Born to poor immigrant grocers in D.C., Paul Feinberg was expected to find a stable job when he grew up. So he ended up working as an engineer at the Goddard Space Center.
But he longed for a more artistic life, and he began to photograph lives of those on the margins, around the now long-gone Greyhound bus station, in old pool halls, barrooms and strip clubs. He also photographed artists, beginning in the late 1960s.
The camera, Feinberg says, “gave me the excuse to find out what other parts of the outside world, which I hadn’t been exposed to, or didn’t know much about, or was curious about or thought I wanted to be in.”
Though he didn’t consider becoming an artist, “there was always something about the life of an artist, having read Hemingway and writers back then, that appealed to me.”
His first taste came when he met artist Manon Cleary in her Adams Morgan studio. Suddenly, Feinberg says, “I found this stereotype that I imagined: a real bohemian artist in this city.” Through her, Feinberg met other artists who “made life here much more cosmopolitan to a person that knew none of these worlds growing up.”
Over the years, Feinberg’s images became the basis of dozens of magazine photo stories and a handful of gallery shows, from his earliest bus station essay to 2009’s “Another Washington,” a show of images he captured of tattoo artists, panhandlers, burlesque queens and others from the 1970s and ’80s.
When Cleary took ill in recent years, she requested he continue to photograph her in her studio. It got Feinberg thinking of the other artists he had met decades ago as well. He found them all still working and still committed to their painting, even as the art world had in many cases moved on to the next big thing.
Double portraits of nine artists comprise his new show, “Constant Artist,” opening June 9 at the Katzen Arts Center at American University, along with what he calls “word portraits” — excerpts from the transcribed interviews Feinberg includes with his work.
As with his previous shots of gritty, bygone Washington, “the point of much of it is showing change,” he says.
Artists included the show are Lisa Montag Brotman, Rebecca Davenport, Fred Folsom, Tom Green, Margarida Kendall Hull, Joseph White and the three pictured here.
In addition to the double portraits of those artists, we asked Feinberg to provide similar then-and-now photographs of himself.
Photographed in 1979 and 2012
Photographer and interviewer, his work has appeared in Washingtonian, The Washington Post magazine and in exhibits.
“I don’t consider myself an artist. I’m a documentarian. I want to give these people some attention. Outside of their obituaries, you don’t get to read about them all that much . . .
“The artists’ photographs are mostly close-up portraits in order to emphasize the passage of time. . . . But in the bigger picture, it comments on change: change to a vibrant, creative, cultural part of our city, and change in life expectations as we grow older.
“In spite of many obstacles, these nine artists, having been recognized as among the best of our city, continue to produce their art as they have since their youth and strive to maintain or re-establish the acceptance and appreciation of their artistic visions.”
Photographed in 1982 and 2011
A scenemaker who died in November at the age of 69, Cleary had lived in Washington since 1974 and became known for her photorealist paintings that were exhibited worldwide. Her work is in the collection of the Corcoran, National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago.
“My art is my legacy, my children. I’m creating a history for myself the same way someone else would carry their genes forth. I care where my paintings go in the world, every one of them. When I recently had my retrospective it was really good to see them again. They held up and were as good or better than I remember them . . .
“I didn’t have kids. I’m reading through my 50th high school class reunion book thinking, okay. I made a choice and wouldn’t change it, because I had a pretty exciting life . . .
“What will happen to my work? Will it find good homes or get placed in garage sales?’’
Photographed in 1985 and 2012
Born Michael Vinson Clark, the artist who changed his name several times moved to Washington in the ’60s. He helped found the Museum of Contemporary Art in Washington, and at 65, is famous for post-pop images of windows and presidents.
“Art chose me. I’m an American Indian, and Indians make stuff. My father carved. My mother painted. When I was 5, I’d go up and down the street trying to sell my small paintings. By high school, I was a full-scale artist selling my pieces at the shopping malls . . .
“Part of the reason I came to Washington was because it is the most important city in the world; from Washington we can and have destroyed nations. Part of my art thing was to try to humanize people. Unfortunately, they’re not manning the flames of creativity in Washington. There are tons of dough here but very little interest in art.”
Photographed in 1969 and 2012
Now 78, Gilliam, one of the foremost color-field painters, lived in Washington since 1962, becoming one of the most prominent African American artists. He made his name in a series of shows featuring his unstretched, draped canvases. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Guggenheim and the Tate in London.
“When I was a young artist, I was scared. It was so shaky for artists. But I got lucky because of my shows at the Corcoran. Each show elevated my work. When the Corcoran survived, the artists survived. That’s why it’s so dead now. Now there are more artists doing bad work than ever before.
“The older I get the more nervous I am when making art. I’m also a little jealous of what I did when I was younger, much like an athlete feels as he ages: ‘Will I be able to do it again? Do I still have it?’ I don’t know if my work is better now, but because of the wisdom of age, my work is smarter.”
June 9-Aug. 12 at the Katzen Arts Center, American University.