Photographer Larry Fink appeared on the main stage of the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph last night for a freewheeling conversation with his friend, author Donald Antrim. Fink talked frankly about his formative experiences, the evolution of his motivations and his work, and the path of his illustrious career. It all added up to plenty of practical advice about how to approach subjects, follow your instincts, and make good photographs.

Fink’s career, spanning more than 55 years, has included shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and other museums. He has published several monographs, including Social Graces (Aperture, 1984) and, most recently, The Beats (powerHouse, 2014), a retrospective of his earliest work from 1958. Fink is perhaps best known for his unflinching black-and-white photographs of society parties for Vanity Fair, W, GQ and other magazines. His work is delicious visual eavesdropping: It reveals the emotion and human interaction roiling below the surface of polite manners and social grace.

Fink told a packed house at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater,  “I’ve photographed everything. Nothing was beneath me or above me. I’m just alive. I’m just hungry, hungry to experience, and the camera can translate these experiences in certain ways other things can’t.

“The idea is, is it possible for me…to make a picture that somehow or another assimilates that experience, and then has the miraculous transference to be able to be understood by many others?” Fink said. “How do I enter into you [the subject], pull you through me, clicking all the way, so that we merge inside? And that’s empathy on the deepest, primary level.”

Fink’s career began in 1958 with a chance assignment to travel across the country with some Beatniks he had gotten to know in New York City. He was 17, and had dropped out of college after a month and a half.

“I got along with them, but it wasn’t based on harmony. It was based on rage,” he said. Later in the talk he elaborated: “Those folks I hung out with for a year or so were not my favorite people. They were people I was destined to be with, because of my predilection for drugs and anger and hope at that particular moment in time.”

In describing his career, Fink suggested it happened by accident. He had “no professional discipline whatsoever, nor any ambition” when he got that first assignment in 1958. “I was trained that the revolution was about to come and I was working for the revolution. I didn’t have a career in mind. I was stuck with that later.”

But Fink approached the road trip—and every other subject—with an open mind, and deep empathy, he emphasized several times in his talk.

“I saw every assignment as a small grant to go to do something and see something that I hadn’t experienced before. I didn’t care that much about the money,” he said. “What my real inner secret was, was not about what they [the editorial clients] needed. It was about what I was seeing and how visceral and immediate, strange, astounding [it was to me.]”

The act of photographing, Fink said, “is swift and physical” for him. “I can see weakness, I can see strength, I can see horror, I can see evil, I can see meanness, I can see joy, I can see generosity. And I have all of those things, including the meanness and the evil. And that’s why the pictures come off as they are.”

But it was never the act of photographing that drove Fink, but his desire to experience the world, and share his awe for the things he saw, he said.

“I have one thing I keep on stressing, and have all my life. There’s no such thing as a good picture made of something which you haven’t experienced. If you just go out to make a picture just for the sake of making a picture, [that’s] all fine and dandy. But more than likely, the only reason that a picture lives in its own breath is because you yourself have been gasping in front of something which astounded you in some silent way, or subtle way, or bombastic way. Something that has taken your gut out, turned it around, and mixed it up. And you go: How can I? Is it possible? The question you arrive at, when you photograph—Is it possible?— and of course it’s not possible to translate what’s in your mind, through a camera. That’s why we work: to make it possible.”

Fink said he came to photography with an agenda, but it was ultimately overwhelmed by his empathy. His idea about photographing the wealthy, he said, “was coming out of my Marxism, coming out of any number of things, that I would photograph those guys, thinking, delusion-istically, that they might disappear someday. I’ll be like Atget: I’ll collect them.”

But Fink also said that he approaches his subjects and assignments “with a blank mind. If you go in with preconceived precept, you’re going to go there to prove a point. I don’t have a point to prove. The only point is: what is the point, and how can you make a picture of the questions.”

When a questioner asked him to reconcile the agenda/no-agenda positions, Fink said, “Trained as I was as a revolutionary communist, but by very, very bourgeois parents, gave me not a vitriolic-ness, but a sense of ideology, but yet an incredible taste for its contrary evidence in life. So in a way, that duality created a practical being.”

And because he was raised by a mother who made him think he was special, he continued, “I believed I could find out what the essence of each person that I viewed was. So I would try to click their essence. I would be a prophet of their destiny. Well, that’s a hell of a thing to think about. But that was my way. It was based on kind of an abject and very selfish morality, based on the rightness of this revolutionary stuff, and the rightness of knowing the way into the future, which of course has been proven to be wrong. Or if not wrong, certainly flawed.

“Nevertheless, I had gone out in certain circumstances to photograph not with good intentions, but  with political intentions. But what happened was, over the years, looking back at the work, there was an indelible and essential kindness in me, which allowed the people just to be alive, regardless of what I was trying to postulate or presume, in terms of their being, if you will. The gift of my life’s work really is the fact that I was gifted to be kind.”

Fink says he struggled with his success, because it conflicted with his revolutionary principles.

The success of his first book (Social Graces) “made me nuts. I didn’t know what to take a picture of,” he said. “I was lucky to get Guggenheims and stuff. But it changed my life. It made me self-conscious. In ’78, I had the show at the Museum of Modern Art, and in ’84, the book [Social Graces]  came out. When I had the show and the Guggenheims, it screwed me up so bad because I was supposed to be an underground revolutionary. And all of a sudden I’m getting a Guggenheim and a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Whoa! That’s disgusting.”

Of course, Fink has continued to work. One recent project, called Flesh and Stone, explores questions of mortality. “I’m 74. Mortality really starts to move into your consciousness. I no longer want to change the world, I just want to hang on. I want to give as much as I can until I die.”

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