“Everything was for the revolution, honey.” Larry Fink has spent a lifetime photographing society. His 1984 seminal work Social Graces is a document of the partying Manhattan elite, sitting alongside the small town celebrations of rural Pennsylvanians. For Beauty Papers Issue Seven GLAMOUR Larry photographed the astonishing Cecilia Lavarini Matteucci. Here Maxine Leonard tangos with Larry, talking revolution, vulgarity and authenticity.
Interview MAXINE LEONARD Photography LARRY FINK
Maxine Leonard: Where did you grow up?
Larry Fink: I grew up in Brooklyn New York, until I guess I was 13 and then the parents moved with my sister and I to Long Island.
ML: And how did your interest in photography spark?
LF: It started when I was about 12 or 13 as kind of a time-consuming hobby.
ML: Did you come from an artistic family then?
LF: No, they loved art for sure, but they were not artistic. My mother was a communist organiser.
ML: Now I’ve read about your fabulous mother, wearing mink fur coats and leaving the party because she felt that she couldn’t exist without style and fun.
LF: Yeah the pure fanaticism didn’t appeal to her. And my father was an insurance man, a lawyer, very, very smart.
ML: Going into photography must’ve been quite unusual at the time, because it wasn’t really considered a career, was it?
LF: You have to understand my parents were ideologically committed to the new world to come, the new socialist world, and so on and so forth. So the whole idea of a capitalist career wasn’t foremost in their mind. They just thought – my mother, of course with her predilection towards art, my father as well – it would be fabulous if I became an artist.
ML: And how did you get to study with Lisette Model?
LF: I went out when I was young, trying to get some work as a photographic assistant. I went to work for a guy named Raymond Jacob who was a commercial photographer who had studied with Lisette. He was also a left-wing guy, and he fired me because I was not a competent assistant and had an attitude. But in firing me, he liked me still, because he felt in me that there was a part of him. So he said I should go work with Lisette.
ML: Lisette’s photography is known for uncompromising portraits of the French bourgeoisie and the gritty photographs of New York. How instrumental was that experience, did it help shape your identity as a photographer?
LF: She never showed me any of her pictures and I didn’t know them. What Lisette was absolutely profoundly instrumental in is defining the thrust of my humanism and political savoir-faire. She is an incredibly intuitive teacher and human being and we became friends. But she established in me the sense that it’s not apt to judge people, that you had to receive them as they were. And that everybody you see could at some point be you. She instilled in me the idea of empathy. And the photograph is a methodology to transfer that kind of organic relational empathy into illusion, or pictures.
ML: Did that youthful optimism play a part? Did you think your pictures would start this revolution?
LF: Everything was for the revolution, honey. We were deeply committed to political socialism and the idea of annihilating the class system.
ML: So you were quite angry in your youth?
LF: I was indeed. I’m not as angry as I used to be, but given the circumstances of our country here, you can on any given day find me either utterly depressed or absolutely enraged.
ML: Yeah, it’s an ongoing fight. I’m wondering about your time in New York, meeting the artists affiliated with the Beat Movement, because I read that you described them as ‘delusional revolutionists’. Do you think that most creatives are? Because I kind of relate to that in publishing Beauty Papers!
LF: As far as the beats are concerned, they were not left-wing people at all. It was a younger group than Kerouac and Ginsberg, who were older than me. It was second-generation beats. And my attraction to them was more that they smoked a lot of dope and I did too, and they liked jazz and I do too, and they were angry to the core, as I was. So there was no politics in my involvement with the beats, it was certainly art because everybody was an artist of sorts. We supported ourselves by reading poetry, going around the country and so on. After we got to Mexico City I got a little bit tired of them and then I took off for the border with a couple of them. And we got arrested at the border for smuggling marijuana.
"Everything was for the revolution, honey. We were deeply committed to political socialism and the idea of annihilating the class system."
ML: Is that jail time?
LF: I spent two weeks in jail. But I spent five years on federal probation. And what was supposed to happen was 35 years in jail, it was all mandatory at that time. We were driving our car outside of Laredo, Texas and then all of a sudden some cars came forced us off the side of the road and the G-men came out with their machine guns firing into the ground, at us. And then we were arrested. So that was quite an experience for a young person, being shot at by G-men for smuggling a quarter ounce of pot.
ML: Do you think most creatives are ‘delusional revolutionists’?
LF: Not in today’s society, no, many of them are just capitalist. Think of Jeff Koons and Larry Poons, all these people that work for millions and millions and millions of dollars. They’re creative people but their paintings while well articulated have no relationship to the stars of the heavens. It’s just an aesthetic strategy so they can make their money.
ML: And which artists do you think don’t work like that?
LF: My former wife Joan Snyder, who obviously is a great painter. So she’s one who’s pure. And I can say also my wife, who you’ll hopefully see some of her stuff…
ML: The lovely Martha [Posner].
LF: She is exactly pure in terms of the ‘why’ she creates her work. I wish she was also rich, but that’s another story.
ML: Do you think someone like Jeff Koons has stripped away the soul to make as much money as possible and it changes the way that they approach their art?
LF: I never knew him, so I can’t say anything about his soul. I don’t like his work, never did, it’s very colour field, jumpy and somewhat sensationalist and pretty much of the now, it doesn’t necessarily have any future tense
ML: I want to ask about your Social Graces book, which is absolutely beautiful. You explore that contrast between upper and lower classes; did your views on Marxism at the time influence your work for that?
LF: The photographs of the upper bourgeoisie and debutante balls were definitely influenced by that because we thought, delusionally, that upper bourgeoisie would cease to be. I was trying to preserve it in pictures, thinking it would disappear. It did not. In fact, quite conversely, it’s still quite strong. So the impulse to do it was of a Marxist nature, but the way I did it was not. It was of a human nature. I was interested in everybody who lives and breathes and comes in front of me. The Martin’s Creek pictures of the Sabatine family was not chosen for a Marxist point of view, but because they were my neighbours and because John and Jean were so out front, so completely without any kind of inhibition. And they were totally physical and hated each other while loving each other.
ML: When you were working in New York and starting out, contemporaries included Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson and Garry Winogrand. Did you all know each other, was there a support network?
LF: I knew Diane, we got along just fine. She was a strange bird and I liked her very much. Garry Winogrand was a selfish pig and I cared for him not at all, though his pictures were quite good.
ML: And, did you support each other at the time
LF: I didn’t know them, except for Diane. I didn’t hang out with photographers, I hung out with jazz musicians.
ML: How did you monetise at the beginning? Were you simply in it for the love of the craft and the idea of being part of this revolution or was it a career that you could live off?
LF: Rent in New York at that time was 35 dollars a month. I was freelancing, then I was working for an agency called Three Lions, where I did mostly work for a Catholic magazine. The only Catholic magazine photographing communions and choirboys and I loved it. There I was, this Marxist guy going into the Catholic Church and it influenced me quite a bit, not that I endorse Christ or God but I understood the nature of devotion. I believed what the others believed through the way that they believed. There I was, this Marxist guy going into the Catholic Church and it influenced me quite a bit, not that I endorse Christ or God but I understood the nature of devotion. I believed what the others believed through the way that they believed.
ML: Does it affect you emotionally?
LF: Of course, I’m a very, very skilled and very aesthetic photographer, but basically it’s all predetermined by my empathy and emotions. I’m absolutely interested in every human being that comes in front of me. And when I make a picture, I try to see whether or not I can find in that person’s face or body or hands the nature of their inner dialogue.
ML: So there’s never distance between you and the subject?
LF: No, I’m not a photographic observer just out to make pictures, I’m out there to translate experience.
ML: That’s quite emotionally exhausting actually.
LF: It certainly is, that’s why I live on a farm away from everywhere.
ML: Talk to me about your farm – did you say it was a turn-of-the-century building that you live in?
ML: And when did you move there?
LF: 60 years ago.
ML: Wow, what animals have you got?
LF: We have peacocks, we have guinea hens, we have chickens, turkeys, geese, goats, dogs, cats.
ML: It’s a lot of work.
LF: Martha, is the animal.
ML: She sounds like Mary Poppins!
LF: Yeah, well not quite so frothy.
ML: Do you grow anything?
LF: We have a big, big, big garden all kinds of flowers and so on.
ML: It sounds extraordinary! What about food, do you grow any vegetables?
LF: Oh yeah, big, big, big garden with tomatoes and lettuce and whatever you grow.
ML: So never feel pulled back to the city?
LF: No, no, no.
"I’m very, very, very fast in my perceptions and I’m always looking for a moment in between. I always say I photograph like a frog."
ML: You get peace and quiet up there.
LF: Well you know I have to say, Maxine, I’m getting a little older, so the work is pretty tough and my hands are getting fucked up. So I’m not able to be as heroically in love with the farm life as I used to be.
ML: Yeah, of course.
LF: But I wouldn’t necessarily want to go to New York City. First of all, I couldn’t afford it; second, I don’t like that many people around me, the density is too overwhelming. I’m emotionally intertwined, and to have so many people in my face makes me crazy.
ML: I get really claustrophobic in New York.
LF: Yeah, it’s interesting because everybody’s coming at you all the time, boom, boom, boom.
ML: I used to live there.
LF: When people come at you like that way, it’s crazy. You and Martha could talk about that because she’s also hypersensitive and New York makes her nuts.
ML: I didn’t do so well living there. I’d get very claustrophobic and I felt when I looked up I couldn’t see the sky, the buildings felt so overpowering, I used to walk with my headphones on the entire time just to try and block out the noise.
LF: No ball, ye, ye, poor baby.
ML: Poor me, poor me living in New York – it’s terrible! So your contract for Vanity Fair, which you had for over a decade… Given your political and critical point of view, were you judgemental of that environment? Was photographing the Hollywood parties an extension of observing and recording the power of Hollywood? Did it clash with your leftist concerns?
LF: Nothing clashes with me, I’m a humanist.
ML: How did you feel about stepping into Hollywood? It personifies wealth and power. Did you find it vulgar?
LF: Vulgarity lives anyplace, it lives down the street, it lives in Hollywood, it lives in banking, it lives in wherever it lives. Vulgarity is a tendency shared by all humans. The vulgarity of unbelievable capitalisation is one of the facts of life you learn to live with, and then again don’t live with because you try to equalise the playing field so people can have a fair shot.
ML: How did you feel about working with the celebrities and being a part of that world?
LF: It was funny, I had aspired to photograph the rich and the wealthy and so on and I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. So I was definitely an outsider but I wasn’t hostile. I did find that the celebrities had their own clubhouse, their own plan, so it was very, very difficult to integrate into it. I never made deep friendships, nor did I aspire to. I always prided myself that I could go into such heralded territory and then come home to the farm and plough the road, to remain basic – unlike some others who would be opportunity-minded and want to climb the golden ladder.
ML: It’s a natural reaction, when somebody has a camera, to alter how you behave. In that Hollywood environment, did you feel that behaviour was altered when they saw a camera? What kind of ethic was there with how you worked at those parties?
LF: I’m a very obvious photographer. I have a camera and a flash and so on. I’m not particularly aggressive, I’m friendly. So when people saw me, there were all kinds of other photographers running around asking people to pose and smile. And I was the one who was dwelling much more surreptitiously, I wasn’t hidden, I wasn’t sneaky, I never am, but I was definitely after a different kind of story. And after a while, people started to get to know me, and knew the pictures and respected that. I’m very, very, very fast in my perceptions and I’m always looking for a moment in between. I always say I photograph like a frog.
ML: Why a frog?
LF: Because a frog can sit there forever and then all of a sudden the tongue goes out and the insect is eaten. So making a picture for me is sitting there forever then instantaneously my tongue goes out.
ML: You’ve got it.
LF: And I got it. I don’t shoot like bang, bang, bang. I shoot one at a time.
ML: When you photographed at those parties were there any rules? Or did you break them all?
LF: Not usually, no.
ML: Were you in that environment without prejudice?
LF: I’m not prejudiced.
ML: No, I know, but because of the power and glamour of Hollywood, I wondered if you just went in there to be as one with them to record, or if you were there more as an outsider. Is the approach a little bit different if it’s commissioned work?
LF: No, I never made any difference, never, never, never. I’m a true professional so I know what the criteria are and what the people need, but I never, never photographed to please the editor, I photographed to please myself. On the other hand, I’m not a fine art type who only has his own vision in mind. I know how to read a newspaper. I don’t break up all the text in the newspaper just to see if I can create a poem out of it, I read the news of the day.
"I’m not a fine art type who only has his own vision in mind. I know how to read a newspaper. I don’t break up all the text in the newspaper just to see if I can create a poem out of it, I read the news of the day."
ML: ‘Glamour’ is the theme of this issue: how do you relate to the word?
LF: Well, I’m certainly not glamorous!
ML: No, you don’t think you are in some way?
LF: Maybe when people think of Larry Fink, the great photographer and all that shit, there’s glamour in that, but I’m not glamorous at all, I’m just a funky dude.
ML: Do you think glamour is relevant in the political climate today?
LF: I don’t think it has much of a place because everything is broken apart. The status quo in terms of money is still very, very intact, but the status quo in terms of identity has been somewhat dissembled, I don’t know whether the old style of glamour is that assertive. Then again, I’m not hanging around New York or Hollywood, so I don’t see it all the time. so what I see around me are my country guys and bumpkins. I’m out of the loop.
ML: It sounds like a much better way to be. Your work is mostly black and white and that reflects an element of glamour?
LF: I never thought about it that way, no.
ML: Why the decision to mostly shoot in black and white?
LF: In academic terms black and white is reductive, it takes colour away. So without colour you don’t have to worry about the palette, you have to worry about tone and then you have to worry about emotion and you have to worry about form. Colour, when you’re working extemporaneously as I do, often comes into the picture in uncalculated ways. It could essentially ruin the structure and the emotion and the moment of the picture by the fact of this garish inevitability. So I choose not to use colour.
ML: I wanted to read to you one of the many brilliant emails you’ve sent me. ‘Maxine, I would think that the title Beauty Papers could easily be titled Ugly Capers this though inferences to my eye, much of the work within the mag is off-putting and vulgar, with no politics to shore up the work as expressionistically necessary. I have another axe to grind, call it empathy, dignity and a certain offbeat beauty. I want my addition to communication to have a moral goal in mind and in heart.” So upon reading this I immediately called you, and I was curious to know where did you feel that the magazine was off-putting and vulgar?
LF: Immediately. But then again, fashion is a funny industry because it’s based on – actually in the book I did, Runway, it was really beautifully coined by the writer Guy Trebay from the New York Times, he said it was an industry of “great violence” because its whole precept is planned obsolescence on a very, very high order of the aesthetic day and that it was totally dependent on very, very wealthy people to be the trendsetters, and each year would have to be a different trend. So while there’s many, many different repeats in fashion basically the thing that repeats itself incessantly is the fact of the commodification of style so that we can have the capitalisation of industry. So there’s something about that, there’s nothing really of a deep soul to sell. Often times, not always, sensationalism is the thing that actually piques the curiosity of the viewer.
"In academic terms black and white is reductive, it takes colour away. So without colour you don’t have to worry about the palette, you have to worry about tone and then you have to worry about emotion and you have to worry about form."
ML: Did you feel that Beauty Papers was sensationalist?
LF: Many of the pictures of younger people parading back and forth and being sexy, as you would call it (being 78, your whole idea of sexuality changes quite considerably). And there’s a certain competitive aggressivity in that kind of sexuality, as I remember. That kind of sexual aggressivity, even when I was younger and sexually charged up, was not at all desirable or attractive to me because it was not human, it was all about competition and power. I think I have a lot of power inside me but it’s an internalised power, it’s not about the external power. So what I was seeing there in many of these pictures was this kind of flaunting of your sexual or stylistic power so that others could engage themselves in feeling diminished, or feeling that they could get over you. So there was this kind of competitiveness based on sensationalism, which for me is the deepest kind of vulgarity.
ML: As the editor, when I look at the work, the idea that the camera realises curiosity, and our artists use political subjects to question and challenge. We’ve been described as being quite offbeat beauty in a way and I thought that you might relate to that. I’ve not heard Beauty Papers described in a sexual way like that before. Quite the opposite. I feel it’s a subject that we haven’t really observed yet.
LF: There was nothing lewd or lascivious particularly, but the dehumanising factor about sexuality is about power – even though there’s gonna be a sensual charge in the pleasure areas often the seductive interplay before that is all about power in relationships which aren’t particularly healthy. The idea of planned obsolescence of the sliding elements of worth, construct the idea. It’s a little bit too dense for me, I’ll stop.
ML: Let’s carry on, come on! Was there one particular story?
LF: No, no honey! I’m not… listen, Beauty Papers, you think I’m sitting around thinking about your magazine?
ML: I’ll be desperately disappointed if you’re not!
LF: No, I’m not. I mean I saw the magazine. I saw the magazine, you sent it over and I haven’t been looking at it. I saw it once. I said, “Ohh, ahh yeah, it looks like good stuff” and then blah blah blah. You’re a smart girl, so like we’ve been talking about it you said you wanted the magazine to have all kinds of conflicting discourse and evidence and whatnot like that, so you engaged me to become morally, if you will, politically, more intertwined, which is fascinating.
ML: And I’m thrilled you’re going to be part of the process, you and Martha.
LF: Thank you.
ML: I wanted to ask, obviously the nature of photography it’s kind of about seeking out something or someone that challenges convention in a way and it can be very uncomfortable for the sitter when seeing the realised image, it’s quite an invasive process, how do you work around that because I know that you’ve spoken very openly before in other interviews about that bearing and weighing heavily on you, that you’re not there to mock. But the idea that obviously as a photographer you are looking for that moment and that moment is the challenge really. How do you go about that when you work with your subjects?
ML: Do you crack a joke to make them feel at ease, I mean is there a process? If I could relate myself to that if I was to have my portrait taken I just know what it does to me personally when somebody holds a camera up to my face, I absolutely crumble and I find it incredibly invasive. How would you bring me round to, I suppose manipulating me in a sense to get what it is that you need?
LF: I’m friendly for one thing, so I do also like yourself find the act of photographing to be very invasive. I don’t photograph on the street I don’t photograph on the curly, I do like to have assignments by the way from people because just me going out and photographing this one and that one something like that, is something I don’t do so often, why? because I don’t like to be invasive, I don’t like to be in people’s faces, I respect them. I also by photographing them I respect them too so there are contradictory versions, but how do I bring the people around? Basically, I let them be what they are and I like to have them engage with other people so that they can just be themselves without necessarily being intimidated by the camera. And then I just sort of slide along. For whatever reason, my personality is such that I seem to be able to make people feel comfortable and I think probably the reason is that I’m not interested in making a great picture or exploiting anybody for making a great picture may it be for sales or otherwise. I’m interested in who I’m looking at. The people probably feel that I’m not a photographer who’s outside observing to make a picture, that I’m somebody who’s trying to find out who they are. And that kind of curiosity is unusual.
ML: It’s also quite flattering in a way, isn’t it?
LF: It is flattering. I don’t mean to flatter anybody but I do mean to concern myself with them and that’s important and that gives people intuitively a sense of trust. That you won’t do them any harm. Now conversely speaking in my career, of course, it’s been known that I’ve photographed very honestly, people once upon a time used to think my stuff is satire – it’s not satire. I don’t take that kind of position, but it is honest. It doesn’t concern itself with bourgeois values of the magazine and how people are supposed to look. It concerns itself with how people actually do look, at least to me. Many times I’ve had the observation or the commentary that these pictures really look like how the people are because for me that’s who they were! And so to get involved with people like that even if it may just be for a nanosecond is to honour them and anybody who’s being honoured is bound to smile, at least inside.
ML: And do your sitters usually see the imagery? Are they privy to the final piece of work?
LF: Oh yeah, no they can do that, sure why not? I mean the only time that you don’t get privy to the final work is when you work journalistically or something like that, there are various kinds of codes of secrecy. But generally, for me, I’m just a big hag, you know I like to share shit all the time.
ML: And how important is print to you? Magazine work, published work?
LF: It makes a difference and that’s all you care to do, is making a difference.
ML: And what do you think about us publishing an independent magazine with no advertising?
LF: I think that’s terrific, I wish it had money.
ML: Yeah, I know. There is that, it makes it quite difficult.
LF: I should be charging you at least 2000 dollars for this interview, it’s taking up all of my time.
"I’m interested in who I’m looking at. The people probably feel that I’m not a photographer who’s outside observing to make a picture, that I’m somebody who’s trying to find out who they are. And that kind of curiosity is unusual."
ML: Is there any other better way to spend a Monday afternoon though?
LF: No, well you would think I would have nothing else to do.
ML: Come on Larry, we’re nearly at the end, we’re nearly there. Stick with me. I wanted to ask you about Martha who is obviously another artist that’s going to be a part of our printed, next issue of Beauty Papers. Do you two collaborate together?
LF: Not very often.
ML: Why’s that?
LF: Well, because we work in two entirely different ways, in different means and for very different reasons.
ML: Would you clash?
LF: Would we clash? Not particularly, no.
ML: Right, okay. But you’re very supportive of Martha’s art?
LF: Big time.
ML: I saw a video of you, I’ve been googling you and stalking you over the past few days and I saw a video of you playing the harmonica and also read that you play the piano for an hour every day. Did you grow up playing these instruments?
LF: Well, I took piano lessons for a short time when I was a kid and then I dropped it and then I picked it up again later on when I was in my teens; jazz piano and I’ve been playing ever since. My hands now are getting a little bit crippled so I don’t play as well as I’d like.
ML: Because I love your answering machine, is that you playing the harmonica?
ML: Yeah, I adore that, it made me smile.
LF: I’m a better harmonica player I think than I am a piano player at this point because I play a lot and it’s a lot of fun. *begins to play harmonica*
ML: Oh I adore that sound!
LF: *continues to play harmonica*
ML: It’s so great, I’ve kind of got visions of you mincing about in Levis with Peacocks just strolling around the land as you play the harmonica.
LF: Oh, you’re very romantic.
ML: Such a great sound, that’s so beautiful. So how important is music to you?
LF: It’s more important than anything in life.
ML: It’s incredible the power of music. I’m going to sign off with you Larry by asking you what would be your desert island discs?
LF: Well one thing about a desert island, let’s assume it’s in the tropics and not too terribly hot and I could get rid of clothes right away.
LF: Yeah, because I do like to be naked quite often and in the winter time it’s a little hard for that, it’s a little chilly out.
ML: A bit tricky.
LF: I guess I’ll take Martha and Martha gets migraines so when we get there she will never get another migraine, she’ll be happy. And then I’d take my daughter and my grandson and I’ll take Joan Snyder too and Maggie her maid. And we’ll all get there and hopefully, we can have a fireplace or a stove, I don’t know.
"You have to have a structure of steel, a heart which is as poor as can be and an empathetic love for those who you come across so that the idea of being humane and being able to merger with other people is very, very pertinent. "
ML: You got a big roaring fire, but your desert island discs what would be your top tracks that you would take to a desert island to play?
LF: *begins to play harmonica*
ML: You don’t need one you’ve got a harmonica!
LF: Let me see, the record that I would take to the desert island?
LF: Now listen, I’m a very sophisticated musical person so I can’t really make a judgement like that, that’s just absurd. It could be John Coltrane, it could be Thelonious Monk, it could be Art Tatum, it could be you know, Rudolph Serkin playing Beethoven, it could be any number of things. Unfortunately, I’d have to take my whole record collection.
ML: You’re not allowed but you could make your own sweet music.
LF: Yeah, I know music very, very well.
ML: And on the last question Larry, what advice would you give for me on my journey?
LF: To you?
ML: Yeah, I need as much as I can get.
LF: Your advice?
ML: Well professionally, you’ve been a photographer for the last 55 years so I was wondering what advice you’d have for me on my journey?
LF: Are you a photographer?
ML: No, but I am in the industry, so I’ll take whatever you throw at me.
LF: You have to have a structure of steel, a heart which is as poor as can be and an empathetic love for those who you come across so that the idea of being humane and being able to merger with other people is very, very pertinent. But that’s not well said, anyhow, do the best you can!
ML: Okay, I’m going to take all of that. The last one could be a t-shirt!
LF: I would say basically that in today’s’ day, emotionalism in the postmodernist age is somewhat subverted. I would think that the deepest mystery in life is not so much intellectual development but the commonality of the emotional system. To lose somebody as deep as Einstein or as Beethoven or as Bach or as me or as you, we all are aligned by very, very common emotions and that can be the most mysterious thing that there is. So the idea behind that construct is to live with your heart because someone once said that you can get to the mind through the heart but you can’t get to the heart through the mind.
ML: That’s kind of beautiful. Alright, Larry, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it, thank you.
LF: Thank you, honey! And I’ll see you in London some time I guess!