If you have not yet viewed Masters of Photography, the luminous collection of black-and-white photographs on display at Lumière gallery, here is another incentive: View from the Street (through December 23).
This exhibition pairs the work of two great photographers. Vivian Maier, who died in 2009, is the mysterious nanny who rocketed to posthumous stardom after the discovery of her negatives in a storage locker in 2007.
Harold Feinstein, now 83, was already exhibiting at the Museum of Modern Art at the age of 19 and collected by the likes of Edward Steichen. He was associated with the influential New York school and collaborated with W. Eugene Smith.
It’s an ingenious coupling: the juxtaposition brings out their similarities and their differences. Most obviously, they are both street photographers in the black-and-white tradition. In fact, there is a high probability that they both walked the New York streets during the 1950s.
Yet it is not where they were but what they saw that is intriguing. Both were interested in capturing genuine expression and life as it unfolded. In Gypsy Girl and Carousel (1946), Feinstein froze the defiant gaze of a young girl, off-centered, while another child rides on a wooden horse in the background, blurred by the speed of the carousel. In Boy with Chalked Numbers (1955), a young black boy sits on the ground, looking up to the camera as if confronting its intrusiveness.
Maier’s work is also populated with children, even if not always portrayed in a sympathetic way. “Maier — a caring person, but an unsentimental photographer — was just as quick to photograph children when they were crying or vulnerable,” remarks Marvin Heiferman in his introduction to Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found, a newly released book on her work.
Both photographers play masterfully with light and subtle shades of black and white. In one wintery scene, Night Snow West 11th Street (1982), Feinstein captures a lonely silhouette in a street covered with snow. “The whitest white comes from the street lights, which works together with the gentler white of the snow to orchestrate a mood of paradoxical warmth,” writes Feinstein in a blog post.
Remarkably, 30 years or so earlier, Maier shot a scene of a snow-covered street, maybe less warm in tone but strikingly similar in its composition.
On sunny days, it was all about strong contrasts. Both photographers found abstract figures and long shadows cast by high-rises, as shown in Feinstein’s 125th Street from Elevated Train (1950). In a street scene similarly shot from above, New York (no date), Maier captured pedestrians’ shadows caught in the constraining geometry of the buildings.
For all of their similarities, however, their very different personalities play out in their art, particularly in their self-portraits.
Maier was a loner, a secretive “amateur.” She evinced no intention to share her work with the rest of the world. Some of her self-portraits, a recurrent theme, look almost ingenuous, like in Child in Car (date unknown), where she is seen in the reflection of the car’s window while catching the absent look of a young girl left alone in the front seat.
They became “increasingly cryptic over the course of her life,” remarks Heiferman. When her face was not hidden behind her Rolleiflex, she looked straight into the camera, inquisitive but impassive.
Feinstein possesses a vibrant personality. He is beloved as a photographer, teacher and mentor. His approach to self-portraits is more playful, a way to affirm his presence and add complexity.
In Beauty Parlor Window (1964), he brings himself in the picture by including his reflection — and those of passersby — while four women inside look directly at him. Multiple layers of information make for a compelling image.
Feinstein is best known, perhaps, for his highly regarded series of his native Coney Island, which has offered him an inexhaustible palette of human emotions for the last six decades. Later in life he took up still life, nude and abstraction and produced an extensive body of color work of flora, seashells and butterflies.
Likewise, Maier had a lifelong devotion to photography. Though best known for her street photography, the work she left behind reveals a wide range of interests: landscape, paparazzi shots, family.
This pairing of the artists’ street photography makes for an intellectually stimulating dialogue between them — and the viewer.