I recently listened to the episode of WTF where Marc interviewed Larry Clark. For those who know little about photography, Larry Clark wouldn’t ring any bells, but for those who do, he looms pretty large in the modern lexicon. I had always assumed that Clark had started shooting in the 70’s. After all, it makes sense when you look at the material in his seminal work, “Tulsa”. It is a stark, brutal and honest work that peeked behind the curtain at an America that few people knew existed, except for those that lived it. The images were shot by Larry in Tulsa, where he worked assisting his mom in door to door baby portraiture. In the Maron podcast, he revealed that he had shot most of the material while he hung out doing drugs with his friends after work. He always had his camera with him and so nobody thought much of him snapping pictures as they lay around with syringes sticking from their arms, or engaged in casual sexual contact.
Among the surprising elements for me, was that he said that he began shooting in 1959. To put that in perspective, Eisenhower was President, the Vietnam War had not begun, and people still weren’t sure if rock and roll was going to be around in five years.
While it’s true that literature had begun to peel back the layers that shielded “decent society” from the underlying vice that was a fixture of the American experience, there is something about seeing it displayed in the stark contrast of Kodak Tri-X 400 that makes it much more real than the accounts of some Cambridge educated beatnik from Manhattan.
Yes, there has been since it’s inception, an element of photography that had documented the seedier side of life, but what Clark captured was different. It was everything that the powers that be railed against in the halls of Congress and from the pulpit, laid bare for all to see. It showed the poverty and desperation of small town life that often leads to experimentation with drugs and laissez faire sexuality that has been the blight of the heartland for generations. It is a noir-tinged work of photojournalism that was instantly recognized as an enduring statement on fringe culture, and served as a vehicle for Clark himself to escape the stifling suffocation of rural Oklahoma, and pursue a career in film and the arts.
Unsurprisingly, Clark himself was unsure of it’s value and had no real intention of releasing the work until he spent time outside of his hometown and upon viewing the work of Truffaut and other avant garde filmmakers, he found out there was a market for the outsider point of view.
Following the success of “Tulsa”, Clark released the seminal work, “Teenage Lust” and continued for the decades that followed to document those who live on the margins of society, as well as releasing a slew of films that are highly regarded and have had a lasting impact.
Larry said that he had never intended to be a photographer, and that he only took it up as a function of it being one of the few tools he had on hand. When asked to give lectures to emerging photographers, his advice is for them to stop wasting time studying, and spend more time out documenting your reality. What sticks with me about this advice, and his work, is it’s honesty. It is something that is often overlooked in photography today. We are inundated with images that portray life, but rarely are we shown the truth. Oversaturated sunsets and sickly sweet photos of babies and pets dominate social media platforms, and we all strive to appear as if we are thriving and happy, and even Larry Clark’s current work often appears as a stylized version of his original work. As photographers, we take our share of pretty pictures (it would be hard to be employed in the field if we didn't), but often the most powerful images are the ones that show a different side of life, and usually it is not very pretty.