From wild nights at Studio 54 to star-studded Hollywood soirees, American image-maker Larry Fink’s new retrospective provides some much-needed escapism
“Oh my god, have I been at parties,” chuckles American photographer Larry Fink, on a Zoom call from his farm in rural Pennsylvania. We’re discussing his forthcoming exhibition, at Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, opening later this week. The show is a retrospective of Fink’s esteemed 65-year career, examining his enduring preoccupation with people and his remarkable talent for capturing them – especially while in the throes of celebration.
Fink has shot countless parties over the decades, both as a guest and as an official photographer (as he was for Vanity Fair for many years). His flair for artful lighting and playful framing sets his pictures dramatically apart from those of your average event photographer, as does his ability to encapsulate the spirit of his subjects, from haughty debutantes to exhausted but exuberant stag party attendees.
As his many photobooks attest, Fink’s interest in people extends to all different kinds of social groups, from the Beat Generation he rubbed shoulders with as a young man in New York to America’s boxing community; from working-class Pennsylvania families to Hollywood stars. “I’m good at picking up on cues, whether I’m talking to truck drivers or fancy folk,” he explains. This is particularly evident in his party photography, where guests caress one another with impassioned abandon, Meryl Streep whispers into Natalie Portman’s ear, and the revellers of Studio 54 dance wildly – all just feet from his lens. Here, he discusses the origins of his fascination with festivities, and his decidedly immersive approach when it comes to committing them to film.
“Way before the Vanity Fair years – which of course signifies a level of ambition and entertainment that most people don’t even imagine – back in the 1970s, I worked on a book called Social Graces, and attended many fancy parties. One of my former students was part of an upper-class set and invited me to photograph all kinds of balls – Russian balls, Hungarian balls, debutante balls. I was born into a Communist family, a rarity in America, and I had a very interesting Marxist orientation. So for me, the idea behind photographing these fabulous parties was not to become part of the fancy set, but to be able to analyse, to see, to feel what it was like to be within that particular metier.
“The best party I ever attended was actually a Communist Party party in Italy, during a hot summer many years ago. It was held under a tent, surrounded by books – many beautiful volumes of intellectual order. People were drinking wine and eating, having a grand time, and I didn’t photograph. I just marvelled at the fact that the Communist Party, which in America is supposedly a pariah, was the most humanised of any party I’d gone to at that time.
“Now, of course, I’ve gone to Vanity Fair parties and Hollywood parties – all the fancy parties of the world. The odd thing was I would be trucking off on first-class planes to all these parties through Vanity Fair – back in the 90s when the money was flowing – and then I would come back to life on my farm. I live in an old 1750 farmhouse with my wife, [the artist] Martha Posner, right in the middle of nowhere. And I would get back to work: hauling wood, feeding chickens, taking care of Martha, she taking care of me, driving the tractor and hauling ass. Two very different types of experience.
“When I’m at parties, I like to join the party. I’m not a photographer who stands outside of things like many do, those who are all about the picture, about being cool and analytical. I was gifted with the power of being intellectually or mentally analytical and physically involved at the same time. But rather than multitasking at a party, I was multi-pleasuring. And if there was dancing, I was dancing. And photographing: I know how to stop for a moment; how to take the right kind of shot or, maybe, the wrong kind of shot. I personally don't have favourites, because each one of those pictures is of an experience that I was having at that moment, which was a favourite experience right then and there.”
Larry Fink – Retrospective is at Galerie Bene Taschen, Cologne from January 27-April 3, 2021, by appointment only.