Larry Clark - Tulsa Photo Book

After visiting the 'Larry Clark - Tulsa/Teenage Lust' exhibition at the Foam Museum in Amsterdam I got the urge to learn more about the artist and his unsettling work. This is a piece about his photo-book 'Tulsa'.

This was not supposed to be happening. There were no drugs in America, there was no child abuse, there were no parents that were drug addicts or alcoholics and would beat their children up and there was no incest in America. But it was all there and I saw it.
— Larry Clark in Conversation with Elizabeth Neilson, Director, Zabludowicz Collection, 2011

In his photo-book Tulsa, Larry Clark documented his teenage years with a group of friends as they started shooting Amphetamine in the early 1970s.

Lawrence Donald Clark today controversial photographer, writer, film director, and producer was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1943. He was taught the basics of photography by his mother who ran a baby photography business. Aged sixteen he started shooting Valo, a nasal inhaler available at the local drugstore for one dollar that contained high amounts of Amphetamine.

 In America those were the years of a booming youth culture, a new social phenomenon that challenged mainstream society through fashion and music. It was also a time when Amphetamines became heavily marketed to the general public as a cure for depression and as an effective weight loss drug. It could be administrated orally, insufflated or injected although the oral administration was the only route used in the therapeutic setting. Once injected, amphetamines would give to its user an intense and almost immediate rush.

Clark started shooting in 1963 as a witness and partaker in the daily drug abuse of his group of young disaffected friends from Middle West America. The carefully edited book of 50 pictures presents them in a setting of drugs, sexual intercourse and violent altercations, shot in highly contrasted black and whites. The group was oblivious to Clark’s camera (a 16mm Bolex) and showed no shame as they exposed their naked bodies to him. He was drafted in the US Army in 1964 and served in the Vietnam War until 1966. He came back to Tulsa two years later and shot sporadically until 1971 to finish his series. The resulting images of young people surrendering to their addictions come across as dark and powerful. Clark chose a picture of Billie Joe Mann playing with a gun for the cover. He had died of a morphine overdose one year before the book’s publication in 1971. Half way through, the picture appears again. The caption reads “Dead, 1970”. On the left an epitaph: “Death is more perfect than life.“ a statement that resonates throughout the rest of the pages.

Inspired by the works of Magnum Photographer Eugene Smith and documentarian Dorothea Lange, his work however doesn’t resemble that of typical photojournalism. The drugs, the nudity and the violence is bluntly pictured throughout the book, but at no point does it stir in the viewer the urge to react, to judge or even to help. He documented Tulsa’s hard drug underworld in a personal and introspective way, fully detached from any social agenda. This set his notoriety for raw images of teenage alienation, which he continued developing through films and collages throughout his career.