Larry Fink, whose photographs were 'Political, Not Polemical,' dies at 82
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Larry Fink, whose photographs were 'Political, Not Polemical,' dies at 82
Larry Fink, First Communion, Bronx, NY, 1961 from the series "Making Out 1957-1980", silver gelatin print, 54/75, 15 1/8 x 19 1/4 in. Gift os Stephen L. Singer and Linda G. Singer. © Larry Fink.

by Penelope Green

NEW YORK, NY.- Larry Fink, a kinetic photographer whose intimate black-and-white on-the-fly portraits of rural Pennsylvanians, Manhattan society figures, Hollywood royalty, boxers, musicians, fashion models and many others were both social commentary on class and privilege and an exuberant document of the human condition, died Saturday at his home in Martins Creek, Pennsylvania. He was 82.

The cause was complications of kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, artist Martha Posner.

Fink was a Brooklyn-born lefty whose early work, in the late 1950s, chronicled the second-generation Beats who were his cohort in the East Village, where he lived for a time, along with the jazz musicians he adored (he played the harmonica) and the protagonists of the civil rights and anti-war movements.

But in the early 1970s, he turned to overt social commentary, infiltrating the society benefits, debutante parties and watering holes of Manhattan’s privileged tribes and their hangers-on. He was fueled, he once wrote, both by curiosity and by his own rage at the privileged class — “its abuses, voluptuous folds, and unfulfilled lives.”

A few years later, he and his wife at the time, painter Joan Snyder, moved to a farm in Pennsylvania, where he began photographing his rural neighbors, a charismatic family called the Sabatines who embraced him as one of their own. He went on to capture years’ worth of the family’s baptisms, birthdays and graduations.

He paired the tales of these two worlds — the chilly anomie of the haute monde and the lively, messy domesticity of the Sabatines — in a collection of photographs he called “Social Graces,” which was first shown in an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1979 and then published in a book of the same title in 1984, now considered a collector’s item.

“Social Graces” placed Fink firmly in the photographic canon. It drew comparisons to the street photos of Weegee and Diane Arbus and even to the paintings of Caravaggio. (Fink was a master of shadow and light.) When the pictures were shown in 2001 at the Yancey Richardson gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea section, Ken Johnson, writing in The New York Times, described them as “wonderfully absorbing, funny, skewed, ethereally glowing documents of human situations.” He added, “Every picture is like a good short story — here John Cheever, there Raymond Carver.”

Fink worked like an undercover agent; he came at his subjects from odd angles, popping up with his hand-held flash and then vanishing. For nearly a decade, he photographed the annual Vanity Fair Oscar party in Los Angeles, producing images like a tangle of limbs, or a movie star’s profile in shadow, or, one year, just women’s shoes and purses. He was a one-shot man, and he didn’t ask permission or look for pretty.

“He had fantastic timing,” Robert Mann, Fink’s New York gallerist, said by phone. “He knew where to insert himself, whether it was a hoity-toity social event to which he may or may not have been invited — and from which he may or may not have been thrown out — or his neighbors’ house in Martins Creek. He captured these moments like no other photographer.”

Fink’s photographs, Mann said, “were like film stills from some incredibly volatile moment, and you can read the whole narrative from beginning to end; that was his gift.”

Critics often saw satire in Fink’s work, even cruelty, but he was driven by what he liked to call “sensual empathy.” His work, he said, was meant to be “political, not polemical.”

“But the necessary methodology is conventionally in-your-face,” he told the Times in 2011. “Not like other practitioners, who are in your face for the sake of being in your face. I am in your face because I want to be your face. I like to say that if I was not a photographer, I would be in jail. I want to touch everything. My life is profoundly physical. Photography for me is the transformation of desire.”

Laurence Bruce Fink was born March 11, 1941, in Brooklyn. His father, Bernard Fink, was a lawyer for the insurance industry. His mother, Sylvia (Caplan) Fink, was a one-time Marxist who protested nuclear weapons and, when she was older, joined the Gray Panthers, an elder-rights organization.

Larry Fink and his sister, Elizabeth, were raised with a strong sense of social justice and an eye for inequality. Elizabeth Fink would grow up to be a civil rights lawyer who famously negotiated a multibillion-dollar civil suit on behalf of the inmates who were attacked during the Attica prison uprising in 1971. She died in 2015 at 70.

Larry was 13 when the family moved to West Hempstead, New York, on Long Island. By then, he was taking photos and won a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera in a contest.

He chafed at Long Island's suburban mores, however, and his parents sent him to the more ideologically felicitous Stockbridge School, a progressive boarding school in Massachusetts. He then had a bout, as he put it, with college, briefly attending Coe College, a small liberal arts institution in Iowa, before heading to Greenwich Village.

There, he fell in with a posse of like-minded souls, a second wave of Beats, and began to document their doings and his, including an ill-fated pilgrimage to Mexico to make a movie. Upon his return, he was arrested at the border in Laredo, Texas, for smuggling a quarter ounce of marijuana. He was put on probation for five years. In the dedication of his 2014 book, “The Beats,” a collection of work from that period, he thanked his parole officer and the Department of Justice for stopping “my forward trajectory to be an airheaded wanderer without boundaries.”

His parole officer encouraged him to take photo assignments while he studied privately with Lisette Model, the Viennese-born street photographer whose students included Diane Arbus.

Throughout his life, the burly, bearlike Fink maintained the persona of a Beat, which extended to his conversation, a rolling stream of consciousness punctuated by his harmonica playing; to his emails, which were as expressive as anything by Jack Kerouac; and to his pedagogy.

“He treated the classroom like it was the Village Vanguard,” said Tim Davis, a former student and an associate professor of photography at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where Fink taught for three decades. “It was completely improvisatory. A critique would involve mouth trumpet sounds, his own poetic raps and scat singing; maybe at some point, he’d pull out his harmonica. On the one hand, it kneecapped the whole idea of art education, and on the other, if you were listening, it was completely profound.”

Before joining the photography department at Bard in 1988, Fink taught at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York University and Yale. He retired in 2017.

In addition to Posner, whom he wooed with a bouquet of red peppers and married in 2000, Fink is survived by his daughter, Molly Snyder-Fink, and a grandson. His marriage to Snyder, in 1969, ended in divorce, as did his second marriage, to Pia Staniek.

Fink was the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, in 1976 and 1979. His work is in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, among many other institutions in the United States and abroad. He worked on assignment for numerous publications, including Manhattan, Inc., Vanity Fair and the Times, and was the author of 12 books.

This year, the Times asked prominent photographers of a certain age to turn the camera on themselves and what mattered to them. Fink photographed himself in extreme close-up, his expressive face smushed into the camera’s frame, one bushy eyebrow raised. And he photographed Posner in her studio, amid a riot of brushes and paint tubes, looking quizzical and lovely and a bit like the subject of an old master painting.

“The crescendo of my life is over,” Fink told the Times, “and the crashing waves are soon to come.” But, he added, “Basically, I’m still jumping around. Whatever that’s worth, it’s fun to be alive. I’ll tell you what: I really love my wife.”

To which Posner said, “Say somewhere in the interview that I love Larry, too.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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