Photo: (l.) The Beats; (r.) The Vanities © Larry Fink, from the promo card for the exhibition “The Beats and The Vanities.”
What a long strange trip it’s been for photographer Larry Fink, who left home at 18, headed from suburban Long Island to the heart of New York City. It was the late 1950s and the Village was all the rage, easily the center of bohemian America.
A decade earlier, Jack Kerouac had coined the term “Beat Generation” for his ilk, “a generation of crazy illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly new way.”
Fink arrived ten years in, moving into an apartment on Minetta Lane with a poet. He made his way through the scene, connecting with a group of Beats posted up on McDougal Street including painter and writer Lawrence “Turk” LeClair, Hugh Romney (later Wavy Gravy), and poets LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Robert Cordier.
The crew, which Fink describes as “delusionary revolutionaries,” lived together in the basement of the Sullivan Street Playhouse, next door to the Village Gate jazz club, where they could hear live sessions by John Coltrane, Art Blakely, and Charles Mingus, to name just a few.
Though he shared the pleasure they took in life, Fink did not share their politics, which created some distance from them. As a Marxist, Fink was bound to the Revolution, whereas the Beats were not; they could simply turn on, tune in, and drop out as was their wont.
But at that young, tender age, Fink felt that he “desperately needed a photographer to be with them, to give them gravity, to live within them, record and encode their wary but benighted existence,” and so he traveled with them to Houston and Mexico, documenting their lives along the way, capturing their attempts to deal with being the beneficiaries of privilege.
Fink first published these photographs in The Beats (powerHouse Books), and is now showing the work alongside a later body of work in a new exhibition, The Beats and The Vanities, Larry Fink at Armani/Silos, Milan, now through July 30, 2017.
The exhibition pairs The Beats with work he made 45 years later documenting the annual Vanity Fair Academy Award Party for the magazine, capturing the greatest actors of our day on the highest night of their industry. First published in a book from Schirmer/Mosel, Fink’s black and white photographs have a distinctive documentary edge, combining an eye for style and glamour with an incisive ability to cut well beneath the surface.
“I am really pleased to be able to bring Larry Fink’s work to Milan. I find his ability to capture form and line in such a fluid way something I can really relate to as a designer,” Giorgio Armani observes. “Fink is a jazz fan, and you can almost view these images in terms of musical composition – people in flow, surprising us, possessing an unselfconscious sensuality. There is much that a fashion designer recognizes here.”
The pairing of The Beats with The Vanities bookends Fink’s illustrious career, which has been dedicated to serving the Revolution by crafting images that examine privilege, class, and the power structure for a wide array of perspectives. An outsider who made it in, Fink has never veered from the cause, always using photography to expose, to provoke, and to question our assumptions.
“The pictures have more in common than might at first be obvious: from two different very, very opposing levels of egotism, The Beats and The Vanities live within the same valley.” Fink reveals. “Each set of participants fashions themselves to be on the top of the mountain of contribution…. Of course, the images were made forty-five years from each other. The Beats were photographed when I was a young romantic, The Vanities when I was – not hardened – but a humanist ironist. Therein, the bodies of work have different aesthetics and moral calculations for all that come to see.”
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, Whitewall, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.