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The Needle and the Damage Done

All the adjectives commonly applied to Larry Clark’s Tulsa — grim, disturbing, honest, visceral, and, most frequently, raw — are no less applicable today than they were when the images first appeared in book form in 1971.

Larry Clark, Dead 1970...From Tulsa

Tulsa almost single-handedly kicked off one of the most dominant genres in photography of the past 30 years, and remains the standard bearer of any photography made “from the inside-out” or that deals with the often narcotized and violent underbelly of youth. The staying power and arresting strength of these images testifies to Tulsa‘s position as one of the most important bodies of photographs since Robert Frank’s Americans, if not the entire 20th century. 35 gritty and haunting photographs from this seminal body of work are currently on view at John Cleary Gallery as part of FotoFest 2002. I do not often care to prescribe “must-see” viewing, but if I were to make an exception, this would be it.

“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.”

Clark’s simple introduction provides all the necessary context for these dark and grainy images. Taken over three extended stays in his hometown in 1963, 1968, and 1971, Tulsa tells the story of small town speed freaks who grow increasingly violent and desperate in each image. The earliest photos from the group show the main players — David Roper, Billy Mann, and an unnamed woman — in the early stages of their drug use. They sport crewcuts, white t-shirts, beehive hairdos, and shoot up in someone’s family parlor, with pictures of Jesus and family members lining the mantle behind them. In these early photos, only hints exist of the degradation and violence to follow — a trickle of blood from an injection poorly shot, or a fractured reflection in a shattered mirror. Before long, though, characters begin to either die off or enter darker corridors of drug addiction. In the later photographs, violence abounds. The junkies shoot up together nude in trashed out rooms. Guns flash in nearly every frame; police informers are beaten ruthlessly; women peek out of beds with horrible, swollen black eyes. Men stare out windows from behind closed curtains.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963...From Tulsa

The uncanny strength of these pulpy images is inextricably linked to Clark’s dual role as artist and active participant. In stark contrast to commonly held notions of objective journalism, Clark, too, was a junkie and a player in all of this — these are his friends; this is his home. The unspoken barrier between observer and the viewed was demolished in Tulsa, resulting in an unprecedented immediacy in the photographs.

Even Clark’s photographic peers who ingrained themselves most thoroughly with their subjects, for whatever length of time, had to struggle to overcome their status as outsiders; whether it was Danny Lyon, who rolled around with the Chicago Outlaw bikers, or Bruce Davidson, whose life at one time seemed to revolve around his “Brooklyn Gang.” Clark never had to work to gain the trust of his subjects — they were his childhood friends. He was privy to every situation, and he was always taking pictures.

This strategy of insider image-making opened the artistic floodgates for years to follow, and was seized upon most successfully by Nan Goldin, who also photographed her druggie buddies (who also liked to beat up women, including Goldin herself); and by an even younger generation that includes photo diarists/documentarians Ari Marcopoulos and Corinne Day. But no artist yet has rivaled the emotional punch or masterful camerawork of Clark’s original. Despite his participation in the rampant and often fatal drug use going on in these rooms, Clark had the wherewithal to produce some of the leanest and scariest images of young adults to date.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1963...From Tulsa

Seeing the photographs that comprise this original volume is a magnificent treat, but this show is not without problems. Many of these prints look worse for their wear and sport a number of nicks, dings, and scratches. Also (not surprisingly), some of the exceptionally graphic images have been removed to protect out gentle sensibilities. Missing are the photo of an infant in a casket, as well as one of the most famous dick-pics in photo history. Sadly, the photograph of the still-alarmingly vulgar, handwritten threat left for police officers has been omitted. Thanks to these prudish exclusions, seeing this show is akin to renting “Requiem for a Dream” at Blockbuster, who doesn’t carry NC-17 or unrated films — you may get the gist of the artwork, but don’t think for a second that you know the whole story.

Most bothersome, however, about this particular exhibit, are some of the curatorial choices made in the current hanging of the work. At times it looks as if the pieces were placed without any regard for sequencing, which is so crucial in the original book form. Some very important and obvious diptychs have been split apart. One of the most impactful pairs shows a gaunt, bearded young man toying with a gun in a narrow hallway, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. In the subsequent photograph, he is writhing on a bed with his pants down, twisted in pain, a bullet hole in his upper thigh. The caption reads “accidental gunshot wound.” For some reason, these two images are hung walls apart in this exhibition. Other similarly perplexing decisions were made that diminish the original power of Tulsa as a unified body of work.

Larry Clark, Untitled, 1971...From Tulsa

Tulsa makes for tough viewing — it is neither uplifting, life-affirming, nor conventionally beautiful. It’s a searing tragedy of American youth — middle-American junkies wrapped in a destructive cycle of violence, drug abuse, paranoia, and death. As opposed to so many photo-essays that deal with similar or equally disturbing subjects, Larry Clark was in the mix during it all. This work didn’t stop at the end of the day for him, or at the end of a two-week assignment. Since Clark was of this world and he was walking the walk at every step, he was sensitive to all the complexities contained therein. Tulsa has scenes of shocking intimacy and also of bloody tragic violence. At times, these extremes coexist within a single frame. Because of this masterful sensibility, no image from Tulsa is more resonant than one of its quietest pictures. It shows a young woman seated on a chair, alone, near a window, bathed in a glowing diffused light that wraps around her exposed, pregnant belly. The image is so serene, so private, and even so loving, that it is nearly possible not to notice the syringe sticking in her arm. The horror and revulsion this scene provokes is countered by the tenderness it is presented with. Clark’s restraint of moral judgment (or lack thereof) in the face of all this death and senselessness could only have come from the perspective of a user, and through this, he brings us a vision of self-destruction and loss more chilling and concise than we have ever witnessed.

Chas Bowie is an artist and writer in Houston.

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