JTF (just the facts): A total of 18 black-and-white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1962 and 1997 (many are early prints). All of the prints are on 20×16 inch paper, and no edition information was provided. A selection of the artist’s photobooks is also on display. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: A new gallery representation relationship is often the occasion for a summary-style introductory review of an artist’s career, and this show of work by Larry Fink provides a succinct survey of notable images made by the well known but somehow still under-appreciated photographer. While including a handful of Fink’s most famous images, the show features some of the last available prints the photographer made on Agfa Portriga paper (now discontinued), adding a layer of scarcity to the tightly edited selections.
A few of the works on view come from 1960s New York, around the time Fink studied with Lisette Model and before he moved more permanently to using a square format camera. A shadowy image of John Coltrane (from 1962) pulls highlights into elongated squiggles that imply energy, giving visual form to the music. Another picture (from 1965) captures the linear geometries of the Staten Island ferry, with a disembodied hand draped over what looks like a radio perched in an open window. And a third (from 1966) shows us the faces of riders on a crosstown bus matched by repetitive echoes on the advertisement below the windows. These early pictures find Fink starting to use context and atmosphere to tell human stories, but he hadn’t yet moved in quite as close as he would in the coming years.
Fink’s work from the 1970s is among his best known, particularly a mix of photographs made at parties and galas in New York city put together with images of the lives of his rural neighbors in Martins Creek, Pennsylvania, the combination taking shape as a project called Social Graces. Selections from the project were exhibited in a solo show at MoMA in 1979, and were later published as a photobook by Aperture in 1984.
As seen here, these photographs remain strong, and the contrasts in mood between the two worlds they document are as fresh as they were decades ago. Fink’s images from Martins Creek pay attention to the nuances of behavior at various family gatherings, including graduation and birthday parties as well as quieter moments. Fink’s now classic picture of a boy reacting to the arrival of a birthday cake is a gestural marvel, from the arm holding the screen door open to the hand with extended fingers and the open mouth brimming with emphatic excitement. Other works from yet other parties exude easy going warmth and affection, including the genuinely ecstatic burst of laughter of a young woman, the playful tongue-out gun pointing of the grandmother, and various other tender embraces and supportive looks.
Fink deliberately set this working class naturalism against the mannered behaviors he found in New York, particularly those found at debutante balls, art openings, and other high society galas and events. Fink’s image of a woman dancing at Studio 54, with her back arched and her braided hair tossed into the air, is another classic, her exaggerated pose and her otherwise placid expression seemingly in surreal performative conflict. But the social mask has fallen away for a woman dancing with her partner under a huge chandelier, her empty stare and limp arm signaling her weary boredom with the otherwise lavish festivities. Still other pictures dig in further toward moments of awkwardness, where a pair of long fingered men’s hands hold a woman’s back and a young woman playfully looks over her shoulder, with a older man (perhaps not the one she was looking at) standing close inside the edge of the frame. When placed back into dialog with the comfortable rural pictures, these overlooked oddities look even more stilted and strange.
Fink’s later work gets only a cursory review in this show, with one portrait from his early 1980s series on loggers, a pair of works from his project on boxers from the late 1980s and early 1990s, and nothing from the past two decades, so it’s a bit hard to connect his early successes to the larger arc of his photographic career. A shelf full of Fink’s photobooks helps to fill in some of gaps, featuring among others his more recent images of praying mantises and Hollywood parties.
While museum curators are well aware of Fink’s talents and his images, particularly from Social Graces, can be found in most major collections, his reputation feels somewhat less burnished and cemented than many of his contemporaries. This small show only skims across the very top of his long tenure in photography, but its flashes of excellence point to the need for a more comprehensive and authoritative summing up. Smaller retrospectives have been mounted at various galleries and in a touring exhibit in Spain in recent years, but it feels like there is still room for something more definitive here in New York or in the United States more broadly. This show has the makings of a restart – hopefully catalyzing a fresh eyes look at what Fink has accomplished.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $7500 and $15000. Fink’s prints have been intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, with prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $12000.