For a photographer who has captured iconic images of everyone from Mick Jagger to Barack Obama, Deborah Feingold is almost shockingly…modest. In fact, she considers humility one of the great secrets of her success, as she explained in a sit-down at the Gallery at the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company in Greenport, where she’s debuting a new exhibit this week.
Feingold’s four decades of rock and roll photography, featuring intimate portraits of Madonna, Prince and Cyndi Lauper, were collected in the 2014 book Music, and her many book cover subjects include not only Obama (for The Audacity of Hope) but also Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. But her newest work is pure North Fork: A series of close-up photos of weathered boat hulls that turn barnacles and peeling paint into beautiful abstract imagery.
Feingold, 68, who moved to Southold last year, gave Northforker a preview of her new exhibit (open now for private viewings, with an open house September 26-27) as well as a glimpse into her storied career. Not that she’d call it that.
What was the inspiration for the work in your new exhibit?
We were spending the summer here for the first time last year, because my daughter and I just moved out in January, 2019. And you know, when you come out here, you’re so removed from what’s familiar. I knew one or two people, but not that well, but just fell in love with the area. But then once I was here, I didn’t know what to do! I’m used to taking pictures of people. And I didn’t really know anyone and wanted to be creative. I found myself walking in Greenport and exploring, and I came across the boat yard. It says No Trespass, and so of course I went in.
It was almost like I was drawn into the boats. I think what really brought me in was a conversation I’d been having with myself. I was feeling critical of myself for not knowing what to do, and I gave myself a lecture: Stop overthinking, which is something I do. I just started shooting and the more boats there were, the more I saw. These are full frame, none of them are cropped—I always speak about my four corners and what is inside it. So I was creating it as I was shooting, and I got really excited. And I kept coming back.
“I found myself walking in Greenport and exploring, and I came across the boat yard. It says No Trespass, and so of course I went in.”
How did you get started in photography?
I’m self-taught. I’m from Rhode Island, and I was living in Cambridge after college graduation teaching in a detention center for juveniles—this was 1974. All through school, I always had a dark room wherever I was, and when I was in Cambridge, I had joined a photo co-op, as one did in those days. And I met a jazz musician living in my building and we became involved, so I started shooting jazz musicians. Eventually two years later, I moved to New York with another musician. I switched from a drummer to a bass player. He and I both got an assignment — him to go on the road with Chet Baker and I to photograph Chet Baker, and that was the beginning.
I began working for a magazine called Musician that was making a lot of noise in the industry. It was just Rolling Stone, Cream, Downbeat, and just a few more. All these magazines followed pretty much one genre of music. We covered all of it. I did that for five years, and I was shooting, you know, David Byrne, Brian Eno, all the jazz people—it was all different types of music. And it would seem as if Rolling Stone was a little affected by that, because after five years they offered me a contract. This where my career kind of expanded, I was shooting actresses, politicians, Bill Gates — a lot of really iconic subjects.
What’s it like to interact with such iconic figures?
The fact that you were shooting someone who was accomplished at something, that’s what it was that propelled me all the time. Because how honored was I, was lucky was I, how fortunate was I? It was never, “Aren’t they lucky to have me there?” Anyone I’ve photographed, whether they were good things or bad things, they’ve done things.
In the beginning, I was really, really shy. Because I am shy, but I learned while I was doing it and I think I got better and better and better. As I became more experienced and older, my confidence became greater. And then when digital came in, it was just a different kind of fun.
You had a lot of constraints when you were shooting before digital. You didn’t know if you’d gotten the shot until later, right?
And no retouching! Oh, yes, for sure. Thank you. I had a stomachache my whole career until digital came out, because you never knew. And you couldn’t reshoot it. You know, my shoots were not for long periods of time. If anything, I was reliable because I could get it done. I could disguise a seat in a conference room at CBS records when I had 10 minutes with James Brown and I make it look like something else, or I could follow him outside and take pictures of him. But it was really difficult—or challenging. I like the word challenging better.
How would you describe your distinctive style?
Just making people comfortable. It’s about being respectful to the people that I’m with, putting them before myself and just testing. And it’s how I work now. And if anything, I think that has kept me working because I was always very polite. I was always gracious. I was always appreciative, and it came through. Sometimes in the beginning of my career, I was too worried about how they were and didn’t ask them to do something that I wanted because I wasn’t sure how it would go. But I eventually learned how to even deal with that.
There were other photographers that it was about their vision. For me, if we weren’t together in some way, then I had failed. People were not props to me. Other people work that way, but that wasn’t really why I did what I did.
Do you think that gives the photos a certain intimacy?
See, I can’t really be the judge, but I feel that. I hope.
Who are some of your favorite subjects?
I can say a picture of Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega was very special to me. Rolling Stone asked Suzanne who her mentor had been. And I didn’t know this until I got to the studio, but they had never met. It was the only time I ever visualized a shot before I took it because I always wanted the spontaneity. She’s leaning, he’s holding her head and she’s leaning into him. I read an article a few years ago that she talked about that photo shoot and said she was so nervous because she could hear his heart beating when she was against him.
The Madonna photo [from 1982] is probably my most famous. It was a very short shoot. I shot, I think, three rolls of film, 12 exposures per roll, so maybe 36 frames. And we didn’t want to speak to each other. She kind of just moved and I followed, it was all set up in my studio apartment, meaning one room, all the furniture folded up against the wall. She came, we shot, she left, but it will precede me, I can promise you. It is the most famous photo I ever took, which was a big surprise back then. I had heard her music and asked Musician magazine, can I shoot her? And they weren’t interested. So, you know, at clubs when I would shoot concerts, you knew all the editors, so one night I asked David Keeps [of Star Hits magazine], are you interested in shooting her? And he said, sure, that’s fine.
Are there any subjects who were less well behaved?
An interesting one was Billy Idol. It was early in my career, and I didn’t know anything really about him. He was wearing a cape, and I thought it’d be fun to get some movement in the cape. I asked, and he did it, but he knocked my light down, broke it and walked off. I honestly think he was embarrassed. We thought, is he coming back? And he never came back. That happened once more: A few years back, I was photographing someone quite famous, and he was feeling no pain on that shoot. So it was six hours of waiting, and then he said, “I’ve got to go put money in the meter.” And he never came back! But we got the shot. I work fast, because you never know when someone is leaving, and that’s the truth.
There are so many photographers on the North Fork. What advice do you have for people starting out?
I was teaching a virtual class at the International Center of Photography, and we still meet on Zoom once a week. And I mentioned to them what I would say to people starting out: I said it would be good to look at the people that came before. Because a lot of what they’re seeing, this is bad imitation. And I thought it’d be interesting if they saw the genesis of it, where it started. Oh, they didn’t really like that answer! Even though that’s all my class was about, getting inspiration from the masters like Nadar, Avedon and Irving Penn. I don’t think this generation likes to be told what to do or to look at old dead people’s stuff. They think everything they’re doing is unique. But man, you should see where that came from. That could change your whole way of seeing.
What’s next for you out here on the North Fork?
Hopefully it will be with people! But I never really know. It was almost like back when you never knew where the next assignment was. I had a lot of passion in the beginning, but it wasn’t a plan. I always find something.
“Rocking the Boat: An Abstract Look at North Fork Boats” is open now for private viewings by up to 6 people at the Gallery at the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, 234 Carpenter Street, Greenport. Contact gallerist Ann Vandenburgh at 631-513-9023 or [email protected] for an appointment. You can meet Feingold at the exhibit’s open house on Saturday, Sept. 26 from 4-8 pm and Sunday, Sept. 27 from 12-7 p.m. Masks and social distancing will be enforced.