The 1950s Beats Meet the Oscars in a New Exhibition

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C. B. Vance, A. L. Talley, A. Bassett, K. L. Simmo
C. B. Vance, A. L. Talley, A. Bassett, K. L. Simmons, C. Gooding Jr., R. Simmons, LA, 2002Photography by Larry Fink

Two of American photographer Larry Fink's most iconic photo-series come together in a new show at Armani/Silos – to marvellous effect

Who? Larry Fink is a photographer who seems to have seen it all. Having first picked up a camera at the age of 12, his 64 years in practice accounts for the astounding variety of his oeuvre. Fink has described himself as a Marxist – “or, at least, I was a Marxist before the world became an impossible place to predict,” he said in an interview with The New York Times – owing to the politically active family he grew up in. It was aged 17 and living in Brooklyn that Fink encountered the Beat generation and quickly involved himself, shooting everything along the way. Jazz has also come to play a central role in the photographer’s life and work, since he also spent those New York days living next door to the famed Village Gate jazz club that played host to the likes of John Coltrane and Art Blakey. Fink’s productivity knows no bounds: while he has made a career photographing for publications like W Magazine, The New York Times and Vanity Fair, he also maintains the farm on which he lives with his wife, sculptor Martha Posner.

What? Fink’s encounter with the Beat generation led to him producing one of his most engaging series, The Beats. Documenting the lifestyle and movements of his peers as they attended protest marches or hitchhiked down the country from New York to New Mexico, each shot captures the nomadic and magnetic rebellion of the Beats. The series is black and white – as is Fink’s general custom – with each photograph just hazy enough to capture the romantic appeal of the movement and generate a wave of nostalgia for that singular time in late-50s America (or if not nostalgia, then certainly a wish that we had been there too).

It’s Fink’s particular skill for encapsulating atmosphere and mood in a single shot that has marked his career. Vanity Fair noted this ability and commissioned Fink to photograph its annual Oscars party, in what became an ongoing series entitled The Vanities. The celebration’s guestlist famously includes the world’s most recognised faces, and Fink is right in the heart of the action, even appearing to have caught some subjects off-guard in moments of candour – including André Leon Talley’s side-eye, the kind that sass-filled daydreams are made of.

Why? The Beats and The Vanities, Photographs by Larry Fink is a new exhibition at the Armani/Silos in Milan that brings together for the first time these two distinct photographic series. Though they are seemingly at odds with each other, not least because of the fact they were produced at the opposite ends of a period spanning 45 years, the images have in common their air of intimate observation and innate curiosity – a powerfully alluring combination. It’s Fink’s fundamental interest in people and what they are doing that means his images are universally absorbing, as he himself attests: “I really do embrace – or try to embrace – the souls of all people, regardless of their conditions”. “I find Larry Fink’s eye compelling,” says Giorgio Armani of Fink’s work. “It is as if you are there, with him, observing an intimate moment. The people in these pictures are caught off-guard, apparently unaware of the camera, which is surprising as Larry must have often been quite close to his subjects. He obviously has an unassuming approach – these images appear entirely natural.”

The Beats and The Vanities, Photographs by Larry Fink runs from March 29 until July 30, 2017 at the Armani/Silos, Milan