When Kids came out in 1995 it kicked up quite a storm. Larry Clark’s debut feature film depicts a group of teenage skate punks smoking dope, drinking excessively, shoplifting, talking nonsense, basically wasting their lives away. The main character, a world class egomaniac named Telly, has unprotected sex with every eleven year old girl he can talk out of her pants, since according to him virginity is the best protection against venereal diseases. At the end of the movie it turns out he himself is infected with HIV.
Some critics considered Kids a masterpiece, relentless and honest. Clark even earned himself a Golden Palm nomination at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Others thought the film was monstrous, myself included. Being in my early twenties at the time of release, I saw nothing but a nihilistic celebration of empty and joyless hedonism. Kids was, according to me, typical of the nineties, a time of boundless greed and moral bankruptcy, an era exemplified by 1991 novel American Psycho. But while Bret Easton Ellis—even without bringing his protagonist to justice—paints Patrick Bateman as the poster boy for pure evil and inherently condemns the world that spawned him, Clark revels in the debauchery. Kids looked like exploitation, a freak show, a dirty old man’s wet dream.
Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963; © Larry Clark / Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine New York
At the time I had no knowledge of Clark’s earlier photographic work. Twenty years later that gap has been filled with images off the internet and photobooks gleaned over in museums. And now I’ve had the opportunity to see Clark’s two earliest photo series up close and in full. FOAM is showing the vintage prints which resulted in his books Tulsa (1971) and Teenage Lust (1983). Together with The Perfect Childhood (1992) these works catapulted Clark to the status of one of the most influential photographers of his generation.
Clark, who was born in 1943 in Tulsa, Oklahoma with an iterant baby photographer for a mother, started photographing at the age of thirteen. Hanging out with his coterie he documented the Midwestern suburban life of teenagers in the late fifties. Snapshots of boredom, soon to be laced with daily shots of amphetamine. He escaped by means of the art academy after which he was drafted for Vietnam. His war experiences made him return to the images of his youth and publish his first book, Tulsa.
Tulsa is peopled by teenagers, mostly boys and an odd girl with big hair, who shoot up and shut up. Lots of muddled stares into the distance, mouths slightly agape, eyebrows raised. Occasionally there’s a gun or pistol to pose with. A lot of the action is in merciless close-up; sometimes the camera seems to have been moved deliberately in order to blur the picture and increase the sleaziness. Clark’s style of photography is the equivalent of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism; it’s completely subjective, highly personal, alienating, without any social or political agenda and with a taste for the marginal. It’s a style later adopted by the likes of Nan Goldin and Antoine D’Agata. Film greats no less than Gus Van Sant and Martin Scorsese have confessed to having been influenced by Clark.
Larry Clark, New York City 1968 Speedy Barb, 1968; © Larry Clark / Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine New York
After Tulsa it took Clark twelve years to produce Teenage Lust—a heroin addiction and some jail time being the main reasons for the delay. In this follow-up publication the main focus shifted from drugs to sex. Clark still aimed his camera exclusively at young adults. He portrayed Speedy and Barb standing naked in a bath tub, girls and boys body painting themselves with mud, male hustlers turning tricks on Times Square and lots of skinny pale bodies in shabby rooms filled with beer bottles and syringes performing clumsy sex acts.
When looking at these photographs with today’s eyes, dulled by the flash flood of internet pornography, it all seems rather innocent. There are a couple of erections on show and lots of pubic hair, but also pictures of friends having fun and a chastely dressed girl aptly titled Girl Next Door. If anything, these photographs can be qualified as intimate, loving even. This impression is amplified by Clark’s insertion of some childhood pictures of himself, a seemingly care-free kid and a rather dorky looking sixteen year old. Teenage Lust is autobiographic in a sense—Clark identifies with his subjects.
But most of all he identifies with what they stand for: the living in the now without thinking about the consequences. He tries to capture the immortality of youth, which is being celebrated to the full and does not care about how self-destructive, amoral, or otherwise damaging the party gets. In essence, Clark’s work is deeply nostalgic, romantic even. But I guess you have to get to a certain age to fully appreciate that.
(Image on top: Larry Clark, Untitled , 1970; © Larry Clark / Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine New York)