at all! It’s letting in the light.

Judith: What do you mean by that?

Harold: I mean, because it’s a gift, it’s a sacred thing. Walking into the unknown of your own creativity is mysterious. It’s where you find yourself as an individual, but also touch on what is universal. Remember, you are not alone when you walk in to the temple.You have brought God with you.

Queen Anne's Lace back,  1999
Queen Anne’s Lace back, 1999

Judith: And the temple is…?

Harold: The temple is that place that is sacred to you. For me, my photography is a sacred act because I recognize it as my gift. And I’m hugely humbled by it, because I don’t own it. I can only be gracious to it. That’s all I can do… and, what’s another word for gift?

Judith: A present.

Harold: Yes. It’s obviously a present, but it’s also the present. To be present. So the gift is in being present now and now and now. To see what’s in front of us in any given moment. That’s why I’m always saying: “Will you look at that?” Because there’s just so much that’s absolutely extraordinary every moment in the ordinary. It’s called being present to the gift of life.

Judith: So how do you guide your students in this path, which is not just a path about seeing and about photography, but seemingly a path about living life no matter what we choose to do?

Harold: I say to my photography students: Whatever brought you into this room, and whatever brought me here, I consider sacred. That’s what I’m here for.

Whatever you do, whether it ends up with photography, or poetry, or any other area, is going to rest very deeply on your ability to see the strength and beauty of what you have. That is the dividing line between those who soar and those who don’t.

Triumph Hybrid Tulip, 2001

I’ve seen students who in the beginning are like shooting stars. You know, right away. It’s so obvious. You know, it’s so clear where they are. And others that will bump into every inanimate object there is. But, luckily I see people over a longer period of time and I get to see many of them at the point where they get their wings and they fly.

And the key element is that moment when they begin to give recognition to their gift – to say, “I am a photographer”. That belief suddenly fuels how far they’ll go with what they have. Talent — I’ve seen much of. Immense amounts of it.

But the most important technique is self-recognition. That and a prayer. And they’re not contradictory, because self-recognition is giving; is being gracious about the gifts that God has given us.

It’s not aout ego. It’s not blowing one’s horn. We only blow our horn and it’s only an egotistical act when we’re afraid of and feel insecure about what we have or who we are. But in terms of beliefs of oneself, to give recognition – to say “I’m beautiful. I’ve done something really nice here, really wonderful here.”

This is being gracious to the gift. Because we don’t own it, you know. We don’t own any of it. We don’t even own these bodies. We’ve rented these for a life span. That’s all. Dust to dust.

Judith: Amen. It’s hard to say anymore than that…

Blanket Toss Beach Play, 1955
Blanket Toss Beach Play, 1955

22 comments

  1. bob salzman

    Hi Uncle,
    I am glad you still be here to muse on.
    Reading your thoughts and seeing more of your photos this summer morning in Albany, reminds me of earlier days, the one where I first tasted honey, and began my journey into the joyous humming of wonder, and being thrown high into the sea salt air of Coney Island. And, of course, you were there just ahead of me.
    And thank you Judith, for this wonderful interview.
    With love and amusement,
    Bob

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dear Bob: Thank you for coming back in to my life as I might have forgotten there great memories between us had you not. Remember to remember is a phrase I’ve heard and now use as my own. There is so much that is given us that we tend to ignore until being reminded. Thank you for reminding me!

  2. Annie

    Judith and Harold: I have copied today’s blog and posted it on my office wall. I realized I was holding my breath when I read the words, “wander in your wonder” – I did exhale, slowly, very slowly. To me, those four words spoke volumes. Thank you for this gift.
    My son, Doug, at age 8, looking at my mum in her coffin spoke similar words re renting the body. He said, “Grandma’s body is like an engine, she kept fixing it (she had plastic valves in her heart) but now it can’t be fixed, it doesn’t work and she has to leave it. But she is flying free and is so happy.” Since that time, I know that all that we have is just on loan.

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dear Anne: I realize that I’ve borrowed God’s eyes when I photographed. They move me as much as they possible could anyone else, and I’m grateful for the use of them. Thanks for your words

  3. Barbara Hildt

    Your words in this posting are so true and profund Harold. The photos you chose to accompany them are so beautiful.
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful gifts with us.
    Love,
    Barbara

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dear Barbara: Sharing my words gives me the opportunity to hear them anew, and this is what it’s done for me in relation to you. So glad they resonated. Miss the two of you.

  4. Shirley

    Beautiful, moving thoughts. Thank you.

  5. Barbara Bullock-Wilson

    When Allan Coleman paired you and Dad in a show, I had never heard of you, never seen your work. Perhaps you were similarly unfamiliar with Dad.

    Allan knew, however. He is a deeply perceptive and loving human being and he recognized that you and Dad were kindred spirits – even though the subject matter you each photographed is quite distinct.

    I am grateful to Allan for many things – and one of them is introducing me to the world of Harold Feinstein.

    What a shining gift you are, Harold! Interacting with your images, your thoughts, and your wonderful self fills me with joy. Like Dad, you encourage me to grow and share my best self.

    Along with my gratitude to Allan, I give thanks to Judith who is continuing to make this connection, this process of inspiration possible. She is an integral part of the process, giving it form and life. Her understanding and appreciation, her generosity and insightfulness, are also gifts I treasure.

    • haroldfeinstein

      Barbara: I always look forward to your comments! Of course I knew Wynn’s work well and love it. I too am grateful to Allan for bringing us together and feel a real kinship with your father’s imagery — but even moreso, a spirit that shines through. I appreciate his innate sensitivities. And Judith has been my own shining light. Without her I couldn’t do the things I do and get my thoughts and images out to the world — aside from the fact that I learn so much about loving and living from being with her.

      I’m hoping we can see you and Gene again before too long. We would love the opportunity to continue growing the friendship in person! But, in the meantime, we’ll be happy with this format!

      Best to you both —

  6. Paula

    i am so honored to be a le to learn such profoundly important and moving lessons from you (and, in years past, from Robin, whom I’d always likened to a mentor (and mensche). It’s quite obviously a deep, integral & basic part of your whole family. We are much like a lending library – on loan to learn and share our knowledge (in our case, our particular form of that which manifests itself through art) with the world around us. It that way that we develop into the rounded souls we are capable of becoming. Thank you for helping light our way.

    Much love to you and Judith. And yes, again, stunning photos!

    Paula

  7. Susan Osborn

    Dearest Harold and Judith…when I read this post I realized again how profoundly you have influenced my life, singing and teaching, and through me, so many others. The night we met in front of Crazy Eddies on 6th Ave is so clear in my mind. Was it really that long ago? And here we are still wandering in wonder. Thank you, thank you, thank you! All Love, Susan

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dearest Susan: For me too I remember clearly the night we met on 6th Avenue, and my inviting you up to my apartment. I’ve loved you from the first moment, and that love burns on. I hope we get more chances to see each other. Judith sends her love too. Love Harold.

      P.S. To my readers, please visit Susan Osborne’s website: http://www.susanosborn.com

  8. Allan MacGregor

    Dear Harold & Judith,

    Thank you so much for this life-affirming message!!! The words took me back to the class with Harold quite a few years ago. Similar sentiments moved me back into photography at that time and for that I am enduringly grateful. I am also grateful that Harold is still with us so he can continue to be a creative and spiritual presence in my life. Looking forward to being with you both in the fall.

    Allan MacGregor

    • Harold Feinstein

      Allan: Wish you were here! Thanks for the encouragement and the wonderful friendship over these years. Looking forward to seeing you in the fall!

  9. Cheryl Cathcart

    Dear Harold,
    Your words and images are so profound and so precious, they are a gift to us all. I left Boston/Arlington near the end of 2000 and wonder if you remember me from your amazing classes both the “Photography for the Love of it” and small class discussions that continued in your home in Arlington and later one of the students when you and Judith moved to the north shore.
    After several years in Los Angeles I moved to New Mexico in 2004 and have continued my deepening interest and love in photography since then. I often remember such wonderful encouraging thoughts you gave to all of us and I am so grateful for you and your beautiful images and books.
    I am long overdue for a visit to Massachusetts and New England and hope to see you or speak with you before too long.
    Thank you for inspiring my life and art in photography,
    Cheryl

    • Harold Feinstein

      Cheryl: Thanks so much for your kind words. The truth is, I have the memory of a “drunk flea”, but would love to recollect you in person should you decide to come east. Judith and I would welcome a visit from you. In the meantime, I will not forget these words! Many abundant blessings to you!

      Harold

  10. Francie Stoutamire

    I found this page through a Facebook posting on the Craft and Vision FB page. Your words and images have touched me in a place beyond words. Now retired, I am graced with the opportunity to explore my creativity at a new and deeper level than ever before. I am very much so a beginner, and focusing on enjoying the journey.
    Photography is how I explore my world. I see multiple dimensions in infinite layers of light. I call my work Sacred Eye Studio – Images of Everyday Grace, as I believe each moment is filled with a sacred grace that is knowable through an enlightened inner eye. Particularly through nature, especially through nature. To be privileged to watch a monarch butterfly find and lay an egg on a milkweed in my garden here in Tallahassee, after its long journey across the Gulf of Mexico, is to be touched by the hand of Source.
    Thank you for sharing the gift of your words, and the beauty of your work.
    Blessings.
    Francie

    • Harold Feinstein

      Dear Francie: Like you, I’ve never gotten over “it” — whatever “it” is! And on and on it goes. Your words describe perfectly both the love of photographing and the love of life. Warmest regards, Harold

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