Nothing is a whim, time stretches us fat and thin. Its evolution serves to address questions asked eternally and opens up avenues of uncertainty since, save for perhaps the objective sciences, answers are never sure.
Pictures are sure. They remain fixed in the moment they were seized; their reading is as always ambiguous, subject to the changing perceptions and intuitions bred by delusion or by experience.
Twenty-five years ago I had hope; now I have fortitude. The Sabatines are splayed across the Pennsylvania hills; John is dead; the family is hardly talking, if at all. The battle of bones and carcasses on Little Creek Road is gone, as is my relationship to that process.
On the other side, the debs and balls are still focused on impression—surely much of the noblesse of the older families is tarnished if not dead. The nouveau doesn’t shine backwards, only forwards, somehow hollow, arrogant and unsure.
So many ideas and energies are reactive, commercial, conservative—not proactive, aspirational, utopian; and at least in my American experience there is a narrowing of the soul. Expectations are lower, and the struggle for true justice has shifted to the status quo of Just Us.
I offer this book in its original sequence and essay, and with an older essay by the masterful and deeply consequential Max Kozloff. Plus an additional group of images from that era as a gift to those who believe that time stopped deftly in a magnetic moment lives on … and on. Thank you.
The Lights and Darks of Living It Up (From Social Graces)
So routinely does photography establish banal genres of subject and style that a great deal of valuable turbulence is sometimes released when they are violated. Increasingly, workers seek the tender surfaces of fashion photography, for instance, or advertising, make their incisions, and let the unctuous content squirt out. Some of the iconography and certainly the husk of the older mode remain, but a disturbing, ill-defined expressiveness sets in.
One of the modes in which this has happened is the photography of parties, balls, club dances or cotillions, and openings. Whether formally dressed, or even more aristocratically in casual wear, people at these functions would appear to be mingling among their own kind, with the consciousness of the happy few. A photographer in their midst could only be there, surely, to certify their good manners or high spirits. It’s taken for granted that such an outsider is a paid collaborator with the mood to which everyone nominally contributes. If, however, the stranger turns out to be Larry Fink, the results can be unexpected in the extreme.
This New York artist has a knack for probing under the apparently breezy confidence of such occasions. He dissects them visually so that his pictures reveal the more intimately seductive and ephemerally anxious tremors that can rise up in groups. If they solely treated private, funky episodes within semi-public gatherings, they would not be as gripping as they are. More to the point, Fink’s work transgresses its “proper” boundaries by a convulsive empathy. One is taken aback by the intense, point-blank carnal drama of these society vignettes: the flickering, possessive or dangling hands, the glistening eyes, and the moist hair. At such genteel places as the Colony Club, an unforgettable urgency charges the air. Whenever bold and accepting flesh touch together, or even when there’s the silkiest innuendo of it, Fink seems to have been voyeuristically present, handy with his flash. Where is the hired, decorous photographer who would care to show that kind of appetite, behind as well as before the lens?
Parties do offer spectacular opportunities for the cunningly handled camera. A decade ago, Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand exploited the centrifugal diffusions and impingements of crowded good times; they took a liking to that kind of chaos. Like the hip street photographers they are, they entangled the scene with sudden openings of near and far, and a whole slew of marginal, mutually divisible episodes bending with the wide angle. All these promiscuous interactions were choreographed with an agility that does credit to the speed of their eyes and the bold dissonance of their compositional sense. Beyond this, though, they had neither ideas nor anything purposeful to say about the specific behavior that froths at parties. Not for a moment did they relinquish their detachment as observers, even at very close quarters. Though deliriously more resourceful than their commercial brethren, they kept to the same social side and distinguished themselves by a brilliant iciness.
Larry Fink, working with similar subjects much more recently, stands in utter contrast to such attitudes. What were spatial connections or disconnections for the others are also psychic ones for him. In his hands, the flash light is the instrument to gather moral understanding and emotional knowledge. He uses it as a luminous probe that transforms small incident into momentous event. Nevertheless, it veils the action we think we know as much as it serves to highlight it. Above or beneath, to the left or right of a critical business, the light may throw us off the scent. It’s as if the animal reflexes and sly plans of his unwitting models are nurtured by a darkness which he has willfully created himself by blazing away elsewhere.
Aside from the astonishing relief and the off-balanced character it gives to the frame, this light converts a momentary glimpse into what looks like a concisely studied theatrical effect. It impresses us not at all as newsy and nosey, as in Weegee, but as voluptuous and even ecstatic. If Fink has a tendency to caricature, it is also wrestled down by his sensuality. These are the two key ingredients of an unstable mixture that infuses a real excitement into his art. From shot to shot, and often within the same picture, he seems possessed by a lively desire to satirize and to embrace the actors on his stage. Then, too, as I mentioned, one notices his tact.
In the early ’60s, Larry Fink studied with Alexey Brodovitch and Lisette Model. From the one he could have gotten first-hand intimations of high style, and from the second, a decided taste for the grotesque. Earlier than this, while still a teenager in the late ’50s, (he’s now 38), he had been with his camera among a youth gang in lower Manhattan—“unbelievably angry street poets,” as he called them—blowing up cars and taking rough junk. Attracted to their beat mystique, he neither felt like one of them nor “anything else.” He had been raised in a middle-class Jewish family of extreme left-wing convictions. His own personal rebellion and ideological dissent boiled up furiously during the next several years, alienating him from most of the academic, commercial, and corporate channels beckoning those in his field. Fink regarded himself—because he had given himself no other choice—as a photographer working with people rather than as someone linked by career to a professional community.
In the mid-’60s, he worked for Har-You-Act. When it came under increasingly direct federal sponsorship, the agency and the photographer grew quite suspicious of each other and parted ways. Fink then tried to go slick and self-destructive, hiring himself out to Warhol and Harper’s Bazaar. “In the final analysis,” he reported, “they said come back later when your work isn’t so human.” Meanwhile, he had gotten to know Diane Arbus, another one-time Model student, and he was aware of Weegee’s pictures, whose shots of Harlem and Sammy’s bar on the Bowery impressed him particularly. All this was very volatile experience.
There tends to be something—for want of a better word—“romantic” in the make-up of the estranged, politically conscious American photographer, a Danny Lyon, a Gene Smith, a Bruce Davidson. Fink has a whiff of this sensibility as well. Yet, in place of their pity and sadness, which was spurred by the influence of Robert Frank, he expresses his much touchier social ambivalence. He could not heroize poetic outcasts and underdogs. Nor was he out merely to scourge the privileged and monied classes. Much more unprotected in his knockabout youth than Arbus, he felt the powerful allure of the rich, his class enemies. In time, his theme would become the pathos of desire, envy, and ambition. During the ’70s, he discovered a style in which to perfect it.
I first came into contact with his art in a 1972 show at the Diana Gallery, where he posted photos of his family, neighbors, and bar mitzvah celebrations. At the end of protest journalism, he’d felt over-extended, far from his inner vision. These tight and hot, homey images were perhaps the first in which he had given himself license to be an artist. And it’s significant that whatever his locales since then, ranging from Parsons School art student bashes to beery doings at American Legion halls in rural Pennsylvania, he betrays an almost sibling intimacy with the groups he photographs. It must have been necessary for this trespasser to blend in, with tuxedo or T-shirt as the occasions demanded. Still, one feels that he established a greater rapport with all of them than what mere camouflage allowed. This photography moves with the tide that swelled around it. Merrymakers are not simply objects of his ironic or snide curiosity. Rather, they are fellow human creatures, with their needs hanging out, like his own.
Before saying why I feel that way, let me discuss the view of parties brought out in these photographs. Fink doesn’t seem to care what these affairs looked like or even where they were. He takes no inventory of the guests. If there happened to be some main event, he doesn’t show it. All these bits of information exist, when they do, only as peripheral fill-up. The theme of which he gives the variations may be high-energy drinking or dancing, but even those are shattered into incandescent fragments. There may have been rock music blasting about or raucous clatter. He provides us dark zones emergent with lighted bodies hearing their own, inner beat.
The party takes shape, then, in a rather ominous space inhabited by introspective beings. The peculiar gravity of that introspection affects even the most fugitive expressions or movements. Weighty matters appear to be pondered in mid-stroke and communication seems to be effectuated only across voids, and with difficulty. Yet the actual gestures are relaxed, entertained, or bemused. We recognize the conviviality of the gathering at the same time that we’re baffled by the slowness, or rather the weird suspendedness of its banter. No one poses or gets ruffled—the photographer enjoys an easy passage through the proceedings—and yet the scene, from frame to frame, appears as the most transparent charade of sociability. One senses insecure instinct, or the presence of uncertain or equivocal feeling as it comes through and wins out over assured manner. A party can be visually defined as an array of individual egos in chance conjunction, sometimes pocketed with clandestine anxiety. The tableaux as we know or can imagine them, in their dull charm, do not conform to such a reading. Yet for the moment, all contrary evidence has rhetorically vanished. It is the complete triumph of rampant style over situation.
Nevertheless, Fink’s photos, while they slur fairly obvious appearances, also recognize and isolate some concealed social truths. The larger the party, for instance, the more the exchanges within it are likely to be derailed and unconsummated. People are visibly forced to change psychological gears. Moments of hectic confusion and chinks of unrelatedness open up all around. Fink studies the poignant intervals hemmed in by the fading and blooming of smiles. We can talk about the rhetoric of these pictures, but we can also see how it’s responsible for the split-second insights breathed into his subject… and our experience.
As the folks at Regine’s and Studio 54 kick up their heels, the photographer makes us aware, too, of what’s been called the “me first” narcissicism of the ’70s. He maneuvers with his historical consciousness, which is just as important as his photographic timing. And he’s not bashful in showing his personal animus. The cheery grimaces, stifled yawns, and decadent emptiness which he shows doubtless existed subliminally when he happened upon them. But he inscribes them with such hyperbolic ease that they seem to us astonishing fictions. Contrarily, his manic tempo also serves the exposure of grace, a quality he couldn’t have dreamed up either, though how it could have been as emphatically visible in the flesh as he shows it in his work, one doesn’t know.
It’s not enough, of course, to speak of this art as having pungent graphic contrasts, fluently arranged. His flash casts the privileged set into the most luridly sinister depths, where the fruitiest scandals are hatched. At the same time, the light caressingly beautifies all sorts of bodily features ejected from that darkness. Here, the photographer’s chiaroscuro works judgmentally as much as it does formally.
Fink is fascinated by a gentility whose languor he fashions into arabesques of startling iconic strength. He catches, for instance, the obeisant face of a woman in the custody of male conversation and places her under the drooping neck of a deceased swan or goose in a Baroque painting on the wall behind. Actually, the very form of these photographs recalls Baroque luminism, Caravaggio’s especially. Certainly Fink, in his own way, is as vehement, tendentious, and profane. Oddly enough, these qualities of temperament and style do not sensationalize his theme. Rather, they work to normalize the flawed humanity of his subjects, and to make them, in the end, less remarkable and more like ourselves.
This imagery has to be located, too, in its more immediate tradition, that of Weegee and Arbus, whose artistic potentialities he mingles into a dazzling new amalgam. Instead of the comic hysteria of Weegee’s losers, or the self-implicating hardness with which Arbus lighted her defective subjects, Fink impulsively wants to close the psychic distance between himself and those “others.” It’s as if the more he becomes aware of his outside status, the more he aims to shed it and to wallow in the action. He carries on, incredibly, as one who has special, uncomfortable knowledge of, and long ties of affection with, those in the milieus he photographs. His visceral identification with his figures is strong, yet Fink maintains a crucial detachment, one of consciousness and intent. For while they play he is at work.