Life and death in ‘Tulsa’
Larry Clark’s photographs show a city at war with itself
The Larry Clark Photo exhibit at the downtown Philbrook on Thursday, May 30, 2019.
Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World
What do the photographs in Larry Clark’s 1971 book Tulsa say about his hometown? On one hand, it’s all there on the surface: 50 scenes from Clark’s life among his friends, engaging in amphetamine use, sex, and violence. Claustrophobic interiors are the suburban backdrop of boredom and freedom; lanky teenage boys harbor destructive energy and young women with blank eyes casually gaze off into nothing. These photos are of real people at the fringes of society. They are intimate and often beautiful, capturing the emotional landscape of a specific—if hidden—time and place.
On the other hand, Clark’s work is timeless. The Tulsa photographs document a subtle change of hairstyles and clothing from 1963–1971, but with post-war American drug use and youth counterculture now engrained in Western art and film, the images transcend the cultural moment in which they were produced. This timeless quality makes the disjointedness between the youthful beauty of these Tulsans—with needles in their arms as Jesus hangs in the background above mantle place—all the more jarring.
“That’s what I think is really shocking about these photographs,” said Sienna Brown, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philbrook Museum. “They feel like they could’ve been taken at any time.”
Last year, the Philbrook acquired Clark’s Tulsa portfolio at auction, and Brown began planning an exhibit. In the Philbrook library, Brown presented the portfolio, a large clothbound box containing the same 50 gelatin silver prints that constitute Clark’s book, released in an edition of 100 in 1980. The first Tulsa exhibit was held in 1971 at the San Francisco Art Institute and Tulsa-specific shows have popped up consistently ever since across the States and Europe. The show at Philbrook Downtown, running from June 1 to November 10, will mark the first museum gallery exhibition of Clark’s Tulsa photos in the city bearing its name.
While this milestone is significant in terms of institutional support, it’s the work itself that Brown hopes will get the city talking. “It’s because of the same issues of alienation, drug abuse, violence, but also the way he photographs feels so contemporary because he has that ‘part of the inner circle’ but also a cool detachment that he’s constantly playing against, which after his portfolio became a really important art movement,” Brown said. “There are so many artists that can’t exist without Larry Clark’s start. Someone like Nan Goldin, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, all of them photographed subcultures which they were a part of and did it in this way that is raw and intimate at the same time.”
Controversial art asks us that we look past ourselves and find how we relate to the emotions it expresses. The Tulsa photographs render us passive victims to traumas, making the act of looking a kind of catharsis—distanced by history and the artistic process—but it is also a disruptive action that can be hard on those who are close to this sort of reality.
Clark’s photographs make no judgement of their subjects. His role is merely to expose. Even if one regards these images as beautiful, the self-destruction coursing throughout is undeniable. Tulsa tells a nightmarish and poetic story, long before Clark would transition to filmmaking and present the same tendencies in long narrative form in films like Kids (1995). Life is depicted truthfully, as it was lived, with little context.
Tulsa begins with this epigraph from Clark:
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.
Several of the photos in the book have brief captions: “dead” under a photo of a woman; “death is more perfect than life” / “dead 1970” under the same photo of Billy Mann holding a revolver on the cover; “accidental gunshot wound” below a man wincing in pain; and “police informer” / “everytime i see you punk you’re gonna get the same,” accompanying strips of film that cinematically show a beating. This commentary only darkens the images, suggesting a mood of hopelessness and quiet chaos.
In a page-long essay titled “TULSA” from April 1971, Clark describes the Valo nasal inhalers they extracted amphetamine from in high school—how his friends participated in armed robbery and were in and out of jail, and how the girls they later ran with became sex workers.
Clark left Tulsa for Milwaukee at 18 to study photography, was drafted for the Vietnam War, and then bounced around the U.S. for some time, finalizing his book in New York City and “skuffeling to write something to go with the pictures.”
The images that make up Tulsa convey a world where you either belong or you don’t, organically preserved within the leaves of a book. Reprints by Grove Press make this world more accessible now than ever. (It was hard to find a copy for less than $200 just 5 years ago, now it can be purchased for $25.)
Previously, for Tulsans, Tulsa was an experience reveled in or despised behind closed doors—an explosive document shared with friends in private debates about its artistic merit. To further remove these images from the minimal context of Clark’s book, to display them on the walls of an institution like Philbrook, is to ask the community to have these conversations out in the open.
Philbrook’s Larry Clark: Tulsa is significant because it took 48 years for a Tulsa arts institution to present Clark as a part of the local landscape—but it’s not the first time these images have been presented to the public in Tulsa.
The late Lee Roy Chapman, local journalist and “History Recovery Specialist,” worked to address the fact that Clark had been ostracized in Tulsa. In 2014, Chapman and friends printed out 3 feet by 5 feet Xeroxed images from Tulsa and wheat pasted them around the interior walls of the abandoned Big Ten Ballroom in North Tulsa. Part guerilla art installation, part documentary film—which can still be found on YouTube—Chapman took it upon himself to represent Clark in his natural habitat. In a one-night event, ahha showed Chapman’s film and his collection of Clark ephemera.
Before his passing in 2015, Chapman told local photographer Western Doughty about the attitude surrounding Clark in Tulsa:
“Tulsa tries to represent itself as this myriad of things, the first of which was the ‘Oil Capital of the World,’ but working to represent to the world wealth, class, prestige and culture, there is a price; the working class has paid a price for that. And this book shows that price, all the drugs and violence, and all those excesses that come with being a part of the working class society. You’re at war with main stream society, you’re at war with the cops, and sometimes you’re at war with yourself.”
Culturally, the Tulsa of 1971 is not much different that the Tulsa of 2019. We’re still at war with ourselves, and only now are we confronting the repressed aspects of our past and present. With Philbrook’s Larry Clark: Tulsa, the city—as both an artifact and a living, breathing place of destruction and desire—will reveal itself in a new way.