Red state or blue state. Rich or poor. Rural or urban. Black or white… or red… or brown… or yellow. Republican or Democrat. Educated or uneducated. Liberal or conservative. Hopeful or hopeless. There are many divisions in the United States right now, not to mention the world. There are maybe more things that divide us than unite us, I suppose, depending if one is an optimist or a pessimist. Yet another divide. I ponder these things on a regular basis; certainly when I read the news over breakfast every morning. I ponder these things as I look at this week’s photograph, “Pat Sabatine’s 8th Birthday Party” by Larry Fink. Though the image was produced in 1977, I think looking at it through a contemporary eye brings an even deeper appreciation to it for me.
Larry Fink is an enormously talented photographer, whose work hangs in many museums around the world. He has also published many important photo books. This particular photograph is the cover image from his book titled “Social Graces.” That book will probably remain his most important body of work, for many years to come. The images are a stark contrast in subject matter: either the lives of wealthy New Yorkers leading glamorous lives, or working-class folks in rural Pennsylvania, leading a much less glamorous existence. Though the pictures are of two very different worlds, it is Fink’s technical approach and intimacy in each environment that truly unifies the body of work. The photographer enables the viewer to be a voyeur into world’s that are most likely quite different, perhaps completely alien from their own.
Fink shows the very rich and the very poor using a stark lighting technique, the result of a bright flash in a mostly under-lit environment. The photographer has likened his approach to the same way Rembrandt would like his subjects. It is interesting to have the lighting add a feeling of “uncovering” to the images. Especially when the photos depict the lives of the very wealthy, the lighting brings an arresting element of discovery to a world made exclusive to the most of us. These are photos of the “1%” before there was such a term.
It is the folks at the other end of the spectrum in Fink’s book that I find more compelling, though. This week’s subject image is case in point. What do I see in this image? It is a black and white photograph, square format, indicating that this was most likely shot with a medium format camera. Interesting to consider that Fink was operating in a tight space with a larger camera than a stealthy 35mm. The lighting is the result of a flash, as we see a wonderful wash of light, along with a number of shadows, that help create an even more dramatic play between black and white. The flash has frozen a moment that was in flux, and if I rest my eyes and my mind for a moment longer, I can start to hear, smell and feel the chaotic environment he is showing us. To me, it feels humid, there is shouting, and a creak of the wooden screen door. Before the image was made, there was probably a shout from inside by the older woman, carrying the birthday cake. “Can someone get that door open?” might have been heard over the din of the assembled family. I love the arm that arches over her head, the way the fingers gingerly hold the door open. It’s one of three hands that I’m fascinated by in this shot. The second is the resting hand in the lower right corner of the image, fingertips cut off by the framing, acting as both a pushing force to make way for the cake, while also anchoring the chaos within the picture frame. The last hand is obvious to all, that of the young boy near the center left of the photo. The flash has frozen him in the middle of what must be an outburst. His fingers are splayed out, and seem to be punctuating some kind of a shout, or by the look on his face, perhaps even yelp of confusion. His sweaty hair is matted to his forehead, his lips forming a round O, looking like he is hooting. The shadow of his arm falls on the screen of the door. The wonderful blond hair of the girl next to him falls in front of our eyes, resting, in part, on a bent elbow. Is it the boy’s birthday? Or the girl with her back to the camera? Hard to tell who the 8 year-old may be. But again, I could not only imaging the feeling of being there at that moment, but could also imagine the taste of that cake, with its rich chocolate frosting.
How can the viewer not feel like a voyeur when looking at this image? Fink has gained us access to a world that might very well be unfamiliar to us. And his use of the flash seems to have stolen a moment that would have not been visible otherwise. But what is it about this image that speaks to me today? Going back to my original pondering of the divisions in this country, I think this photo exemplifies a world that still exists in many rural communities today. If the rich have gotten richer, the poor have certainly gotten poorer. The middle class, of which I am a member, probably doesn’t see or fully understand the lives on the very top or the very bottom. The rich have the capacity to control public access to their worlds, no doubt. But what does an urbanite living in Brooklyn, Venice Beach, or even Albuquerque truly know about those living in rural West Virginia, or somewhere in the deep south, or in rural Pennsylvania? We have our preconceptions and biases that paint a picture of how we “think” others live, but what do we really know? Do we get our impressions justified by 24-hour news channels, from reality TV shows, from dubious online sources? Do we really see each other as we pass on the street? Do we see each other at the mall, at church, at a sporting event? Do we know how others suffer? Do we know how they celebrate? Are we so different from each other? Does the distribution of wealth, the ravages of a capitalist system that creates winners and losers really speak to who we really are as human beings? I don’t have answers, but when I look at the work of Larry Fink, created over 30 plus years ago, I wonder. How does each one of us live our lives, accepting the lot we are given, or fight for something better for ourselves or our families?