In conversation with Larry Fink
"I feel good that people feel good. I really like to give people pleasure"
In conversation with Larry Fink
During his behind-the-scenes shoot of the Spring/Summer 2018 campaign in Berlin, the photographer shares his thoughts on women, his passion for music, and the state of art and photography in the world today.
Larry, when you are shooting women nowadays, what are you looking for? And how has your perception of women changed over the years?
When I look at women – and I have always had this in terms of photographing – I have always felt that they are the deepest of our species. That their intuitiveness, their sense of balance, their emotionality is in effect more honestly balanced than the male emotions, which are often cerebral and triumphal. I have always felt that roundness of the world through the eyes of women, and I do much more so today. It is interesting though because only 10 years ago I would have looked at women’s bodies and I would get all excited [laughs]. I never would have advanced on anybody of course because I am a decent person and not involved with objectifying women. And now I just see bodies as they are, period.
Where do you think your fascination and respect for women comes from?
I grew up with my mother who was a feminist and a left-wing activist, and my sister, who has now unfortunately passed away, who was an incredibly powerful woman. She was a prisoner’s rights lawyer and worked on a lot of cases, one in particular was regarding the Attica Prison Uprising back in 1973, and she worked on that case for 28 years pro bono. My early relationships have always been with really empowering women, and my three wives have all been really powerful! Even though I have always been a romantic in terms of falling in love with women, maybe I was harmful to some people when I didn’t intend to be – not exploitatively but foolishly perhaps, and maybe painfully because I was falling in love too quickly without appropriate boundaries.
So would you call yourself a feminist?
Absolutely, yeah. I respect women so much. To me they hold the soul of the world.
Do you think people perceive this particular side of you when they look at your pictures?
I hope so. A long time ago, when second-wave feminism in America was at its peak, one of my photos from the "Social Graces" days was condemned as discriminatory by feminists. I was giving a lecture and a woman suddenly cried out that I was exploiting women. She was concerned about one of my pictures from that series in which two women were playing together in a courtyard. That was a very odd moment in my life, as from the picture you could see the two women had been portrayed while having fun. Because of the purity of that radical feminism movement many people were accused, and it hurt me, it hurt me a lot – especially the fact that people could perceive something so incorrectly.
But anyhow, I try to capture mostly everybody with my photography and my work, and with women I just admire them so.
Personally, what I perceive from your pictures is that women have a very naive side and a very powerful side. Especially in "The Vanities" I think you can feel that kind of synergy. But I also think that kind of vibe might not be that easy to grasp nowadays, when young girls are often playing a role instead of just being – especially in fashion.
When I was younger I was attracted to beauty in a conventional kind of way, but often I found a lot of the female models to be vacuous – they objectify themselves by understanding their role as one of a beauty symbol for others and for men. And I would be fascinated and infinitely seduced, and I would be pissed off at myself for being seduced and at these women for mesmerizing me. So I would photograph them, at a certain point incessantly, to see whether I could find something inside the veneer of that kind of objectified beauty that was more profound. And I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but I tried like hell.
Here on set the energy is very good — I was photographing the actress with the lush red hair on set yesterday. She was having her hair done, and I said to her, “You certainly like being the center of attention,"" and she said, “It’s not me, it’s my hair.” And I replied, “You are right, but you are really quite beautiful!” and she looked radiant. One thing that has to be said about me is that I love to flirt – without any particular goal in mind! [laughs]
I HAVE ALWAYS FELT THAT ROUNDNESS OF THE WORLD THROUGH THE EYES OF WOMEN, AND I DO MUCH MORE SO TODAY.
Of course you do! What is it about flirting that you like so much?
Generally, when I’m going to talk with someone and flirt with someone, I’m going to notice something that is positive about them. Flirting is a form of flattery. I feel good when other people feel good. I really like to give people pleasure, both by being myself and with my photography. That’s not necessarily a conventional pleasure, and often when I see someone’s soul and I photograph it. If I would show that picture to the person they won’t necessarily like it, because they would think it bends the veneer of their conventional self.
They don’t recognise themselves somehow.
Right. My wife Martha, for example, I wanted to make her my muse but I have never managed to, and she’s a gorgeous woman, but she doesn’t like being photographed. She says “I don’t want to be one of those Larry Fink’s subjects!” [laughs]
She’s loving, but also tough and belligerent!
You make a wonderful couple. What’s your farm where you both live like and what do you like about it?
I always wanted to make the farm into a place where you have many different advantages and pleasures as if you were wealthy, but the overall aesthetic is kind of funky. Though we’ve never had a couch, maybe after 50 years it’s about time to get one!
What is the one thing you couldn’t live without in your home? Apart from your cameras, of course.
Do you have a lot of instruments besides your harmonica?
Yeah, I have pianos. Music is all over the place. Classical music is playing in the barn as well. The animals do not have the technology to change the station so they’re stuck with my taste. [laughs]
I FEEL GOOD WHEN OTHER PEOPLE FEEL GOOD. I REALLY LIKE TO GIVE PEOPLE PLEASURE, BOTH BY BEING MYSELF AND WITH MY PHOTOGRAPHY. THAT’S NOT NECESSARILY A CONVENTIONAL PLEASURE, AND OFTEN WHEN I SEE SOMEONE’S SOUL AND I PHOTOGRAPH IT. IF I WOULD SHOW THAT PICTURE TO THE PERSON THEY WON’T NECESSARILY LIKE IT, BECAUSE THEY WOULD THINK IT BENDS THE VENEER OF THEIR CONVENTIONAL SELF.
That’s fantastic. What’s your favourite song? I’d love to listen to it. Possibly a classical or jazz track?
I would say a very spiritual tune: "Lecons de Tenebres" by Couperin. It’s about the 12 Stations of the Cross, and it’s beyond anything you have ever heard before.
On the topic of jazz, I find it incredible that after Steve Lacy died no one is playing his music anymore. He was an amazing musician, very simple and yet amazingly avant-garde. He played and recorded with everybody. He was a poet, an intellectual, and a great friend of mine. I’d say he’s one of my favorite musicians of all time.
Well, that’s very sad no one is playing his records anymore. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know.
What do you think about the meaning we attribute to art and how that changes over time? How do you think the perception of art that was created in the past might change in the future?
It’s an interesting question, a very good question actually. All the values that people of mine and Wim Wenders’s generation were brought up on gave us a kind of hopefulness, one based on a collective modality that still exists somewhat in Europe, while in America it doesn’t exist at all anymore. Art was for the most part based on the contradictions between the potential and the despair, which gave birth to a sense of absurdity in terms of human affairs because of the deep hopes for the conquering of goodness and putting it into a common chasm so that people could live well, and of the apparent evil which surrounded us by the systems that came to be. All of this was a struggle, back and forth. But it was also deeply experiential — not necessarily through media, like with our phones today. How America lost a war now with drones rather than men, so the concept of heroes and comrades is changing immensely; how the police shoot people before they even know what is going on because they are frightened of them. All of the values of proportion between good and evil, irony and hopefulness, are shifting. And [that goes for] the values of experiential knowledge based on curiosity and being out on the streets and sticking around and finding things, and curiosity about media machines, where you just find things programmatically, but they are not necessarily from experience itself. So I think probably things are changing pretty radically, and sometimes I find myself despairing because all of the things I have worked for, in my work and in my teaching, in terms of humanity striving to be better, using the imagination in a full experiential way, maybe even conquering evil (absurd as it sounds right now) have been pushed back profoundly. When you see the world changing, almost involuntarily caving in on itself, you start to feel hopeless. Now I don’t feel that way entirely as I feel my work is strong, but I can see myself feeling that way. I was born with an optimistic gene, but objectively I can’t imagine me being a kid today having that same optimism. My generation was born with the idea that the potential for goodness and beauty was there, but it has all changed now, and so profoundly. So I don’t think I am able to answer that question.
Maybe my generation will answer that question.
I’m hoping so.
If you’re an optimist, good luck follows you, so it’s better to have a positive outlook regardless of the fact that things in reality are failing; you have to rise above it.
Somehow we are creating our own realities all the time, I think, and live up to what we expect of ourselves. How has this approach influenced your work and how do you keep that positive attitude?
Somebody a long, long time ago, a girl named Jean Dixon who was a prophet – a psychic and advisor to several presidents – told me something very peculiar. I was assigned to photograph her down in Washington way back in the 60s. She lived in a big, fine brownstone house; she was elegant and a real fancy gal. I went to her house to take some photos of her, and she said to me: “You are a person who’s going to give the shirt off their back to somebody, but if they try to take it, you will kill them!” I won’t kill anybody, of course, but when you are a photographer, especially a young one, you have to deal with a lot of insincere people and you have to make sure you don’t get exploited; at the same time, you have to make compromises, as often you can’t turn down the job because you have to make a living. I've spent my life compromising with people, but nevertheless still have a vision, as I want to take pictures that are meaningful. When I get an assignment, I think of it this way: somebody gave me the privilege to go somewhere I wasn’t thinking about going, but I’m curious so that’s terrific, and I gained a small grant so that’s terrific. You have new experiences, and ultimately you have the pictures.