Three Reasons to Watch: Last Stop Coney Island

Every week, Curzon or a guest editor recommends a key film from the Curzon Home Cinema collection. This week, we look at a compelling portrait of an overlooked chronicler of life in New York.

If you were a fan of photography in New York during the 1950s, you would have heard of Harold Feinstein. What’s strange is that so few people know of him today, when other photographers from his era have become the stuff of legend. Andy Dunn’s film should go some way to addressing this. A rapturous portrait of a brilliant photographer and hugely charismatic character, Last Stop Coney Island uses Feinstein’s photography as a guide through his development and record of life in New York City.

Last Stop Coney Island

Last Stop Coney Island

Photography may not have started in New York, but the city, which grew in tandem with the nascent visual medium, soon became the focus for some of the finest and cutting-edge photographers. Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand saw the medium as both an art and way of recording life in the early 20th century. Steiglitz’s famous 1907 shot ‘The Steerage’ was a portrait of class and immigration aboard a single ship, while Paul Strand’s ‘Wall Street’ (1915) found commuters dwarfed by the buildings they walked past. They were followed by Berenice Abbott, whose portrait of New York at night, ‘Nightview, New York, 1932’ is a startling abstract image of a city ablaze with light.

In the 1940s, newspaperman Weegee became famous for his night-time crime scene shots, while Alfred Eisenstaedt immortalised the city as a place of romance with his famous photo of a sailor kissing a young woman as everyone celebrated VJ-Day, in August 1945. Uptown, in Harlem, Helen Levitt produced humane and humorous portraits of daily lives. Saul Leiter added colour in the 1950s, which completely changed the way people saw the streets of the city, while Diane Arbus looked at lives on the periphery, previously unrecorded. Their influence can be seen in the work of later photographers shooting on the streets of New York, such as William Klein, Garry Winogrand and Joel Meyerowitz.

As Dunn’s film reveals, Feinstein never played by the rules of the mainstream art establishment and so was marginalised. He wasn’t like Vivian Maier, whose photography seemed to appear from nowhere when her films, negatives and prints were purchased by chance at an auction. Feinstein had a reputation. He was a vital presence when he was producing his best Coney Island portraits. Thankfully, we now have Last Stop Coney Island, which goes some way to restoring his reputation and will hopefully see him considered among the best photographers of life in New York City.

Three reasons to watch Last Stop Coney Island

  • The Photographs. It’s hard to believe that Feinstein dropped off the radar as much as he did. The photographs that populate the film, both of Manhattan and Coney Island, are extraordinary.

  • Judith Thompson. Feinstein’s second wife and Director of the Harold Feinstein Photography Trust, Thompson became the driving force behind his career resurgence. She is a charismatic figure in the film and is active in promoting his legacy.

  • New York then and now. Footage of Feinstein over the years provides a stunning portrait of a city undergoing change over a 60-year period.