Thursday, April 28, 2011


I was born in Rochester, New York in 1956, where my mother was from. As a baby my father landed a job teaching at the University of Tulsa. So I spent most of the first  23 years of my life living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

I attended art school at TU from 1974 -1978 and it was at this time that I heard of the book TULSA by the photographer Larry Clark. The book had been published in 1971 and had a controversial reputation as an underground classic, but it had gone out of print. When I went to graduate school at Ohio University in 1981, I discovered a slide library of the whole book and it gave me a chance to take a look at all of the images. When I moved to New York in 1984, I found a newly released second edition in a bookstore in the Village that was signed by Clark. Being the romantic that I was at that time, I gave it to a girlfriend who was a photographer at OU. Several years later another edition was made and I finally obtained my own copy.

TULSA was published by Lustrum Press in 1971. The images in the book were taken in three periods between 1963 and 1971. It used the documentary style and narrative sequencing of a Life magazine photo essay with stunning intimacy and an intense emotional power. Clark took photographs of friends and the people he hung out with depicting scenes of young people having sex, shooting up drugs, and messing around with guns, and moves through the themes of addiction, abuse, and death. The graphic and controversial subject matter created a subjective autobiography of Clark's life.

Clark didn't take the photographs from the outside as a voyeur, but as a participant in the situations. He did drugs with the other characters in the book, slept with them, and included himself in the photographs. Some reviewers saw this as innovative and honest, while others criticized it for exploiting the dark aspect of the subjects lives. Clark focused on the subculture that he was a part of and in the end created a harrowing and powerful portrait of the evolution from youth to young adulthood.

The book is made up of around 50 black and white images and Clark used bleach and a lot of burning and dodging in the darkroom to create the stark, high contrast photographs.

A young man sits on a bed holding a gun on the cover. After the title page the book opens with black text on white.

i was born in tulsa, oklahoma in 1943. when i was sixteen i started shooting amphetamine. i shot with my friends everyday for three years and then left town but i've gone back through the years. once the needle goes in it never comes out. 


Next comes an intro to the characters David Roper and Billy Mann in 1963, followed by 4 other images of young men. In all of the shots the subjects are framed by shadows, mirrors, broken glass, and rain-smeared car windows. Their faces fall into the shadows.

This is followed by three shots of Roper. One in a house with Jesus on the wall, and two others show him with a hunting rifle in nature where he seems to still be alive and innocent. 

The next few pages shows people shooting drugs and depicts the anguish starting to enter their lives. Then we see Roper shooting up and his transition begins. There are images of the women in their lives and a stunning image of a downview of a young man (Billy Mann) in bed smoking with a baby staring into the camera. On the other page the mother looks worn out. Under her picture it reads "dead." 

There are also frames of motion picture film montaged into single images of drug taking, popping veins, and men arguing.

The next page reads: death is more perfect than life

Across is the cover image of the young man (Billy Mann) with the gun and underneath the photo it reads "dead 1970"

Now it is 1971 and we see a changed David Roper no longer innocent. Long hair, cigarettes, racist notes for the hated cops, an American flag behind him pointing a gun. Another man with a gun who accidentally shoots himself. The women are abused by the men. Another powerful photo of Roper putting a spike into the arm of a young woman.

And then against a white page a young pregnant woman shooting up. Another white page and we're at a funeral. Another white page and we see the baby dead in the coffin. This sequence of beautiful yet disturbing images is mystical and at the same time a punch in the gut.

Next a police informer gets his ass kicked. "Every time I see you punk you are going to get the same."

Then we see Clark high and shooting up with younger people as if this way of life is being passed down to the young followers.

Tulsa is a harrowing book of images depicting a world of aimless, addicted, and lost souls. It set the groundwork for the subjective, autobiographical work that would follow by such photographers as Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Ryan McGinley.

Twelve years later Clark released his second book Teenage Lust that was also largely autobiographical, but not in a conventional sense. It includes early family photos, his move to New York City, a quest for a utopian hippie life in New Mexico, and concludes with a series of portraits of young male hustlers in Times Square. It is more experimental and explicit than Tulsa. There is also text in the book written by Clark that details his life including his incarceration at Mcalester State Prison in Oklahoma in the 70s. In both Tulsa and Teenage Lust there is an obsession with the care-free and self-destructive aspect of the teen years and young adulthood. This theme would continue through Clark's work in film as well.

Clark's first major film was Kids that was released in 1995. The film centers around a day in the life of a group of NY teens who have an unrestrained approach to sex and drug abuse in the age of AIDS. It was the first film for the actresses Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, and was written by Harmony Korine. 

Next came Another Day In Paradise (1998) which was a bigger Hollywood production and starred James Woods and Melanie Griffith. The film is about a young couple who are taken in by an older couple into a world of drugs, crime, and violence. Both films have great images in a hand-held moving in and out of focus style, and a great use of music.

Bully came out in 2001, and is based on a true story about a group of kids in Florida who murder one of their own because he is an asshole. It is full of Clark's trademark themes of the destructive quality of the dysfunctional family, male identity and the roots of violence, mass media's influence on social behavior, and the construction of identity and sexuality in adolescence.

Ken Park was made in 2002 is more sexually and violently graphic film than Kids, and includes a scene of autoerotic asphyxiation and ejaculation by supposedly underage characters. The film revolves around  the abusive home lives of several teenage skateboarders and their friends. It too was written by Harmony Korine and co-directed with the great cinematographer Ed Lachman. Ken Park is a difficult film to see in the US because of its controversial content.

Larry Clark continues to make films and have gallery exhibitions. He was given a major retrospective at the International Center of Photography in 2005.

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