February 18, 2011
Oscar night’s vanities
Ever since Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar died in 1993, Vanity Fair has hosted his legendary, exclusive Oscar after-party. The event’s official photographer from 2000-2009 was Larry Fink, who is having an array of his unusual Oscar night photos exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from Feb. 13 to April 3 as part of the museum’s homage to the Academy Awards.
Fink’s photographs are decidedly different from the standard, which emphasize glamour and celebrity, in that they capture candid, fleeting, often overlooked moments by focusing on the unexpected.
For example, his photo, “Untitled - 2001,” features two rather elderly women in evening dresses, both clutching ornate handbags. The camera draws our attention to one handbag holder in particular. The purse is ornate and glittery, but the hand holding it is gnarled and obviously old, in odd contrast to the glamorous, fairy-tale ambiance that provides the setting for the scene.
“It was just an observation of how old people come to the ball, don’t you think?” Fink explained by phone from his home in Martins Creek, Penn. “But the real thing is, not only are the handbags very glittery and in rather good taste, but the dresses are velvet, or some kind of fancy stuff, really great and lovely, and here’s these very, very human hands, just laying out and taking care of the business of the day, and no matter how painful might be the experience of holding that damn little bag, they’ll be there with that bag, for sure.”
Another photograph, of Hugh Hefner, Brande Roderick, Sandy Bentley and Mandy Bentley, from 2000, centers on the Bentley twins in identical gowns and emphasizes their identical sets of boobs, virtually falling out of their matching décolleté dresses.
“The picture is cropped from the bigger picture, which shows Hefner. I made the aesthetic and editorial decision to go into it and create more of a compact description of the items in front of us,” Fink said, with a chuckle.
These images project a particular form of film-noir sensibility; they are shot in black and white, usually with low-key lighting and lots of dark shadows; there is frequently a feeling of ambivalence about them; also, the photos tend to communicate a certain tension and often exude an air of sensuality.
“What you say about film noir is absolutely true,” Fink acknowledged. “I’m very, very deeply involved, not only with film noir, but with the films of the ’40s, ’50s and so on, and that kind of lighting, and the Bogarts, the real triumph of good over evil, where the yearning in America was really quite a hearty one and very open, even though there was racism predominant. But, nevertheless, the upper hand of intellect, without regard to the contradictions, was about yearning and hopefulness, and openness, and that’s the kind of time which, I guess, formed me.”
He continued, “A lot of people think that my pictures come from an older time; they have a timelessness. I think it has something to do with that moral struggle, which is, in a way, the emotional barometer within all of the other various kinds of strategies I’ve invented or found or been lucky enough to assimilate about how to make a picture, with the lucky gift of having talent.”
Fink took up photography as a hobby when he was 12. His father bought him a camera, and he was also allowed to use his dad’s Rolleiflex. “So I had the opportunity to establish this hobby, if you will, as a way to speak. Mind you, my family was cultured; they were left-wing people, and they had art on their wall, all of the social-realist artists of the time. And so I was infused with that acculturation, and photography, apparently, was a way for me to step outside my boundaries and start to speak about what it meant to be alive.”
Throughout his career, Fink has photographed boxers, Manhattan society figures, a working-class family from his Pennsylvania hometown and jazz musicians, among a wealth of other subjects. His work has been exhibited at some of the finest museums around the world, and he has produced several noted books. He is devoted to teaching and is currently a professor of photography at Bard College.
Although he comes from a Jewish background, Fink described it as a decidedly secular one. “My people had no affiliation to Judaism, certainly none whatsoever to Zionism, because they were communists. There’s a whole contingency of Jewish people who were very, very left wing back in those days, and my parents were of that internationalist group of people rather than the Zionist group.”
His roots may have influenced his approach to the rich and famous, particularly in the early days of his photographing the New York social scene.
“I was simply and naively looking at what I thought might be a dying class, because of revolutionary fantasies which were abundant in those times, in the ’60s. And then I acquired a reputation of being a noted photographer of these kinds of parties and whatnot. I started to get hired and actually make a living by being the party photographer who was humane, certainly, and curious, for sure, but slightly seditious. ... In my beginning years, my yearnings were not to annihilate these people, certainly not, but to study them as they sort of passed away and a new history came upon us.”
“That’s very funny to me now, but it was such lovely thinking. We had such a great time being so idealistic. So I became a court jester. After all, I was paid royally in many cases, to do what essentially is probing about what it means to be human under all circumstances, and, in this case, among the wealthy and celebrated. But, they’re just people to me. They’re just simply people.”
Fink added, “Since I only approach them as common humanity, I’m certainly bringing them down from the pedestal, but I don’t do it with a punishing position. I mean, I think about celebrity culture and what it’s done to the world, particularly in America, where people are absolutely engrossed in celebrity and in their own potential celebrity with reality TV shows and total fantasy about what identity actually is.”
And so, Fink seeks to humanize and “de-mythify” the beautiful people through his Vanity Fair Oscar party photos, such as the one he took of Arianna Huffington at the 2007 festivities. There is just a sliver of her face visible as she greets and embraces another woman.
“It’s more of a picture of her friend’s back. I diadn’t know at the time that it was she. I had seen her around before. So, after I photographed her, I realized, ‘Oh, it’s Arianna Huffington, OK.’ I didn’t know how the picture would come out, because I wasn’t interested in her, except that she was a kind of subplot with her face. But her face came out to be really interesting, because there’s some little bit of a release there, almost a little rapture, that was unexplained, save for the fact that it was two women greeting each other with affection. So, there’s something nice about that.”
As for what Fink would like viewers to take from his work, “I would like them to come away with just a little bit more information about what it means to be curious, and what it means to try to look at other people with a clear, intuitive, and emotional mind. That’s all.”