For a generation of young filmmakers and artists coming into their own in the ’90s and ’00s, Larry Clark has served as a patron saint of provocation-a reverence well deserved after his unforgettable feature-film debut, 1995’s valentine to downtown teenage brutality, Kids. Working with a script written by a then-21-year-old skater named Harmony Korine and using untested actors like Chloë Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Rosario Dawson-and non-actors like Justin Pierce and Harold Hunter-Kids shook all senses of a moral line in cinema by portraying urban youth so honestly and openly that it came off as criminally obscene. Fifteen years later, the film reads far more as a compassionate portrait of a sometimes uncompassionate group of skateboarders and their friends, but Kids set Clark off on a now notorious cinematic odyssey through a maelstrom of drugs, sex, murder, domestic abuse, suicide, loitering, masturbation, AIDS, incest, and pretty much every other horror running through the teenage psyche in films such as Bully (2001), Ken Park (2002), and Wassup Rockers (2005).
This transformation from rogue artist to rebel icon was nothing new for Clark-it was only new for him in the genre of film. Clark first came into dissenter collective consciousness in 1971 with the publication of his bleak, direct, and utterly mythic black-and-white monograph Tulsa. Shot over a period of years in the ’60s and early ’70s of his friends and speed-taking co-conspirators in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the photographic series captured a rogue, nightmarish side of American youth with a documentary-style realism that would become Clark’s signature. When the book first appeared, it caused a sensation; this was an intimate, irrefutable portrait of something going wrong in the middle of the country. As Clark himself explains, by 1971, the drug culture in America had already been around for several years, only the optimism of it was souring. Tulsa thus presented something of a flip side to the California hippie movement of the ’60s. But Tulsa-much like Clark’s equally stunning and startling series that came later, Teenage Lust, The Perfect Childhood, and punk Picasso-is not offering a warning or a sermon. Rather, Clark captures his Oklahoma acquaintances in lyrical, deeply private, and often heroic ways. No wonder, as Clark remembers, one more amusing critique of Tulsa at the time came by way of a cartoon that ran in The New Yorker of hell with devils and fire, and on one side a man taking pictures. The message here is clear: Something as terrifying as Tulsa can only be taken by someone on the inside.
This month, the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris will unveil a retrospective of the 67-year-old Clark Clark’s work. The exhibition will cover every chapter thus far in Clark’s development as an artist-including his photography, film, and collages, as well as more personal items from his youth and never-before-seen images from works like Tulsa. Clark will also premiere his latest yet-untitled film. For this interview, Clark spoke with his old friend and fellow photographer Ralph Gibson. The pair met in New York in 1967. According to Clark, they were introduced at one of the weekly salons that the great photographer Philip Perkis hosted at his Manhattan apartment. Clark was first drawn to Gibson, he says, “because he always had the most gorgeous women with him. We would go to a coffee shop and he would pick up the waitress. He was my big brother.” When Clark first tried to get Tulsa published, he couldn’t find a house willing to print all of the pictures without a heavy edit. Gibson, facing similar problems with censorship, had decided to self-publish his first monograph using a little company he set up called Lustrum Press. Gibson agreed to publish Tulsa at his press, and thus one of the seminal monographs in photography found its way into the world.
LARRY CLARK: Hey, brother. How are you doing?
RALPH GIBSON: Good enough. You and I go back to, what, ’66, ’67?
GIBSON: And what year do you go back to for your retrospective?
CLARK: The serious work starts in 1962. There’s also going to be some of my mother’s photographs to start the show, because I worked for my parents when I was a kid. When I was 14 or 15 I started out taking baby pictures with my mother.
I am a storyteller. I’ve never been interested in just taking the single image and moving on. I always like to stay with the people I’m photographing for long periods of time.Larry Clark
GIBSON: That’s good experience.
CLARK: It put a camera in my hand.
GIBSON: So by the time you were ready to say something, you already had a strong communication with the nature of the medium, right?
CLARK: Yeah. But I didn’t realize that you could use it for anything other than taking baby pictures until I left town. Actually I think it first occurred to me when I was a senior in high school. I was about 17.
GIBSON: That’s interesting. That’s when I started too.
CLARK: When we first became friends I thought it was kind of fascinating that I was doing amphetamines and was awake all the time, and you told me that you slept all the time. You were asleep and I was super-awake.
GIBSON: It’s like night and day. But it’s the results that count, I guess.
CLARK: Both of us must have learned from that. Your first book was called The Somnambulist.
GIBSON: I have always been interested in certain distinct aspects of your work. Above and beyond all of the virtuosity as a camera handler, I think there are threads that run through everything you’ve done-whether it be photography, films, or collage. There’s always a narrative element to your work. You’re essentially a raconteur, a storyteller, and you’re using the story as a pretext for a self-portrait. I believe the great self-portraitists have to do their portraits in public, which is essentially what you do. Do you see what I’m saying?
CLARK: Yeah, exactly-and it’s true. My work is always about me, just like your work is always about you. I am a storyteller. I’ve never been interested in just taking the single image and moving on. I always like to stay with the people I’m photographing for long periods of time.
GIBSON: That’s an interesting concept right there. That completely separates you from how anybody else working in a so-called documentary vein would. They so often skate over the surface. You’re shooting from the inside out, as opposed to the outside in.
CLARK: Going back to the great documentary photographer W. Eugene Smith, he worked for LIFE magazine and he was always bitching because they didn’t give him enough time. He wanted to spend months and months working on a story, and LIFE was a weekly. So he actually resigned from LIFE because he wanted to spend a year photographing someone rather than only a couple of weeks. Maybe I got that idea in my head early, too.
GIBSON: I have Gene’s Aperture book [W. Eugene Smith: Masters of Photography] on my desk. I look at it all the time because of his incredible, elliptical way of storytelling. He didn’t need many pictures to tell a story, but the ones he shot were so loaded.
CLARK: Plus he made people look the way he wanted them to look. I think you and I both do the same thing. We are able to make the photograph with the feeling and information that we want in there. Gene Smith made people look like heroes. He would be in a steel factory and make the workers pouring steel look like Greek gods or mythical figures.
we were coming out of the 1950s, and that was such a repressed time. I think I started making photographs in reaction to that. ‘Why can’t you show everything?’ ‘Why do people pull their punches?’Larry CLark
GIBSON: You and I are both out of the great days of LIFE magazine-even though that’s not what we wanted to do. But I used to run home after school on Fridays to see it when it arrived, and I guess that’s what told me that I could be a photographer. Now what about your use of a narrative element-because I think it’s in everything you do.
CLARK: I’ve always been interested in people that you wouldn’t see otherwise. If you look back at my books, photographs, and films-and since I’m doing this retrospective I’ve been forced to look back-the work is always about a small group of people who are somewhat isolated, and who you would never see if I didn’t film or photograph them. I don’t think I would have had to take the photographs if I could have seen them in other places. I was thinking about this with my last film, Wassup Rockers, that once again dealt with a group of people who are-
CLARK: And would never appear onscreen. You would never see these people in film except maybe as stereotypes.
GIBSON: The other famous Oklahoman I know is Ed Ruscha. He’s got that great painting called I Don’t Want No Retrospective. Do you know that one?
CLARK: That’s funny because I feel the same way, and I’ve always felt that way.
GIBSON: It’s a tough one, isn’t it?
CLARK: Yeah, but at this stage of the game, it seems like it’s the right time to do a retrospective.
GIBSON: It’s totally legitimate. It makes one look at one’s work in a completely different way.
CLARK: I think the reason why I never wanted to do a retrospective is because I was scared to go back and look at all this stuff through the years.
GIBSON: Have you unearthed any previously undiscovered things?
CLARK: Quite a few. I also have a lot of work that I never printed and I never dealt with. It just wasn’t the time to do it. At the retrospective there will be some work that no one’s seen. The good thing about this show is that it goes right up to 2010. I’m actually going to show a film there that I’m editing now. It will premiere at the museum, and even I haven’t seen it yet. So it will be something brand-new, which is going to make a lot of sense because you will have to go through the whole show before you can see the film. It will bring everything full-circle.
GIBSON: When we were crashing together in the late ’60s, you kind of got me into rock ‘n’ roll. I know you saw a lot of great performers as a young guy. I wondered if that remains an influence for you.
CLARK: It does. I was lucky to be 12 years old when rock ‘n’ roll really busted out. I saw Elvis in Tulsa at the fairground on his first tour of the United States, and all the girls screaming. I couldn’t hear for days after that. It was just amazing. He came out and did a half an hour without stopping. It was really dirty. Then they used to tour this rock ‘n’ roll show called The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Show in 1956, ’57, ’58, and everybody would be there: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, Buddy Holly . . .
GIBSON: You put rock ‘n’ roll or the blues in all your films.
CLARK: I’ve always liked doing the soundtracks for my films.
GIBSON: When I was working with Robert Frank, he told me that there was absolutely no relationship between cinema and photography. I challenge that. Surely what you know as a photographer must impact how you set up your shots.
CLARK: Both of us know how to make an image. And I think that helps me when I am making a film. But it’s totally different. I’ve told people my lesson for photography-which I probably stole from you at one point. I tell people to frame the picture. Make the greatest, most perfect composition you can . . . and then take a step forward. It skews it a bit and makes it more interesting. When I’m making a film, my D.P. will make the frame right. He will make the composition, and then I’ll have him put a longer lens on the camera.
CLARK: If he has a 35-millimeter lens, I’ll have him go to a 50-millimeter, which just brings you closer to the subject and gets you away from precious compositions. I learned so much about composition from looking at paintings. I remember when we first met, in ’67, everyone was leaving all this space around their pictures. The subject would pretty much be in the middle but there would always be space. You would see landscapes and see space around them, but at the same time I was going to museums with you and looking at paintings-
GIBSON: They would be really tight.
CLARK: Yeah, painters are chopping off people’s arms and feet and just hacking off their heads. It was so much more interesting. My greatest lesson in composition was looking at paintings.
GIBSON: Is there a difference in how drama is conveyed between a still book of photos and cinema?
CLARK: It’s just a different medium. You have much more freedom when you’re making a film. It’s certainly a bigger canvas.
GIBSON: Is there more forgiveness?
CLARK: That’s a really tough question. You could probably think in both mediums of examples where that isn’t true. There are no hard rules. Books have been so powerful. Maybe one reason Tulsa is so powerful is that I wanted to make a film and tell this story, but I wasn’t able to, so I had to figure out how to do that with still photographs.
GIBSON: But you did shoot some actual footage, right?
CLARK: Yes. I found some 16-millimeter film and I’m going to show it in Paris. It’s actually 40 minutes and it’s amazing because everything is there. I shot with a 16-millimeter Bolex. I remember I rented it for two or three days and it’s sharp as a tack. Really my whole aesthetic is there.
GIBSON: Fully formed, early in life.
CLARK: I was editing in the camera. I had never had a movie camera in my hand before. Plus when I watch it now, my friends come back to life, because most of the people in the film are gone.
GIBSON: You also like using a lot of words in your collages-you get into newspaper articles and typography and stuff like that.
CLARK: I started doing the collages just before I started making films. I made Kids in 1994 and I did collages from ’90 to ’94. It was a way of getting into film-a way of telling stories in a different way. I just did a collage, which is like a film. You know, I never even liked collages that much. But this new one’s really big. Speaking of collages, you were a friend of Wallace Berman.
GIBSON: He was a dear friend.
CLARK: He did wonderful work. We actually met him once when we went to L.A. to print Tulsa. We met him on the beach. You and I were body-surfing and he was with his 12-year-old son. One of us must have pictures from that day.
GIBSON: I’ve got a great shot of him from that day, yes. It’s “Is This Any Kind of Mother for an Orphan Foal?” We found this magazine, and Wallace held it up. He influenced so many people, like Dennis Hopper. And Dean Stockwell refers to him all the time. Those of us who were lucky to have known him still thank him. The impulse for collages is interesting. I’ve never made one in my life, but I do love them.
CLARK: You have to be inspired. You can’t force it. I hadn’t made one in 15 years, and then when I was in Paris I saw this blank wall in the museum. Believe it or not the wall started talking to me-“Collage me!”
GIBSON: The French have a different take on photography than Americans do. They consider photography to be absolutely parallel to literature. That often makes for a deeper perception of the work. How many pieces are going to be in the show? Are you going to have all of Tulsa and Teenage Lust?
CLARK: It’s a very big show. There’s going to be a lot of Teenage Lust and a lot of vintage Tulsa-a lot of Tulsa that no one’s ever seen because it didn’t make it into the book.
GIBSON: When Tulsa came out, people’s reactions were absolutely polarized. Love-hate, you know? It galvanized the viewer. Forty years later, it’s still in the collective unconscious. It’s part of the language that all photographers speak. You could say that’s also true of Jackson Pollock. Once, nobody knew who he was, and now a cab driver can give you an opinion on Jackson Pollock. One of the interesting aspects of having worked and been alive for such a long time is that you get to see how society comes to the art.
CLARK: It’s interesting because we were coming out of the 1950s, and that was such a repressed time. I think I started making photographs in reaction to that. “Why can’t you show everything?” “Why do people pull their punches?” There were great photo essays in LIFE magazine, but they always stopped at a certain place. There was always a place where everybody stopped. It was just a rule. For me there are no rules. I think I learned that from artists-from painters and sculptors. It took photography a while to catch up to them.