“I was born a communist,” says photographer Larry Fink, who turns 80 in March. The self-described “Marxist from Long Island” first rose to critical acclaim with Social Graces, a series of images that contrasted life in Martins Creek, Pennsylvania, where the artist has lived since the 1970s, with scenes of New York’s upper crust that same decade. Exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1979 and first published as a monograph by Aperture in 1984, the work catapulted Fink to the forefront of the photo world, despite the fact that he eschewed career ambitions in favor using photography to achieve political goals.
“My mother was a communist. She was an organizer, and she had no fear. She was a bourgeois also. She loved mink stoles. My father was a kind, patient man with a stamp collection. My folks had some money so they used to drive around in a Stutz Bearcat, go to Florida, and hang out. They liked leisure, parties and jazz music so my upbringing was a contradictory one,” Fink remembers.
“My sister Liz and I were brought up believing there was the beginning of a new world at the end of the old world, that all of the old cruelties [of capitalism] would dissipate in time. They wanted to get rid of class and thought everything would purify. They were wrong but that’s beside the point. They were right in thinking that they could.”
In the early 1960s, Fink moved to New York and got an apartment at the top of a brownstone overlooking Tompkins Square Park in the East Village for $35 a month and rented a storefront on East 11th Street next to a Mafioso’s garage for $22 a month. “For $57 a month, I had an empire,” Fink fondly recalls.
“I wasn’t photographing for a career — I was photographing for the revolution. Everything I did out on the streets was not about whether or not I would get a story idea I could sell to Look magazine, it wasn’t my ilk. Success wasn’t an interesting factor in my mind. It was victory, revolution, and the transformation of human emotional culture so that this would be a more magnificent place. Of course the revolution didn’t quite get there so I was left with a career.”
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
With the opening of Larry Fink: Retrospective at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, Germany, Fink revisits some of his most seminal works from The Vanities, Social Graces, The Beats, Somewhere There’s Music, and Boxing Images. Like a great musician, Fink knows the audience yearns to commune with his greatest hits, but as an artist he is always seeking, searching, and challenging himself to break new ground.
It’s a practice that began in his youth, when he first picked up a camera at 13 years old. He remembers, “It was just a hobby but I was not the school photographer that Dickie Lipton was; he photographed the teams and I was always out renegading against anything that was systematic so I would photograph the woodlands.”
Brought up in the arts, Fink was introduced to the works of social realists who had an aversion to abstract expressionism, which had set the New York art world aflame. “I love expressionism in any form because it is life force,” Finks says. “That’s what I evolved as a thinker. It wasn’t about what kind of politics you had; it was about we are never satisfied because energy is always mysterious. It’s energy we live with, for, and by.”
In his formative years, Fink studied with legendary photographer Lisette Model, who he describes as “an energist in the sense to receive energy in a profound way.” Model spoke to Fink about judgment advising, “Larry you never can judge, you never know who you will become. That old woman who you think is a puffy old disdainful thing, you might just someday be her because we all we’re just human organism. We evolve as we do and it’s lucky for some and not so for others. You have to understand the deepest energy is one of empathy and compassion.”
With the understanding that empathy isn’t sentimental, Fink recognized a non-judgmental position could allow him to reveal some of the more challenging and complex aspects of the human condition. “If you have evil within you, and I did from my mother, who had a good dollop of evil, then you understood evil as well as you understood goodness. I had the intrinsic capacity to be all of those things.”
From the Farm to Park Avenue, and Back Again
After moving to Martins Creek, Fink met the Sabatine family, the subject of his works, while purchasing a lawnmower. “I didn’t get into photographing them as a project, it was a life force. I photograph where I am and that’s my life,” he says.
As it so happened his first wife, the painter Joan Snyder, was making waves in the art world but she preferred the down home spirit of the countryside. “Sometimes she didn’t even want to go to the parties and I would go for her and bring back the evidence if you will,” Fink says.
“I was teaching at Parson’s School of Design and one of my students, an uptown girl, introduced me to the English Speaking Union and the Russian Ball, all of these various debutante scenarios. I went in there with a political idea that I was photographing much like Eugène Atget was photographing in Paris, that this particular class of people would become obscure then dissipate into time. That was not the case, obviously.”
But what remained were the photographs Fink made that showed two worlds that would never otherwise collide. In his photographs we see what Americans would describe as the “haves” and the “have-nots”, though that only applies to status and wealth; beneath the surface trappings of luxury, there is another truth.
“The one thing I was trained in being was non-hierarchical. I don’t have an internal class system. Who you are is who is in front of me and who I am in the same, and that’s how we have to relate to each other,” Fink says.
Fink describes a typical night on the town, which required him to drive his 1957 Willys truck, a four-wheel drive with a plow from Martins Creek to Manhattan at 45 miles an hour — four hours each way. “I would drive to Park Avenue and park it. It wouldn’t lock but no one wanted to steal it. I would get out, head for the party, and be pretty anxious about it all, thinking about myself as an infiltrator in the secret world of your own intentions. Then I would immediately head to the bar and down five gin and tonics in a row. Only then could I normalize myself to get friendly and go to work,” he recalls.
“I worked through the night and after midnight when things started to close down I would go into the bathroom, smoke a joint, then get back in the truck and drive four hours back to Martin Creeks, to the darkroom and develop the film that fucking morning! That’s a lot of energy that boy had. Then the next day or week I would be down at Sabatine’s mower shop, hanging around and it was a life, and still is.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Larry Fink: Retrospective
January 27–April 3, 2021
Galerie Bene Taschen
Moltkestr. 81 50674 Cologne, Germany
By appointment only.