“When all is said and done, when everything is gone, the photograph is what’s going to remain. The photographer is the producer of history.”
Last October legendary photojournalist Nat Finklestein died at 76 years old. Earlier this year, the Idea Generation Gallery in London exhibited 'From One Extreme to Another' - a retrospective he organized with his wife Elizabeth. Nat Finkelstein led a fascinating and revolutionary life and while he was most famous for his photographs of Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground and other members of the Factory scene, his work with the Black Panthers and the civil rights movement eventually led to fifteen years in exile. I'm hoping that this collection makes its way to New York SOON.
This exhibition showcases five decades of work from someone who truly lead a life less ordinary documenting The Factory Years, the civil rights movement and New York club kids of the early nineties.
Dazed Digital recently interviewed his wife Elizabeth to learn more about this remarkable man.
Dazed Digital: How did you begin to start curating and picking photographs for the exhibition?
Elizabeth Finklestein: Well, I know Nat’s work; we were together for eight years. When I met Nat he was living in a terrible apartment in Brooklyn, we were introduced by a mutual friend and I was at Nat’s horrible squalid apartment one day and was flipping through this art book of his and I was like ‘Did you do this?’ and he said he did but no one cared. My background is in fine art, it’s not what I would call a career but that’s what I did for a living for an amount of time, working in galleries, working with artists and I know great art when I see it. And so when Nat told me that he was so discouraged that no on knew what kind of work he did and I thought this has to change.
Nat had a hustlers’ credo, he was proud to be a photographer but he was proudest of all to be an outlaw. That kind of conflicted with a capitalist career, especially in New York, if you’re not a careerist or self promoting and don’t have a media machine you’re easily ignored and Nat was an artist and not a careerist, he was absolutely devoted to making art but as far as getting it shown getting it to a mass audience he had trouble with that, he was frustrated by it.
DD: Where did Nat’s relationship with counter culture begin?
Elizabeth Finklestein: I have been thinking about this recently, myself. Nat grew up in the depression as part of a poor family and he always considered himself to be an underdog even though he was really a tough man and a brilliant man he still felt himself to be different. I think this is what drew him to sub cultures he wanted to do something for people who really didn’t have a voice.
DD: Nat’s photos, especially of the civil rights protests seem to have a gonzo element to them. Would you say he was influenced by Hunter S. Thompson?
Elizabeth Finklestein: Oh, my gosh completely. He actually used that phrase “I’m a gonzo photojournalist.” He had referred to himself as that but I don’t know if he ever referred to himself as that in the press.
There was definitely a gonzo element, he totally immersed himself in what he was working on and Nat also had a serious drug problem for a long time so he was on whatever… amphetamines or speed or cocaine, oh and LSD. When he was working in the sixties he really immersed himself not just in his subjects but also in the whole scene.
On his Relationship with Andy Warhol
Elizabeth Finklestein: There has been some conflict between photographers who were there as to who was an official photographer, who was an unofficial photographer etc. But, with Nat, he approached it as a journalist. He thought Andy was a great subject, he loved Andy’s work, and thought he was a stand up guy, Nat liked Andy.
Having been married to Nat I met a lot of these people who were at the factory and Nat didn’t respect everybody there, he loved the Velvet Underground, he loved Nico and he had a fondness for Edie but otherwise it was really Andy and Andy’s work which intrigued him the most.
DD: So it was the work that interested him and not the party that was surrounding it?
Elizabeth Finklestein: Nat was an idealist and he felt very strongly about Andy’s work, he thought it was important historically and he wanted to be there to document it and at the same time he wasn’t an in house photographer like Billy Bang for instance, he didn’t live THERE and had his own career away from the Factory. He was there an awful lot but again, he was there as a journalist.
DD: And at the same time as documenting what was happening at the Factory Nat was also getting very involved in the civil rights movement and working with the Black Panthers?
Elizabeth Finklestein: His passions were arts and justice and he had to be covert considering the politics and considering that in he end he had to leave the country for the work he was doing politically.
But he was very involved with the movement because it was so incendiary. The people at the factory did not know that Nat has this alternate body of work, and not just a body of work but alternate interest and alternate passion. Nat really believed in human rights and going back to the fact that he wanted to stand up for the people who didn’t have a voice. He tried to give them a voice through his photography.
DD: What was it like for him to have to go on the run?
Elizabeth Finklestein: He didn’t really get a diagnosis until later in his life but he did get post-traumatic stress from his time on the run, no matter how physically and mentally strong you are, how together you are, it hurts. What happened to him in Morocco was horrible but he survived it and it gave him a certain amount of fear and he didn’t like that.
Nat probably wasn’t surprised that the finger was pointed at him because the civil rights stuff was very incendiary, his photographs were some of the very first photographs that showed these young people and not just the young people but everyone who was there protesting and trying to get a political voice. He was very proud of that. It was an amazing time and unfortunately contrasted to the present day, there was a lot more (political) activity.
Finkelstein's photographs are in the permanent collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; The Victoria & Albert Museum, London; The Ludwig Museum, Cologne; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Smithsonian Institute, National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, among many other public and private collections. His work was recently seen in “Who Shot Rock” at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibit that I featured here.
All images Copyright Nat Finklestein. Interview text and photos via
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