Brooklyn-born photographer Larry Fink is best known for capturing Beat Generation poets and denizens of Manhattan high society alongside its working classes, all in glorious black and white. This week, however, 80 of Fink's luminous photographs from a two-decade study of pugilism (including snaps taken at North Philly's famous Blue Horizon gym) are on display as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs. His grittily unsentimental ringside view doesn't just capture Raging Bull-like action, but what he calls "the deep fraternity" of the male-oriented boxing gym.
What I cared about boxing, especially right now, is nothing at all. I haven't been within the sport. … I mean, I shot what you're going to see in this exhibit in the 1990s.
Boxing has an interesting history in America. It always represented the ethnic mix, even when it didn't. There was the Irish boxers and the Italian boxers as they immigrated here. The blacks weren't truly represented until Joe Louis. Each immigrant class was signified in singular fashion, as a hero of their people, like Rocky Graziano stepped forward. The thing that truly drove me to it was that it was an internalized opera of its own accord. There was innocence and there was corrosion. You have drama, drama about men's destinies and personalities. You have pictures to be made. But, I don't make pictures just for the sake of making pictures. I'm trying to come to grips with some sort of truth.
The news thing wasn't my deal because I never cared who won or lost. As far as it being a sport to be recorded, that was of no concern. As I got friendlier with the guys, I was more comfortable mixing it up. … I am drawn toward physical manifestation and powerful expression and notions of pride, victory, and all of that stuff — just not who won. I did care that some poor [jerk] would wind up on the floor. And I did care about the fraternity of men. These guys would yell 'fight, fight, fight,' do so, then hug each other right afterwards. There was only one time when I didn't see that fraternity, and that's when the victor spit on the loser.
Here's the deal: When I was a kid I used to listen to the radio and hear the drama between Joe Louis fighting Max Schmeling, the hero of America versus the German. My parents were out partying, so boxing, and the radio, filled a void. Later, when I would watch boxing on television, I would get so worked up from the aggression, I would get heart palpitations. Anyway, it's the '90s, and I got this assignment from Manhattan, Inc. to photograph a fight camp in the Catskills. I drive up, I get there and see everybody working out, including Mike Tyson with his sweet little voice. … As soon as I got into the ring, something came over my body that made me feel comfortable, truly psychically comfortable, with the action. I am as self-conscious as I am socially conscious and came to the realization that boxing would be my next subject. So, to start, it had nothing to do with power, race, or constellations. It had to do with little ol' me trying to fulfill those feelings of comfort.
I think I could. My acuity is very quick. But I don't dwell on it. As far as the characteristics of various gyms, I know, but I keep to myself. I can say that hanging out with Muhammad Ali's daughter [Laila Ali] was very different, perhaps because Los Angeles is a very different boxing town. Then again, I would be really pretentious to assume I knew your city's culture from my brief time in one of its gyms.
The deal is that when I was 17 years old, I was photographing the Beats on the West Coast. Then I hit New York and photographed their New York stuff. With that I became well-known, and started shooting bigger and bigger parties, the country clubs and all of their elegance. Because I'm a businessman by necessity, and not a trust fund baby — I guess no one trusted me — I became a party photographer for a long couple of decades, The real challenge for me there was how I could get energized and inspired to be there, because I don't live my life in such blasé form. So, that was an interesting exercise. And boxing fits into this milieu through power and lack of power.
I picked up lot of fight tips that taught me how to keep out of fights.