In the course of a long career as a self-categorised leftist social documentarian, Larry Fink has insinuated himself among rich white people at their social gatherings, and amongst poor white trash at theirs. The tension between the objective and voyeuristic aspects of this kind of work is not uninteresting, but problems of finding an appropriate viewing distance may arise. Boxing, the subject matter of his latest exhibition, is especially open to this criticism. Not only is it rife with racial complications, but its intensity is a lure for people who wouldn't normally have anything to do with it (Joyce Carol Oates comes to mind).
Perhaps Fink is wary of this, for only one of his 23 black and white photographs of boxers, mostly club fighters, taken between 1989 and 1995, shows a fight in progress. Boxing, Blue Horizon, Philadelphia, PA, 1990 (1990) depicted two fighters taken from a steep angle, high up in the crowd at the legendary Philly venue. But the real focus is on a spectator in the foreground, with his back to the camera, who has jumped from his seat with his arms raised. There are equally few fight scenes in the more extensive book version of the project. Instead, Fink has chosen to concentrate on the immediate, grimy, sweat-soaked periphery of the ring: the gym and the locker room.
Many of the images are about men preparing to fight. There are a number of photographs of locker-room scenes in which the boxer is curiously alienated from his surrounding trainers, seconds and various hangers-on. A photograph from the Blue Horizon in 1991 is particularly tense: a black boxer lies on a training table in a white robe, his hands wrapped and folded on his chest. But he goes almost unnoticed at first glance, beneath the oblique gaze of a white man in a suit, at whose shoulder stands a white fighter in street clothes. In another image, from Champs Gym, 1993, a small, intense, white boxer is warming up with his back to a dingy wall. His eyes are downcast and his wrapped hands reveal the swollen knuckles of his little fingers, his slight frame dwarfed by the back, shoulder and stubbly profile of his trainer. In another image from Champs, a black boxer crouches in a dark training ring, but the image is dominated by the trainer's arm extending out of the shadows, his hand on the boxer's head.
In the foreword to the book, Fink quotes approvingly from the writer Katherine Dunn, suggesting that the boxing gym is a space for intimacy between men, unsullied by questions of motive, etc. But little of this intimacy is revealed by the photographs.
What does emerge is all too familiar. Boxers are typically working-class men from minority populations, some of whom develop extraordinary physical skills and mental discipline. But in the course of doing so they are, also typically, exploited and patronised. That Fink understands this is clear from the evidence of an image so dark that the gym can barely be made out: a young, edgy-looking black man is being spoken to by a much larger bearded white man in a suit. But does anyone really need to be told, yet again, that boxing is a crucible of both masculinity and hope, or that it is an avenue of escape (however qualified) from the ghetto?
It is certainly true that very specific forms of intimacy develop in the gym. It is also true that they develop within a certain framework, motivated by the prospect of making some money. Even the trainer wants to make money off the boxer he loves (listen for him saying 'we' before a fight, and 'he' after his man loses). The successful boxer must not only beat his opponent, but come to terms with the corruption of the business he's in. Fink comes closest to capturing this in one of his simplest images, a portrait of a black fighter in a locker room at the Blue Horizon. Robed, with hands wrapped, gloves beside him, he has the ageless face of a veteran in a sport that shortens lifespans, and is utterly alone and self-absorbed, throwing miniature punches as he visualises what he knows is to come.
The problem with Fink's vision of boxing is that it is ultimately too peripheral. He seems not to have come to terms with the other side of the relationships between men in the gym. That is, the intimacy that develops between opponents in the ring, when everything else becomes secondary. Fink doesn't demonstrate much grasp of the respect, the tacit agreements, the spite, the wide range of understandings that develop within fights. So he can't always persuade us that he really sees what he's looking at, outside the ring. He risks only giving us more of the stylised seediness that is stereotypical in representations of boxing.