"What were they like? That’s the question I mostly get asked," said Deborah Feingold of the pop legends, Nobel laureates and politicians she has photographed for magazines and book covers throughout her four-decade career. Many of her images — including one of a sassy young Madonna wearing black bangles and sucking a lollipop, and the intimate shot of Barack Obama gracing his 2006 bestseller "The Audacity of Hope" — have become as iconic as their subjects.
Now, the photographer is training her lens on a more unlikely and less conspicuous target — weathered and barnacled boat hulls she stumbled upon walking through North Fork shipyards. Here, the stories are restricted to the peeling paint and rusted surfaces Feingold frames in her viewfinder.
"Like her portraits, they are completely organic and unmanipulated, the product of a visionary eye," said Ann Vandenburgh, curator of "Rocking the Boat: An Abstract Look at North Fork Boats by Rock and Roll Photographer Deborah Feingold," which opened Sept. 26 in the second-floor gallery of the repurposed fire station that houses the Greenport Harbor Brewing Co.
On a rainy late August afternoon, Feingold, 68, took in the 19 quietly sublime photographs composing her first show not devoted to commercially assigned work. Dressed in a long, navy cotton dress, the photographer’s hallmark easygoing vibe was evident, perhaps most discernibly in her grown-out, shoulder-length gray hair, its ends tinged a rich chestnut brown.
"The parts of the boats I look at have all been underwater, aging in the sun. I’m moving, trying different vignettes like a scenic painter, and then it’s like, ‘Ooh, ooh, there it is,’" the photographer said of her process.
'More natural place'
The sea change, "mining the surreal out of the ordinary" — as Vandenburgh put it — in contrast to Feingold’s distinctive ability to expose the real in the extraordinary, has been "a freeing experience," according to the artist. "It’s different. I don’t have to talk much. It’s a more natural place for me."
A self-described introvert, Feingold left her inhibitions in her hometown of Cranston, Rhode Island, to attend Boston’s Emerson College with the intent of becoming an actress. Ultimately, though, she did not see herself as part of the theater community. "I was shy," she said, "and socially it was not a good fit." She transferred to the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), where she graduated with a degree in speech communication, and returned to the Boston area.
While her academic focus shifted, photography, a hobby Feingold had shared with her dad since the age of 12, remained on the periphery. She learned how to load film in a manual camera and process it in a makeshift darkroom in the basement of her family home. "Developing an exposure from a blank piece of paper has never stopped fascinating me," she noted.
Upon moving to Cambridge, she promptly set up a darkroom in her Central Square apartment. "All of their doors were always open," Feingold said of the creative types with whom she shared the building. She joined a nearby photo co-op and taught photography to youths in a nearby detention center, a position she secured through a Title I grant in 1974. "I had my own cell to use as a darkroom and a lot of donations from Polaroid," she recalled.
The self-taught photographer viewed the workshops less as fine-art classes than an outlet for the facility’s residents to constructively express emotion. "I had no specific training but felt a lot of compassion for them," said Feingold, who, over the years, had also shared her picture-taking expertise with senior citizens and special-needs young adults. "I was working off instinct."
The ability to improvise, Feingold revealed, she learned from watching her then-boyfriend, a jazz drummer, and his band. "It was life-changing," she said of the time she spent taking pictures of them practicing in her building’s basement. "For some photographers, the subjects, the people, are a prop for their vision. For me, I can’t ignore who they are, what they are doing. I have to be aware of what they are saying through their instrument. You need to make a connection, to be attuned to each other."
Making the most of luck
"Deborah has a great way with people," agreed colleague and friend Diane Luger, an art director who lives in Port Washington and first worked with Feingold while at Hachette Book Group in 2009. "It is not easy to make them feel at ease in front of a camera. She wants her subject’s authentic self to come through."
Feingold’s innate ability to read a room has allowed her to produce raw and telling images of large talent frequently seen in the pages of such high-profile periodicals as Rolling Stone, Newsweek and The New York Times, among others. According to the photographer, serendipity also played a role.
In fact, she said, if it wasn’t for a relationship she had with another jazz musician — a bass player with whom she moved to Manhattan — she might not have landed her first major gig. The guitarist was invited on the road with Chet Baker, presenting Feingold with the unexpected opportunity to photograph the jazz legend for the Artists House record label in 1979.
"It was incredible because I didn't really know anything except to shoot 35-mm black and white," she explained in a radio interview with Boston’s WBUR, in 2014 when "Music," her anthology of pop, jazz and rock star portraits, came out. "I shot it vertical, I shot it horizontal, and there wasn't a lot of film … But, it's very poignant, and for obvious reasons." (Feingold ended up capturing Baker perched on a windowsill with his trumpet. He would die years later falling from a second-story window.)
Guided by her razor-sharp and sympathetic eye, countless career-defining shots followed — indelible images of Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Prince, William Gates, Yoko Ono, Johnny Depp, George Carlin, Tom Wolfe, to name only a few. Feingold’s improvisational skills, of course, have contributed. After a somewhat disappointing shoot with James Brown, for instance, she brazenly followed him down the elevator and snapped her unforgettable photo of the soul sensation in front of a city bus. And when an assignment to capture Obama before the Chicago skyline got scrapped after her light stand fell into the water from the concrete jetty they were standing on, she quickly recovered with a hurried and successful studio session in a cramped hotel room. "I never go with a preconceived vision," she said.
Feingold hadn’t expected to find herself on Long Island’s North Fork these past many days and months either. "I did not plan to retire here," she said of her ongoing stay in the weekend home she had bought a little more than a year-and-a-half ago in Southold, where she has been riding out the pandemic since she left Manhattan with her daughter and son-in-law. "This is for now, and I feel lucky to have it."
Intrigued by nature's work
She also hadn’t planned her latest photo series. Living in a new town without an established circle of friends, Feingold said she turned to her constant companion, her camera. Wandering into a local boatyard, she found herself intrigued by the organic designs on the vessels’ undersides and started shooting. "At first, I didn’t want to show them, or explain what they were. They felt so personal, and I liked that."
So did Vandenburgh, who was introduced to Feingold’s work through Lori Guyer, owner of the vintage boutique White Flower Farmhouse in Southold and one of the photographer’s neighbors. "I was so moved. They are mystical, ethereal — they are a whole world," Vandenburgh said of her first encounter with the profoundly allusive abstractions. "And then I learned that they were images of boats taken by a famous rock ’n’ roll photographer."
In the show, the untitled photographs, printed in editions of 25 and hung in pickled white frames made by the artist, are accented with nautical props on loan from Guyer’s shop. Feingold transforms the ship hulls’ imperfect surfaces into land-, sea- and mindscapes that alternately denote the luminous and moody tones of the 18th-century British landscape painter J.M.W. Turner, the haunting, natural-world symbolism of 20th-century artist Charles Burchfield and emotive gestures of Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock.
Despite the challenges brought on by the coronavirus, Vandenburgh was adamant about her plans to mount the show in the brewery gallery, where mask-wearing visitors can view them by appointment through the end of December. "Deborah and I had to have our meetings down at the beach, talking from our separate cars," Vandenburgh chuckled. "But I didn’t love the idea of a virtual exhibition — you have to see the works more intimately."
"I can see her becoming someone who people look out for on the North Fork," Luger predicted, associating her with some of the big-name artists and thinkers Feingold has photographed and who can also be spotted on Long Island’s East End. "She is at a point in her career where she can do what she wants to do. I think this is the beginning for her — really."
Rocking the Boat: An Abstract Look at North Fork Boats
WHEN | WHERE Sept. 26 through late December at Greenport Harbor Brewing Co., 234 Carpenter St., Greenport
INFO By appointment only; 631-513-9023, greenportharborbrewing.com