Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs

By Gordon Marino on October 9, 2018
Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs
On Fink’s reading, boxing is an admixture of purity and corruption. (Photo: Larry Fink)

“I found a world so rife with anecdote and pathos, so full of contradictions as to be a world within itself…”

Philadelphia has long been a hub of pugilism. Going back to Smokin’ Joe Frazier and beyond, fighters from the city of Brotherly Love are renowned for their truculence and toughness.

It is therefore fitting that this brilliantly gritty photo exhibit of Larry Fink’s boxing oeuvre appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Egregious decisions notwithstanding, boxing is black and white and so are the approximately 80 prints that comprise this show.

Though the sport could always elevate his pulse rate, Fink has never been a boxing shutterbug. However, in 1986 he was commissioned to tote his cameras to the Catskills to photograph Jimmy Jacobs, manager of Mike Tyson. Soon, however, Fink was captivated by the circus of violence and would continue documenting it through 2004.

In the introduction to Boxing: Photographs by Larry Fink (1997), Fink remarked on his entree into the world of the ring, writing, “I found a world so rife with anecdote and pathos, so full of contradictions as to be a world within itself.”

A self-professed albeit ambivalent Marxist, Fink’s lens quickly turned to the working class of the bruising business. At Philly’s Champ Gym and the legendary Blue Horizon, an arena in which double- and triple-A fighters struggled to punch their tickets to the big leagues, Fink descended into the steamy engine room of boxing.

With the exception of a shot of Don King and a fuzzy photo of a young and victorious Mike Tyson, arms extended as if to say, “I told you so,” the boxing elite are mostly boxed out of this display.

In his exploration, Fink discovered not only contradictions but “a deep fraternity” peopled with boxers, trainers, referees, ring-card girls, writers, promoters, attending physicians, and fans. Judging from the approximately 80 photos, it is as though Fink were trying to gather up the entire fistic community under his penetrating gaze.

Fink corners the bloodlust of bug-eyed fans, jaws agape and O-shaped mouths, most likely as they watch a fighter kiss the canvas from a big punch.  There is the ref, the arbiter of mayhem, between bouts, looking tired and with his big hands resting on the ropes. Social anthropologists have frequently commented on the erotic element of the fight game. Fink tips his hat to this theme with a sensuous image of the shapely leg of a ring-card girl slipping between the ropes.

In general, boxing photographers concentrate on nailing a crushing shot of a fist meeting a concussively twisted face. There was not much of that fare, only a singular print in which the fighters are actually exchanging punches and even that image is snapped from a bird’s eye view, muting the force of the action.

Fink’s visual narrative is largely devoid of brutality; nevertheless, it pulsates with the high tension of the sport that Joyce Carol Oates astutely observes, nobody plays.

Make no mistake about it, boxing is an advanced workshop with wolf-like emotions. Especially for the beginners not yet cozy with violence, the weight of boxing with your doubts and fears tends to give fighters a weary sloth-like appearance which is collared in many of Fink’s pre-fight shots.

There is a photo of a young, crew-cut boxer about to start his walk down the dark alley to the klieg lights of the ring. Priest like, the trainer at his side is dutifully watching his boy’s every move. Wan and with a thousand-yard stare, you might think the kid was going to his execution. However, when the bell tolls there will be a metamorphosis and his sinewy body will snap to life.

Boxing is both cut and dry and a ball of confusion. Perhaps purposely so, the context and subjects are often slightly ambiguous and without a textual commentary. One image snares a distraught man, perhaps a manager, literally biting his nails, seemingly teeming with worry as he stands beside a fighter stretched face-up on a table or gurney.

On Fink’s reading, boxing is an admixture of purity and corruption. Virtually the only subjects in his exhibit who seem relaxed and ready to kick up and tap their heels together are the money changers—the Don Kings and his epigones. For the innocent virtuosi of violence and their pit crews it is set jaws, hooded eyes, and arms crossed against their chests.

Perhaps it reflects my own back- and foreground as a boxing trainer, but the image that struck me in the solar plexus was that of lightweight who has just exited the ring. Baby like, his arms are wrapped around what could be his dad or trainer. The young boxer’s eyes are tightly closed. His turned head is nestled on the huge man’s chest. The big guy has a whisper of a smile on his lips, but it is hard to discern whether he is sharing a jubilant moment of relief after a victory or comforting a young warrior who just learned about the low ceiling of his pugilistic prospects.

Shortly after Mike Tyson was knocked out by Lennox Lewis in 2001, Iron Mike could be seen daintily wiping blood from Lewis’s forehead. For all of the savagery, much tenderness abides amongst the boxing brethren. Witness the dark photo of a trainer reaching through the ropes, laying his hand on his shadow-boxing fighter’s head, trying, I suppose, to get his charge to stay low and keep his noggin down. 

Fink avoids romanticizing the sport a la so many B grade movies. Yet, it is true and especially so in the US, that no small portion of the socio-economically marginalized men and women who drag themselves to fetid sweat parlors as gladiators in training regard boxing as the only exit out of poverty and invisibility. It is, after all, no mistake that when Terry Malloy (On the Waterfront) sighs, “I could have been somebody,” he is referring to nothing other than his boxing career.

Boxers are dreamers and when a fighter is awakened from those dreams by the black-lights of an uppercut, it hurts long and to the quick. Fink captures the sense of desperation that hovers over boxing as well as the discipline and resolve that is so hard to muster in hardscrabble circumstances where hope is scarce.

Pacing back and forth reflecting on Fink’s study, I overheard an enthusiastic passerby effuse that Fink is the Ansel Adams of boxing. At first, I shrugged off the comment as hyperbole but there is something to it. There is an Adams-like timelessness and quietness in Fink’s remarkable record of his sojourn into the hurly burly of the gloved game.

Larry Fink: The Boxing Photographs is on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from August 11, 2018 to January 1, 2019.

A veteran boxing trainer and professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino is the author of the recently published THE EXISTENTIALIST’S SURVIVAL GUIDE; HOW TO LIVE AUTHENTICALLY IN AN INAUTHENTIC AGE (Harper).

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  1. Gordon Marino 02:31pm, 10/14/2018

    Pete, Sorry to hear about the issues at work… that sounds like a liver shot. Hope you have a chance to enjoy the exhibit. Very tranquil place right around the corner from the main museum. Keep your chin tucked and your ass off the canvas.

  2. Lucas McCain 01:07pm, 10/12/2018

    This will show a couple of things. 

    https://hyperallergic.com/452121/the-racial-politics-of-boxing/

  3. Lucas McCain 12:53pm, 10/12/2018

    Sorry, the link doesn’t seem to work.  One card I liked was of a fighter named “Patsey Kline”—no relation, I assume, to Patsy, the great country singer!

  4. Lucas McCain 12:51pm, 10/12/2018

    Looks like a great exhibit.  There’s also a boxing card exhibit at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum, mostly cards from late 19th to early 20th centuries.  The link takes you to nearly 300 items.  Best to view them on the “100” at a time option on the bottom of the page, since they begin mixed with baseball and other things, then go all boxing.  Some are quite striking.

    https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/objects?exhibitionId={0ea141d7-6ac2-46c0-aa42-1bdc9a23d21e}#!?page=0&offset=100&perPage=100

  5. Pete The Sneak 11:18am, 10/12/2018

    J…Thanks much for the heads up on the Perelman Center. Is it open to the Public? If so, looks like I may end up getting canned from work with all the time I plan to spend viewing all these great exhibits in Philly….Toro, would love the company. First round at the nearest pub is on me…Peace.

  6. Kid Blast 07:32am, 10/12/2018

    Pete, take me with you

  7. J 04:49am, 10/12/2018

    The exhibit at the Perelman Center across from the Art Museum is about 3 blocks from the offices of Peltz Boxing Promotions, Inc., which is 4 floors of Philadelphia boxing history.

  8. Pete The Sneak 04:26am, 10/12/2018

    Wow! Love this write up. I will be making a trek to Philly pretty soon for work related purposes. Will definitely spend a good portion of non-working hours heading to the Philly Museum of Art to see this exhibit. Great stuff Gordon!...Peace.

  9. Kid Blast 04:36am, 10/10/2018

    Great article, Gordon.

  10. J 04:09am, 10/10/2018

    There were many world champions and top contenders who boxed at the Blue Horizon:  Harold Johnson, Curtis Cokes, Antonio Tarver, Bernard Hopkins, Bronco McKart, Tim Witherspoon, Jeff Chandler, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Bennie Briscoe, Kitten Hayward, Cyclone Hart, Boogaloo Watts, Willie Monroe, George Benton, Joey Giambra, Ivan Robinson, Arturo Gatti, Livingstone Bramble, Fernando Vargas, Alfred Kotey, Eddris, Eddie Chambers, Rockin’ Rodney Moore, Gypsy Joe Harris, Len Matthews, and on and on.  Fights there were televised by ABC, ESPN and USA Network. 

  11. Bob 03:49am, 10/10/2018

    This looks like a terrific exhibit. Sadly, the level of fighters that Mr. Fink chronicles make up 98 percent of the game. I will do my best to make the trek to this exhibit. Wonderful writeup.

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