A native New Yorker, Larry Fink now spends most of his time on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. Social Graces, an early body of work, catapulted him to the top of the photography world, where he has remained among its most visible artists and commentators. His work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the MET, and the Whitney, and he has taught at Bard College for more than three decades. Don’t Take Pictures’ Senior Editor Roger Thompson sat down with Larry Fink to discuss his life in photography.
Roger Thompson: I’m curious about the differences in the daily life of a photographer today compared to when you first started. What looks different? What’s the same?
Larry Fink: Well, this could be a long essay of course. As a photographer and as a businessman—of course I’m a practical man—I’ve had to find something of a balance. I’ve been working my whole life. No money from the good lord, or the devil for that matter, so I had to discern not just what I liked, but what a viewer would find meaningful. After all, I had to sell work to magazines to make a living, so I really couldn’t take the time to be wounded if work was rejected. It just meant I had to figure it out. I wanted to make beautiful, meaningful work, but I’ve never been much of an artiste. I had to make a living.
In the late 1950s, when I was photographing with my beatnik friends, it was largely for myself. At the time I was simply doing stuff I wanted to do. I was a Marxist from a middle class home, and my beatnik friends were irreverent and angry, and while I didn’t really feel that way, I was drawn to the rebellion, the drugs, and the energy of their lives. It was exciting and felt like living.
A bit later, I was teaching at Harlem and was deeply involved in the revolution that defines so much of that time. I knew that I was photographing for the future. It felt like a destiny to tell that story, and I felt I could be part of a collective change. Part of me knew or felt I was involved in something that others would want to see.
RT: So you had a sense that your work was important?
LF: Maybe. Worthwhile and meaningful, absolutely. I had a long view then. I didn’t know if the work would matter at the moment, but I felt like it would at some point in the future. I felt certain of that. Back in the old days, and even today, I lived with a strong sense of irony. I wanted to have some sort of pedagogical influence, but I also wanted to make something beautiful.
RT: It sounds like you felt like the work was polemical.
LF: Not polemical exactly, just that it had to matter and tell a story. I wanted to teach with it, but the only way to teach is to make work that people want to see. This was a trait that was a constant in my family growing up. You can see it even in my sister. She was the primary attorney for the Attica Prison revolt. She worked it pro bono for 28 years until she won. We were trained to be consequent, for our actions and lives to matter, and we were taught that though we are small things, we have to burn and to make an impact.
RT: I’m curious how you feel about any of your current work in relation to your earlier work. Do you see things now that simply would not have been possible for you to do in earlier years?
LF: The question I try to ask by photographing and by living is pretty simple: can you translate energy? I mean energy within people, within all living things, within buildings even. It’s about energy. It’s about how things work. What is it to feel the animal magnetism all things have just by being alive?
I’ve been working on a series about the praying mantis, so I’ve been raising some of the little creatures. They’re beautiful. They get pretty big and are elegant. They are much like a photographer: they sit there and hover and watch, slow and patient, waiting for the precise moment to strike. Sometimes I say we’re like frogs for the same reason. I like them and the praying mantis. I like walking stick bugs too. You know, the history of photography is really just the history of hanging out. Just being there. Swaying and waiting, hanging out. The walking stick is the ultimate example of this. Think what all those things see just by hanging out.
RT: In one interview from some years back, you ruminated on the fleeting nature of life and that you “simply proceed toward making each day worthy.” Can you say more about “worthy”?
LF: You know, I’ve spent a lot of unworthy days, but, maybe that’s to discuss about another time.
From my mom and pops, I got the idea of really wanting to add up to something. Not in the capitalistic sense, more about wanting to change the world. We were romantics. We believed we were inherently good and struggled for the goodness of things. I’ve changed a bit now. I think we are inherently flawed, and we struggle for balance. My sense of being worthy is of being a decent person, of being a teacher, so people learn, are educated, and learn beauty.
I have to admit I like fame. I like notoriety. I like the power of it, and I like the opportunities that come with it. I want to know what the flowers smell like at the top. Yet, I happen to be just another schmuck. In my mind, I’m still the 12-year-old with pimples. We never leave the skin of our youth.
RT: You return a lot to this idea of being a teacher . . .
LF: I started teaching in 1963. I’ve been teaching at Bard College and only recently retired from that. Teaching is about helping others have courage to live with passion and to use your imagination and to feel things as deeply as you can, even if they’re frightening. In my case, and for my students, it’s about the courage to make a picture of those hard experiences so others know what it is to be human.
I want to say that teaching is really about learning the people in front of me. I don’t teach photography. I teach students.
But photographs are teaching too. You’re opening up avenues for feeling, for storytelling, for human worth. Monumentalizing even the most mundane of things. So I guess, really, my work is about empathy. That’s it. Worth, empathy, and storytelling. That’s my work.
This article first appeared in Issue 11.
Roger Thompson is Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures. His features have appeared in The Atlantic.com, Quartz, Raw Vision, The Outsider, and many others. He currently resides on Long Island, NY, where he is a professor at Stony Brook University.