THE ESSAY BELOW ACCOMPANIES FOURTEEN OF MY PARIS STREET PHOTOGRAPHS IN
THE LANGDON REVIEW OF THE ARTS IN TEXAS (VOLUME 10, 2013-14),
PUBLISHED BY TARLETON STATE UNIVERSITY (STEPHENVILLE, TX)
Why I Photograph
by Larry E. Fink
Some kids look through a telescope or a microscope, and that’s it. Stars or microbes for the rest of their lives. For me it was a camera and rural Pennsylvania: beech woodlots, snow on a frozen pond, fall leaves, and dogwood blossoms in the spring, and Dad, Vernon Fink. He taught me to notice natural beauty, to marvel at natural phenomena. He took us–my brothers and me–hunting and camping; we toured state and national parks. And he took pictures, lots of pictures. He loved the West, subscribed to Arizona Highways, admired David Muench’s landscape photography and read Louis L’Amour’s western novels. A native of Pennsylvania, he and Mom–a Texas gal–retired to Estes Park, Colorado after his distinguished career as a corporate pilot and, before that, as a WWII flyer.
The simple joy of framing the world through a viewfinder and creating (technically, “sub-creating”, Tolkien’s term) my own two-dimensional versions of it has never faded. It began with nature, and that continues. I’ve spent two summers abroad recording the natural beauty that inspired two of my favorite writers (George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis). But eventually, I discovered other subjects and one very particular approach.
Besides Arizona Highways, the Fink household subscribed to National Geographic, LIFE, the morning and evening editions of the Philadelphia Bulletin, and West Chester’s Daily Local News. A steady diet of still photography. My first camera came in a yellow and black box with an instruction manual, a wrist strap, flashcubes, batteries, and a cartridge of black and white film. My next one came with color film. I didn’t return to shooting black and white until my senior year of high school, when I found my brother’s 35mm camera in his closet after he left for college. I was excited from my first roll, and thrilled by the ability to take pictures inside without a flash, something you couldn’t do with color film at that time. Seeing my surroundings and friends translated into black and white had an effect that’s difficult to describe; for a large part of my short life, I was used to seeing photographs of such subjects in color–exclusively. Other, people, too, seemed to be briefly arrested by my black and white snapshots. We had gotten used to seeing amateur photography in color.
In college, I discovered a group of European artists who continue to inspire me, the so-called humanistic photographers of the 1930s-1960s. The key figures include André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Willy Ronis, Edouard Boubat, and Israel Biderman (“Izis”). Because they captured the everyday beauty of ordinary life in public places, their work has come to be called street photography. They were masters of composition and timing, yes, but they also consistently affirmed the dignity of humanity and expressed respect and affection for the individual. Their pictures are both beautiful and important for their quiet affirmation of timeless values.
At times, I’ve shot weddings and documentary pictures for money and produced a pictorial biography for love, but since the 70s I’ve continuously attempted street photography in the humanistic tradition, even in our home city of Abilene, where this approach is pretty difficult to practice. Three years ago, I attended a street photography workshop in Paris with one of the great photojournalists and art photographers of our time, Peter Turnley. Turnley worked closely with some of the early masters, Doisneau, in particular. For over twenty years he split his time between covering major events for Newsweek–revolutions, war, famine, and the plight of refugees–and quietly photographing his favorite city and home base, Paris. Peter’s compassion for the human condition and his dedication to his art make him an extraordinary teacher. The workshop experience was both challenging and affirming, equipping me to teach a street photography course for the HSU art department.
I have made street pictures I’m happy with in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Prague, and, yes, Abilene. But for a couple of reasons, I’m taking this first opportunity to publish a nice number of images to show some of my Paris work. The workshop with Turnley was my fourth visit to the city, so I already had something to build on. Also, Paris is where this approach began and remains an ideal place to pursue it. Eventually, I hope to share my work from other cities, including Abilene.
So, here are some of my attempts to shoot in the humanistic tradition, with, I hope, a touch of a favorite poet’s enthusiasm for the uniqueness of every created being. He believed that uniqueness is perceptible, that “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves–goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, Crying What I do is me: for that I came” (Gerard Manley Hopkins, from “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”). Hopkins also believed that there is beauty in the commonplace, that we just have to look for it: “These things, these things were here and but the beholder wanting” (from “Hurrahing in Harvest”). With my camera, I try to capture unrepeatable moments that affirm these notions.
There is nothing unique about my technique. I shot these pictures with Leica rangefinder cameras, one made in the 1950s, the other in the 70s. I don’t think I have an original style; in fact, nothing would please me more than for people to say my work reminds them of Cartier-Bresson’s or Doisneau’s or Ronis’. Nor are these pictures political, except in the sense that they implicitly affirm civility and the freedom of all to go peacefully about their lives. My hope for my pictures is that they engender a respectful attitude toward humanity and the individual, and an appreciation for the beauty of ordinary moments. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.” Moments. Ordinary moments.