Steve McQueen: The Unseen Photographs
A new collection of unpublished images of Steve McQueen by acclaimed photographer Barry Feinstein captures the public and private life of a true American icon
Barry Feinstein was the perfect photographer to shoot stills on the set of Steve McQueen’s classic movie Bullitt. As an artist, photographer, filmmaker, thrill-seeker and long-time friend of McQueen, he was instinctively in tune with everything that was taking place on and off set.
Starting in the 1950s as a production assistant for Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn, Barry was perfecting his craft, taking photographs at every opportunity, choosing to shoot things that took his interest or he thought important. On the set with Judy Garland or Clark Gable he was working, but in his own time he documented the curtain falling on old Hollywood, the people, places and events in and around the studios, deliberately avoiding the glamorous side.
He produced a remarkable, stark, sometimes ironic and often humorous series of photographs far removed from the usual controlled view endorsed by the all-powerful studios. In the early 1960s, this collection of pictures inspired Bob Dylan to compose a number of essays eventually published in a book Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric in which Dylan states, ‘First of all I don’t think what I had written would have been written without seeing the photographs … and secondly … well I don’t know if there is a secondly.’
After Hollywood, through his friendship with Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, Barry began shooting musicians. He told me he had no real interest in straightforward stand up portraits, preferring something different, more unusual and more real with an element of mystery. The cover photo for Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A Changin’, happened on the balcony of an apartment in New York; in just a few frames Feinstein knew he had his shot, an unconventional, angled portrait. Despite not seeing himself as a portrait photographer, Barry was commissioned to shoot hundreds of album covers for Dylan, The Byrds, George Harrison, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Ike & Tina Turner, Frank Zappa, Gram Parsons, Barbra Streisand and many, many others covering Jazz, Folk, Blues, Rock, Soul and Gospel.
Also a brilliant documentary photographer with the eye of a fine artist, Barry would work almost unnoticed and be at the centre of the action for the vital moment, knowing exactly when to press the shutter and more importantly, as he said himself, ’knowing when not to’.
I had the good fortune and pleasure of working closely with Barry and his archive, a treasure trove of negatives, slides and prints that is simply staggering in its depth and scope. He was very clear that his pictures could do all the talking, rarely explaining in detail any concept beyond ‘I try to do something good then try to do something better’, and he was even more guarded about his subjects, a rare and admirable quality.
During his long career, Barry photographed presidents, rock musicians and movie stars. He was always looking for some way to make an interesting picture; for him it was always about the picture, not the subject. When the Beatles played their last ever concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in 1966, Barry was there with a movie camera; he needed footage of screaming fans for his movie You Are What You Eat which was released in 1968, becoming a cult classic. He did not film the Beatles because he ‘didn’t need them’!
Bob Neuwirth, Dylan’s confidante and tour manager, told me that of all the people on the 1960s’ scene, Barry was really the cool one that everyone was drawn to and wanted to hang out with, an observation I have heard repeated from people who knew Barry through the years. Writer Tad Wise, in his heartfelt obituary tribute to Barry in The Woodstock Times, quoted influential comedian and rant poet extraordinaire Lord Buckley as dubbing Barry, ‘His Triple Hip-ness’.
Being as skilled with motorcycles and cars as he was with cameras was another reason why Barry was perfect for Bullitt. Barry’s bright red 1929, Indian 101 Scout was his pride and joy and his Triumph Bonneville 650 TT was modified by Hollywood stunt ace Bud Ekins, who famously jumped the barbed wire in the classic scene from The Great Escape and drove the Mustang in Bullitt. His close friendship with the custom car and motorcycle pinstriping legend Von Dutch further allowed Barry to combine his passions, his vivid colour photographs showcasing the skills of both artists.
Skill, knowledge and passion aside, the real reason Barry was on set for Bullitt was because of his friendship with McQueen. The pair had been close for many years and shared a love of fast cars and motorcycles; together with Ekins they would tear up the back trails of the Southern Californian desert at every opportunity. Barry had photographed McQueen many times before, mostly at the racetrack. The cars are from another era but McQueen is timelessly magnificent in every photograph, carefully chosen and perfectly framed using available light and uncanny timing. Barry often shot in a sequential, movie-like way, never cropping the frame in print.
When editing his work he would always pick the strongest photo, dismissing a number of equally fine images. The reason for this, he explained, was, ‘I’m only interested in printing great photographs’. Not good, not interesting, not even unusual ones. If a picture wasn’t great then it wasn’t printed. Over time he mellowed about releasing outtakes but still maintained his conviction about which of his images were truly great. Reviewing his work now, Barry selected the very best photo every time. Throughout his archive, looking over sheet after sheet of proofs where often none of the frames on the roll of film was ever marked up for printing, it was surprising to see the number of incredible photographs that Barry dismissed; ‘interesting maybe, not great’, he would say, ‘ok but too dark’ or ‘there’s better’. Sometimes he would say ‘maybe’ but more often just ‘no’.
The term ‘unseen photographs’ is generally misleading and overused, it usually means the next frame on from the one always shown or a poor quality image rejected first time round.
As popular culture becomes more studied and valuable with the constant demand for more imagery, many photographers are desperate to find ‘new’ work. Occasionally, too, a previously overlooked image takes on new meaning over time but never before have I seen such a body of work and a photographer so reluctant to show it. We are looking at photographs that were not only unpublished but mostly never printed before and, if left to Barry’s critical eye, would probably have remained unseen.
As filming was due to commence on Bullitt in San Francisco, Barry was going through a low point in his personal life. McQueen picked him up, literally, and installed him at the Fairmont hotel and together they went to work. Typical of Barry, he never really revealed just how many pictures he had taken of McQueen, or explained how close they were. A few years back, we sat in his studio and started work on a book of his Bob Dylan photographs, Real Moments. Barry insisted he only had twenty great shots of Dylan, we left over one hundred out of the final edit.
Similarly, he would offer only a few prints of McQueen that he thought were up to his standard. We got around to discussing his fondness for wearing baseball caps and when asked why he never wore the cool Stetson that was gathering dust in the corner he casually said, ‘doesn’t fit me, it’s McQueen’s’.
Although Barry was not particularly comfortable talking about his many achievements – for the longest time none of his photographs even had a place on the walls of his home – he was more than happy to discuss photography, movies, music and all aspects of art and design, pointing out what was good or not and why, also suggesting alternative points of view. Despite an archive stretching back to the 1950s, he much preferred looking forward; he was quietly proud of his photography and I think he would have been happy to see his work with McQueen published here. The last time I saw Barry, shortly before he passed away, I showed him some layouts for another project featuring his work. Flicking through the pages he told me to stop and go back a few pages. ‘Don’t crop that picture’, he said, noticing a minor crop made on one photo that I am sure he had not viewed in almost forty years! I told him I didn’t think he would notice. He smiled and his eyes twinkled. Of course he noticed; one of his gifts was an incredible eye for detail, another was his ability to capture it on film.
Great photographs, great artists and great friends, Barry Feinstein and Steve McQueen, kings of cool, doing what they loved doing most and doing it better than most!
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