Feininger was born in Paris, France, to an American family of German origin. His father, painter Lyonel Feininger, was born in New York City, in 1871. His great-grandfather emigrated from Durlach, Baden, in Germany, to the United States in 1848.
Feininger grew up and was educated as an architect in Germany, where his father painted and taught atStaatliches Bauhaus. In 1936, he gave up architecture itself, moved to Sweden, and focused on photography. In advance of World War II, in 1939, Feininger immigrated to the U.S. where he established himself as a freelance photographer and in 1943 joined the staff of Life magazine, an association that lasted until 1962.
Feininger became famous for his photographs of New York. Science and nature, as seen in bones, shells, plants and minerals, were other frequent subjects, but rarely did he photograph people or make portraits. Feininger wrote comprehensive manuals about photography, of which the best known is The Complete Photographer. In the introduction to one of Feininger's books of photographs, Ralph Hattersley described him as "one of the great architects who helped create photography as we know it today." In 1966, theAmerican Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) awarded Feininger its highest distinction, the Robert Leavitt Award. In 1991, the International Center of Photography awarded Feininger the Infinity Lifetime Achievement Award.
Today, Feininger's photographs are in the permanent collections of the Center for Creative Photography,Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art, London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.