Larry Fink: A Question Of Attitude

By Dave Crossley

Just for a little bit of overstatement, let’s say that Larry Fink’s photographs are so wonderful it seems almost ridiculous that anybody else should even be trying. In this book, he has combined two series, one the six-year “black tie” project of photographing the wealthy people at elegant social affairs, the other continuing project of photographing the working-class people of Martins Creek, Pennsylvania, where Fink lives.

Fink started making the black tie pictures with a decidedly bad attitude. “I began to photograph society benefits in New York, fueled by curiosity and my rage against the privileged class its abuses, voluptuous folds, and unfulfilled lives. I wanted to illuminate and lose myself in the dark spectrum of glitter,” he writes in the book. He describes a nightmarish routine of forcing himself to go to these terrible affairs to see his “’political enemies’ their surfaces shining with desire,” his run for the bar, and the ensuing madness as he is dragged around the room by his camera and flash.

The pictures his camera made him take are so crisp and clear and rich in their tonality that his insistence he made them while fueled by drink seems hardly credible. But how else could he have melted into the outrage? All these hooded eyes, the grim glares, the nearly unconscious drunkenness amid the misplaced cummerbunds and starched shirts. To see the young women, so beautiful, so poised, and then look at the older ones and know about their sickness and decline and project that the future for these sparking young debs, well, a little drink is needed.

Not that the people of Martins Creek turn out to be pictures of health and spiritual well-being. We have a good deal of fat here, actually blubber flowing out to the edges of the frame. One is tempted to view this group of people the way Fink did, with lots of love and forgiveness and romancing of their simple but well-meaning lives. While he dislikes the rich, he keeps his distance from them. He never seems to know them, yet he admits he desires them. On the other hand, he gets to know these Martin Creek folks very well, learns plenty that is loathsome about them, yet he wont get his dander up about them. He describes neighbor John Sabatine’s stories as “a combination of heinous racism and pure fantasy.” He says Sabatine will “frighten you, betray you, befriend you, and shake you up however he can.” Sounds like a nice guy. Like a rich, corporate monster.

I was surprised at how much I disliked the people in the Martins Creek pictures, and at my ambivalence toward the people in the black tie pictures. Like Fink, I imagine that I dislike the latter in principle (for their smugness) and like the former in principle (for their soulfulness). But if the truth be known, Fink’s affluent enemies, most of them anyway, are more appealing than the beer-and spaghetti-stuffed folks of Martins Creek. It is a problem of civilization. I know these Martins Creek people. They’re macho and without taste, they know few restraints, and if the older men told the younger men to go kill black people, they’d probably do it, and love it. The game that many of the socialites play is different, one of psychic warfare, attempting always to elevate oneself, particularly at the expense of others, a lesson taken again from the elders, who have discovered this astonishing secret to success. Curiously, among this group, many of the women look more dangerous than the men, who perhaps have simply learned to hide their ambitions behind the blank neutrality of the poker player.

Obviously, these are more sweeping, ridiculous overstatements. Innocence, or at least compassion, is evident in the faces of some players in both groups. In a picture labeled “Joseph Gasparetti’s Baptism, Martins Creek, Pa., 1979” there is a boy who is so clearly destined to be a saint and to bring peace and order to his wretched village that one wonders whether they will all soon be absolved and cured of their meanness. In the other group, I know at least three of the people, and have no reason to question their goodness, which suggests that goodness might also reside in the hearts of many of their colleagues. What is difficult to bear is the boiling up of my own resentment and fear, and allowing that bile to guide me in these hasty judgments against all of these people. One has to clear that away, and books like Larry Fink’s surely help.