In His Words
His masculine, gravelly voice, weighted by mounting years, American art hero and cinematic bad-boy Larry Clark elucidates his passion for living while bearing
witness to loss & the impermanence of his Oklahoma roots
by Sean Black
When we connect in late August by phone Larry Clark is completely at ease, yet strikingly present. He is in a familiar place. He is home.
The renegade filmmaker sits loyally vigilant at the bedside of a dying friend surrounded by loved ones and family. The nurturing and comfort conveyed to me over the telephone is in sharp contrast to the scripted, unnerving drama depicted over two decades ago in his debut film Kids (1995) that completely shook the yuppified cultural landscape of the time. At the time Clark’s work blurred real life with fiction bringing a much-needed awareness to the pre-HAART days of AIDS. Prior to Kids, Clark was already highly regarded for his revolutionary photographic body of work, including books Tulsa (1971), Teenage Lust (1982), and The Perfect Childhood (1992). Later, his films Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2002) prompted dramatic responses from the MPAA censorship board. He just completed his latest film Marfa Girl 2 (2017), a sequel continuing to fuel his incessant drive to “refine his unique vision and art.”
The foreword of his seminal book Tulsa (1971) perhaps best describes the artist in his own words:
“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.”
A recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Photographers’ Fellowship in 1973 and the Creative Arts Public Service Photographers’ Grant in 1980, Clark has seen his work included in numerous collections, including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, among others. A retrospective of Clark’s work, “Kiss the past hello,” was held at the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in the fall of 2010.
Auction house Paddle8 described Clark’s work as exploring “themes of emerging masculinity and the ways in which mass media can form a skewed perception of young adults.” About one of his most iconic portraits of a sitter, the bio continues, “Billy Mann reveals the raw emotion and power that Clark captures; illuminating the stifling effects culture has on this population.”
Revealing the ever presence of raw emotion witnessed through a precise, photographic eye, Clark talks candidly with A&U about the reasoning for yet another return home to Tulsa.
Larry Clark: Stevie is all ate up with cancer now. He’s in my Tulsa book. There’s this picture of a long-haired, Native American kid smiling with a big ole toothy, beautiful smile. He’s sixty-two [now] and has ten kids. He’s got grandkids and even great-grandkids now. This past Sunday, there was everybody from people my age, seventy-four, down to newborns. It was pretty cool. Plus, David Allen, also in my book, is here alive and kicking. And he just came over a few minutes ago. I’m going to have lunch with him tomorrow.
Sean Black: Larry, I am sorry and I am glad you’ve got your buddies there with you; people that know you and you know them and have that kind of great history. People, too, whom you’ve documented so intimately and powerfully in your work.
Are you taping?
Good, good, good. You should definitely tape because I ramble on.
What motivated you growing up in Tulsa?
Well, there’s a theater called the Circle Theater that I used to go to when I was a kid back in the ’50s. Every Saturday there’d be a triple feature. So I saw every movie ever made, I think, before everybody was watching TV.
It’s interesting that you mention the Circle Theater because it sounds like your life then is coming full circle and with the history you are sharing with me it sounds like you never really can leave Tulsa, can you?
No, you can’t. The whole idea when I made the Tulsa book, the whole thing was because it was this circle. When we were teenagers, myself, Stevie, David and Billy, we were these fifteen-year-old kids, kind of repeating the lives of the generations before us so that was the circle that keeps repeating and we keep coming back.
I’ve read that your mother was a studio photographer specializing in portraits of babies. Who or what most influenced your career in photography and film growing up in Tulsa?
My mother got a job in this little photography place where they were doing baby photography. She was so good at it that she and my father [later] started a little mom-and-pop business. She went out every morning early and would drive around to all the little towns in Oklahoma and Kansas to photograph babies in their homes. When I was fifteen, I was forced into helping her. At first I was just carrying equipment and then pretty soon I was going out on the calls, knocking on doors and taking pictures. When I was fifteen or sixteen years-old, I was actually taking baby pictures and going in and putting the dolls on my head, then they’d fall off and I’d go, “Uh-oh,” and the baby would laugh and I’d take the picture. But I hated it; the last thing [as a teenager] you wanted to do is have to act silly and shit. Anyway, it served me well because it put a camera in my hand. Then my goal in life at eighteen was to get out of Oklahoma.
When I was eighteen my parents had sent me to this little photography school. It was a commercial photography school, a two-year art school. Kids in the photography school were just squirrelly. They’d call them nerds now, but they were really squirrelly kids with bowties and shit. I’d already been into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. So I started hanging out with the artists [of other mediums] up on the second and third floors and I started using my camera to express myself differently. My first two girlfriends were painters and another good friend was a sculptor and a painter and great artist. I was probably influenced by that more. One day I met a buddy of mine and we went over to his house in Milwaukee and he had a copy of The New Yorker. I’d never seen that magazine before but I’ve read The New Yorker every day since and The New York Times, too. Then I moved to New York and you know the rest of the story. But that’s the beginning.
Thank you. You led the way for so many artists to be able to make hard images that were also intimate. How do you feel about intimate reportage?
In my second year [of art school] there was this little, tiny theater, three blocks from the school that showed foreign films. By the time I was nineteen years old, I saw every Bergman film with Liv Ullmann and other great actors. One day I saw this film, it was John Cassavetes’ first film [as a director], Shadows. I’d never seen anything like that. But I’m watching it and I’m thinking this guy sees like I see. I owe everything to seeing that film, then Faces; that was later. When you watch Shadows you can see a kind of realism.
Plus, the classic photographers. I think Walker Evans is the best photographer ever. Along with Harry Callahan, how he could just take a picture of someone walking in the street, but then there’d be someone else walking the other way [so there’d be this tension] right and left; Callahan really did it. I didn’t see Robert Frank until later. He and Edward Weston were two of my favorites as well.
You employ the same classic composition style?
I’m using the play of light for drama with classic composition. I’m using what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment”; but more than that I’m trying to make the people look good, like movie stars because they were my friends. And I’m photographing them in the most intimate moments of their lives and then showing them the pictures so if they don’t look good, then they’re not going to like me taking the pictures, right?
Oh, I absolutely agree.
I don’t know how I did it, but everything seemed to come together.
You really did pave the way for artists to be able to reveal a certain kind of sublime beauty in tragic moments of reality. Tell me about how Kids came about?
Well, I hung out with those “kids” for years, three years at least. And the story was all based on things that I’d witnessed along with a few things that other people had told me, but all based on reality. I had all of the stories in my notebook and then when I met Harmony [Korine] I showed it to him. He liked it and wrote the screenplay but I also needed a narrative. AIDS became my train coming for the heroine on the tracks and would the hero get there in time to save her? So that gave me the right [element of drama] to hang everything on.
Tell me about your early memories around HIV/AIDS?
The summer before [shooting Kids], people started handing out condoms in schools in New York City. The Catholic Church was up in arms against it. Kids would have strips of condoms that they’d be wearing around their necks like necklaces and everybody is talking about safe sex and all the kids are aware of safe sex backwards and forwards. Man, they could talk your ear off about how to practice safe sex. But after maybe six or eight months, I was with them every day and finally they started talking about it, like, “That’s some bullshit, man, we don’t use condoms. I wouldn’t use a condom in a million fuckin’ years, man. They don’t feel good.”
I tell this story about this one kid when I asked him what would happen if he gets a girl pregnant. And he looks at me and says, “It’s not my baby.” I mean, that was the answer. So with all the talk around safe sex because of HIV, I thought what if a girl after one time [of unprotected sex] got HIV?
In hindsight were you glad that you decided to include the HIV in your film?
Yes, I think it was a good thing because it woke a lot of Kids up.
Sean Black, Senior Editor, interviewed and photographed Chloë Sevigny, who appeared in Kids, for the April 2018 cover story.