A Talk With Vanity Fair's Larry Fink, Snapper of Drunken Starlets

What are the ethics, if there are any, of photographing a dead-drunk starlet? Try running that question by Larry Fink. A successful photographer of boxers, jazz musicians and the 1970s Studio 54 scene, he has had retrospectives at MoMA and the Whitney, and a breakthrough well into his career. In 1999, he was lured by Graydon Carter to photograph Vanity Fair’s annual Oscar party. (He was put under contract to keep him from joining Tina Brown’s Talk, he said.)

He didn’t know who anybody was, but that was to change. His high-contrast, brutally honest photos of celebrities like Anjelica Huston, Dennis Hopper and Adrien Brody, taken documentary style with a hand-held flash, have became well known. (Check out our slideshow.)

Touring the Park Avenue Armory last weekend, where he spoke at the Aipad Photography Fair, he talked to The Observer about politics, celebrity, and about becoming, as he calls himself, Hollywood’s “court jester.” 

You’ve taken a lot of photographs after award ceremonies. What is a winner’s body language like, and what is a loser’s?
When I was at the Oscars, which is the photographs we are speaking about, from the book (The Vanities, which is soon to come out), I would watch the victories and non-victories over the television set. [And then those people would arrive.] And some people have a wonderful streak of graciousness and so when they win, they actually hunker down and they say, “Oh my god, not me,” even the most famous and gifted. And then there are those seemingly assholes who win and get all pomp and puffed. But they are not assholes, [I look at it as] just another form of poetry.

What would surprise people if they were at these after-parties?
Before the Vanity Fair party, Graydon Carter paces; he’s nervous, he wants everybody to have a good time.

But nothing really surprises me. Lindsay Lohan took off her shoes; oh, that’s a surprise. Or Tommy Hilfiger looks like a prig, a preppy guy; oh, that’s a surprise. Or Qunicy Jones looks like a satisfied and handsome individual. No surprise there.

My wife was really surprised by the extent of the botox therapy … and the proportions of many of the women who were known to be stars. She was amazed at how many of the stars you see on TV [that] were big on the screen really in fact were quite small. They were proportionally perfect, but using camera technique, you make them into a bigger person.

Is there a story behind the famous photo you’ve done of Meryl Streep talking to Natalie Portman?
That’s a quite a picture, that one. … The story is the moment itself. What the story was between them is not to be told because it’s not to be known. It must have been something because the intimacy of the faces between them is really quite suggestive. Not that it’s necessarily a lurid story, but it does look like a story of a human event of some order. 

What are the ethics, if any, of photographing someone inebriated?
If a person is drunk and degrading himself, I’ll probably not want to do anything. … I’m interested in people who are drunk and having a fucking good time. [Ed note: Which doesn’t necessarily mean, he granted, that they want pictures taken of them at the time.] I consider myself an empathic sensualist. 

At 70, what advice would you have for young Hollywood, the Lindsay Lohan types who are perhaps too familiar with judges, probation officers and police?
In order for me to answer that, I’d have to study for the priesthood. 

What do you think of celebrity culture?
My relationship to the celebrity culture is peripheral. I didn’t stay when I was invited to go on the yacht. I’d rather go home to be with my wife. So I didn’t get to be in that inside circle and that inside circle is incestuous and particularly dysfunctional–but no more or less dysfunctional than any other subculture, but obviously more theatrical in the dysfunction. 

You didn’t accept invitations to the yacht and the like? Why not?
There’s a line of distinction. Many people with access to privilege, if you will, try to access privilege, I don’t.  

The biggest misconception about your photography?
I have photographed celebrities, but I am not a paparazzi. [I do not] practice the same kind of barren hunger.

How many photos have you taken in your lifetime?
Probably 10 million. Now, the level of photographic promiscuity is immense. Everybody becomes a whore of the instant.

A Talk With Vanity Fair's Larry Fink, Snapper of Drunken Starlets