Mel Finkelstein was part of a breed that no longer exists, the gumshoe photographer who roamed city streets night and day to chronicle life at its highest and lowest, with occasional stops for those in-between moments. He worked for several New York newspapers over his long career, probably most significantly at the Daily News, which was known for its emphasis on photographs. It was required looking for locals.
An exhibition of Finkelstein's work at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art spans four decades, from the 1950s through the 1980s, and was organized with the help of Susan Geier, one of his four daughters and a successful photographer herself who lives in Tarpon Springs. The show is a chronicle of a career, a genre and a time now in the past. Museum director Lynn Whitelaw makes no pretensions to its value as fine art photography. Finkelstein, who died in 1992 at 60, would have scoffed in his brash New York way had anyone tried. It is darned fine visual reporting though he probably would have scoffed at that term, too, along with labels we use now, such as photojournalist or visual journalist.
And eager as he was to get shots of elusive celebrities, he positively scorned a new group that arose during his career, the paparazzi, whose methods of stalking and baiting he considered unfair play. That said, Frank Sinatra once ordered his driver to run Finkelstein over (he loved Sinatra and photographed him often) and actually clipped Finkelstein with a fender.
In many ways Finkelstein was an inheritor of Arthur Fellig, far more famous and known to the world as Weegee, who became the definitive street photographer in New York a generation earlier. Finkelstein had the same uncanny nose for news, sniffing out an important story among the hundreds of routine occurrences that came over the police radios or were phoned in as tips. And he was lucky. Covering a fire at the Plaza Hotel in the 1960s, he was following rescuers up to the 15th floor and mistakenly wound up on the 14th floor in time to see a startled blond walking down the corridor dressed in a mink coat and not much else. That photograph of Kim Novak made the front page of the Daily News.
But he and his peers really surpassed Weegee as image hounds, thanks in part to the development of the 35mm camera. This was a much more rapid-fire instrument than the boxy Speed Graphic in common use for decades.
More than that, though, one gets the sense that Finkelstein cared as much about the story behind his photos as their dramatic potential. At a crime scene, he could find the telling detail that would make the pathos of an incident as important as its gory commercial appeal, as in the photo of a dead woman outside a church under the sign reading "All Welcome." He started out covering race riots in Harlem but became committed to civil rights reporting, even when he was unwelcome because he was white. (Three of his ribs were broken during one clash between police and protesters when a brick smashed through his car window.)
There were 63 staff photographers at the Daily News and all were competing for space on its pages. Until he moved to the New York Post as its photography editor in 1988, he hustled every day and few went by that did not include several Finkelstein photos that told New Yorkers what had transpired 24 hours earlier.
So we see Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller leaving a party juxtaposed with Chinese delegates being seated for the first time at the United Nations (for which he got a Pulitzer nomination), and a photograph of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a limousine near another one of a homeless woman carrying an I Love NY bag.
One photo not in the exhibition had him in front of the camera rather than behind it. In the fall of 1969, he and several other photographers were hanging around a Manhattan movie theater where Ari and Jacqueline Onassis were watching the Swedish cult film I Am Curious (Yellow). She left the theater first and as the photographers began shooting her, she allegedly walked over to Finkelstein and flipped him to the pavement. (He was of average size and weight but said he was caught completely off guard.) A photograph of him lying on the sidewalk as she walks away, taken by another journalist, made national headlines. She claimed through a spokesperson he must have slipped. He didn't pursue the matter.
For him it was just another day at the office, no more or less important than a young girl in Harlem jumping over the net strung across a city street for a makeshift tennis court. Or lovers meeting in a park. The Beatles performing. He knew his territory well. This exhibition makes us feel as if we do, too.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8293.