PRINT May 2002


First Break

Vince Aletti looks back at Larry Clark’s checkered youth and the events that led to the publication of Tulsa in 1971.

As a teenager, Larry Clark spent three humiliating years pressed into the family business: going door-to-door in Tulsa, Oklahoma, taking baby pictures. So when he enrolled in the photography program at Milwaukee’s Layton School of Art and Design in 1961, it was mostly to get far away from home. But it was there he discovered Life magazine, W. Eugene Smith’s photo essays, and the narrative possibilities of a medium he’d always taken for granted. “I had these urges to be a storyteller, to be a writer,” he says, “and I knew that I had this secret life in Tulsa that no one had photographed, so I went back and started photographing my friends.”

Clark’s secret life began at fifteen, when he started hanging out with neighborhood kids getting off on cheap amphetamines; within a year he was speeding right along with them. Because they were used to seeing Clark with a camera in his hands, when he returned from Milwaukee in 1962 and began using it on them his friends didn’t question it. “It was just a natural thing,” Clark says. “I always had my cameras, but I wasn’t messing with anybody.” Clark printed the photos—mostly portraits of his buddies, sometimes with needles in their arms or blood on their hands—in 1964 and brought them to New York, where a photographer friend had gotten him a show at the Heliography Gallery on the Upper East Side. Clark’s touch, casually intimate pictures didn’t exactly suit the gallery’s prevailing style, which had been set by Paul Caponigro, Walter Chappell, and others who saw the natural world as a site of almost mystical wonder. A number of the gallery’s members resigned in protest; otherwise the show went unnoticed. Undaunted, Clark stayed on in New York for nearly a year (working in the darkroom for photographer Carl Fisher), until he got drafted and disappeared into the army. When his tour was over at the end of 1966, he touched down briefly in New York but ended up in Tulsa again, sucked back into a scene that had gotten considerably crazier and far more criminal.

It was on this visit that Clark first tried to make a film about Tulsa, but when he ended up with only twenty minutes of usable footage, he decided, reluctantly, that the best way to tell his story was with a book. His timing was right. Ralph Gibson, whom Clark met in New York in 1969, would design and publish The Somnambulist, a volume of his own photos, the following year, and his example and encouragement were just what Clark needed. Crashing at Gibson’s loft on one of his New York visits, Clark was introduced to Robert Frank, who liked his photos enough to encourage a rich young friend—photographer and sometime junkie Danny Seymour—to put up the money for a book on Gibson’s Lustrum Press imprint. But first Clark felt compelled to return to Tulsa in 1971 and fill in what was missing: “Incredible things had happened that I hadn’t been able to photograph, but I knew they would happen again, and I was going to be ready for them. And nothing got by me. This is what I was living for. This is what I was born to do. For that brief period of time, I was the best photographer in the world, and I’ll never be anywhere close to that good again.”

Back in New York, Clark laid his pictures out on Gibson’s floor and edited ruthlessly until the book, which he would call simply Tulsa, was lean, cinematic, and, in his words, “so pure and so real that it was OK to do it. The people who are in the book will say this is OK because it’s the truth.” In Tulsa’s first review, in the Village Voice (September 16, 1971), A.D. Coleman called it “staggering. . . a major work, almost too good. . . to be true,” and Clark says the notices that followed all agreed that the book was “the greatest thing since pussy.” Clark doesn’t pretend to be blasé about this reception, but, he says, ‘It was weird for me. Career was like a dirty word.” Besides, the critics he was most nervous about were elsewhere—on the streets back home. When he returned to Tulsa, the book was already so famous that one of his old friends, shown beating up a police informer in its pages, had been beaten up by a cop in belated retaliation. But Clark knew all was forgiven when his friend said, “I was a little pissed, man, but then I realized that the book was a classic.” That was the review Clark had been waiting for. Though he lost himself once again in Tulsa’s drug underworld, he’d found something that would ultimately pull him out of it: “For a while after the book came out, the work was almost incidental, but it kept me alive.”

Vince Aletti is art editor and photography critic for the Village Voice.