LARRY CLARK, AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, and in the past few years, as a film director, has studiously cultivated a maverick profile. A former drug user who's had scrapes with the law, he nowadays refers to his earliest era as "the outlaw years... a different life." But its rhapsodies remain in his work. "Tulsa," the book that made his infamy, long out of print but for Japan, has been reissued.
Taken by some to rank in the halls of American gothic alongside Robert Frank's "The Americans" and Diane Arbus' self-titled collection, I think more about Clark's freakishness behind the camera; a determinably creepy fixation on callow male beauty intent on spectacular, yet crummy self-obliteration, an even more sinister voyeurism-of-youth than Jock Sturges' banal iterations of lithe nude girls.
Think of a few emblematic images among Clark's work: the last shot of his 1995 Kids, a nude boy, pubis artfully obscured, exclaiming, "What just happened?" Or Vincent Kartheiser, junkie-thin, bonily angelic, cavorting in sex and burglary scenes in Just Another Day In Paradise, or Clark's notorious photo "Untitled, 1972," in which a nude couple recline, tongues tied in sloppy kiss, his engorging member in her desultory fist. Her nude body is a speed-freak odalisque in the back seat of the car, but foreground is his thin arm, bulge-veined, more revered by the composition than the cock itself. (Clark's regard of the skinny-boy form is less homoeroticism than necroeroticism.)
Then there's "Tulsa," its few pages filled with revolvers, rifles, tattoos, star-fields of flag, gleaming, gorgeous mad eyes and hungry-veined musculature, as detailed as the most rigid erection in porn. The 57-year-old Oklahoma boy shot this album of views in three different years; 1963, 1968, 1971. "Death is more perfect than life," goes one of the few bursts of words in the book. There's orneriness and cussedness in these offhand shots, filled with speed-sallowed features, dancing to the devil's charm of ghastly, beautiful ruin. What matters most is Clark's sometimes artless lack of discernment: Perhaps we could never care about these speed-jacked no-hopers eking their last out of still-walking, young beautiful corpses, but he does.
"Tulsa" by Larry Clark
Grove Press, $24.95, 59 pages
[Originally published in Newcity, 11 January 2001.]