The kids stay in the picture
Larry Clark's photographs document the secret lives of teenagers - drinking, drug-taking, having sex. Shocking? Not according to their creator. "I'm just telling it like it is.'
Source: The Observer
Larry Clark is 65 years old. He looks his age except for the clothes he is wearing: baggy pants and a hip-hop T-shirt. He must surely be the oldest skateboarder on the planet. The morning I meet him at the Simon Lee gallery in Mayfair, his nose is runny and his voice is low and hoarse. He looks rough and sounds like he has been up all night doing the things he used to do in the good old bad old days of his youth.
'Got to bed at four o'clock,' he growls. 'Stayed up to watch the Superbowl. I was jumping up and down on my bed like a kid when the Giants pulled it off.'
Behaving like the oldest kid on the block is just one of the things that Larry Clark's detractors hold against him. That, and his continuing fetishising of teenage rebellion in photographs and films that often wilfully skirt the fraught subject of adolescent - and sometimes pre-pubescent - sexuality.
As a filmmaker he is best known for Kids, his debut feature from 1995. It launched the careers of Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson, and caused a moral panic with its depiction of a gang of young urban teenagers drinking, drug-taking and having unprotected casual sex.
'Some people seem to think I'm some kind of pervert because I film and photograph kids,' he says, 'but just look at the work. It's real situations. It's about real life. Teenagers have sex, they smoke weed. I don't think I'm putting anything in there just to shock. I really don't.'
In Ken Park, though, his even more controversial film from 2002, he included a scene in which a young boy indulges in autoerotic asphyxiation. The shock factor, though, lies not just in the subject matter but in the style in which he portrays it. His camera has a tendency to linger on its subjects, their lithe, young, often barely clothed bodies lit with lush tones. One critic described Clark's photographic technique as 'drawing you into the moral void of gorgeously sensuous squalor'.
Clark, of course, sees it differently. 'A lot of adults see my work and go, "Oh this is Larry Clark's fantasy. Teenagers don't live like this,"' he says. 'But, hey, read the papers. All teenagers have a secret life and it's always darker than what their parents think. The thing is, the kids themselves always get it. They can always tell if it's real or not.'
Clark is in London for the opening of an exhibition of his most recent photographs, entitled Los Angeles 2003-2006. It's familiar turf, a record of the four years he spent trailing a bunch of young Hispanic teenagers who live in Compton, in South Central Los Angeles, which Larry refers to simply as 'the hood'. Mostly, they are the same kids who featured in his last film, Wassup Rockers, which came and went without much fanfare. The narrative, what there is of it, concerns the coming of age of Jonathan Velasquez, a baby-faced Latino who caught Clark's attention back in the summer of 2003, when he was just 14.
What did the Hispanic kids think of him, this old guy on a skateboard who walks it and talks it like a teenager? Were they initially suspicious of his motives? 'Never,' Clark says, shooting me a dark look. 'They accepted me. They get what I'm doing, too. The thing is,' he says without irony, 'if I wasn't cool I couldn't get within two miles of these kids.'
Clark is entertaining company, but it's hard to know what to make of a grandfather who still puts such stock in his street cred. Likewise his new photographs, which are saturated in colour but oddly drained of meaning. They are not reportage or photojournalism, but sit somewhere between a street fashion shoot and a series of well-taken snapshots. As seen through Clark's lens, Hispanic teen life in South Central looks neither as dangerous nor as transgressive as he insists it is.
'They're kind of like punks,' Clark says of the scrawny kids from Compton, 'with the tight jeans and painted shoes. They have a style that they call "dressing young". Basically, they wear the same clothes they wore when they were 12, but now they're 15 or 16.'
I'm tempted to say that Clark himself invented the 'dressing young' concept, but I let it pass.
There is something about Clarke that defies cynicism. He seems both street tough and oddly vulnerable, and seems obsessed for reasons he has no interest in exploring - except through photography - with the ever-shifting iconography of adolescence: the slang, the dress codes, the haircuts. It's anthropology of a kind, but it's all surface.
What is palpable throughout is the homoerotic undertow that is a constant in all his work. He speaks of Jonathan Velasquez's 'utter lack of self-consciousness', which is certainly on display in a series of images of the boy in bulging underpants. This is where the complexity lies in Clark's photographs, in the distance between their subjects' lack of self-consciousness and the camera's all-too-aware rendering of the same.
It was ever thus with Larry Clark, but the innocent faces and saturated colours of Los Angeles 2003-2006 are a long way from the blank stares and monochrome starkness of Tulsa, his first and most powerful book, published in 1971. It remains one of the most influential photography books of recent times, its raw imagery diluted for countless fashion shoots, its groundbreaking confessional style a catalyst for the work of younger photographers such as Nan Goldin and Corinne Day. I tell him how taken aback I was when I first came across Tulsa in the late Eighties. 'Well, that work was kind of scary and shocking to me when I first spread it out to look at it,' he says. 'I remember thinking, "I have either got to burn all the negatives and shoot myself, or go down to LA and try and get it published." It took a while to do that.'
Many of the images in Tulsa were taken in the mid-Sixties, when Clark was living what he calls 'the outlaw life' with his equally self-destructive friends, shooting methamphetamine, toting guns and having sex with various whacked-out girlfriends. The foreword reads, 'When I was 16, I started shooting amphetamine. I shot with my friends every day for three years and then left town, but I've gone back through the years, once the needle goes in, it never comes out.'
Was he aware at the time that he was creating a document that was both transgressive and shocking in its rawness? 'Well, I knew I was making groundbreaking photographs because I had never seen images like that before,' he says without hesitation. 'I knew in some way that I was photographing things that were not supposed to be photographed. Forbidden things. It just happened to be things I was doing myself as an 18-year-old. In a way, it's a record of my secret teenage life.'
By the sound of it, Clark had quite an unsettled and chaotic childhood, too. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in January 1943, he claims he was 'forced into the family business at 14'. His mother was a photographer who specialised in mother-and-baby portraits. 'I was this skinny kid who stuttered really badly,' he says, smiling ruefully. 'Basically, I had to go and make these babies laugh by acting silly. I'd put stuff on my head, make it fall off, mess around some and then snap a picture soon as the kid started laughing at me. That was my apprenticeship, man.'
When I ask Clark about his father, he falls uncharacteristically silent. 'Well, I didn't have a happy childhood. At all.' Was it violent? Abusive? 'Nah. I just had a lot of issues with my father, which isn't unusual, but it just seemed to fuck me up. I think I felt ignored. Unloved.'
He stares at the table for a moment, obviously uncomfortable. I am just about to move on to another subject when he says, 'I guess what I really felt was that I was hated by my father for no reason.' Did they ever work it out? 'No. Never worked it out.' Another silence. 'He's gone now. Lived until he was 83, but we never worked it out.'
It is hard not to see Clark's continuing obsession with teen culture as a reaction to his own upbringing. Likewise, the turbulent and occasionally self-destructive lifestyle he embraced as a young man. He was, he says, 'always a loner, running fast'. He served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1966 in a unit that supplied ammunition to the troops up-country. Even that experience, though, did not impinge on his outlaw lifestyle.
'Strongest grass I ever smoked was in Vietnam. Never took any damn photographs. I used to go into the villages and smoke opium with old guys who looked like Gunga Din. It was not a good time for me creatively.'
After the speed-shooting early-Sixties years recorded in Tulsa, he embraced the outlaw life even more wholeheartedly - or perhaps desperately. I ask him to define 'the outlaw life'. He sighs, though whether this is out of weariness and regret, or impatience at my line of questioning, is difficult to tell.
'It was just far-out stuff, crazy stuff. I had a girlfriend who was a prostitute. We had a racket together. We'd go around Oklahoma to doctors. Crooked doctors. She'd go in and give them a blow job and they'd write us some prescriptions.'
He laughs a hard, hollow laugh, and shakes his head. 'I ain't saying it was good or bad, it was just crazy. I didn't earn a dime from commercial photography because I couldn't get it together. I was out there on the battlefield a long time. A drug addict and an alcoholic.' How bad did it get? 'Real bad. Put it this way, when someone I knew would die, which happened a lot, I'd think they were one of the lucky ones. I honestly used to think I was cursed to stay on earth and make photographs.'
He returned to Tulsa a few years back to see if he could make another body of work on the same subject. The sheer scale of the methamphetamine epidemic defeated him. 'It's massive now, not just in Oklahoma but all over the country. And, it's grimmer. I wanted to do a film, too, but it was all just so dark and depressing. I couldn't find any hope.'
To Larry Clark's credit, there is always a glimmer of hope in his work, the fleeting chance of redemption. Even in Kids, supposedly his most amoral film, it's there, flickering.
For better or worse, Clark has created at least two signatures: the raw, unflinching imagery of the Tulsa photographs, and the meandering, observational, but seldom illuminating style of his films. And, I have to say, he is great company, one colourful anecdote rolling into another, his enthusiasm and unflagging self-belief a breach against all the critical flak he endures, and, indeed, wilfully incites. Is he utterly amoral? No. Is he often misguided? Yes. Then again, true obsessives often are.