New York

Larry Clark

Robert Freidus Gallery

LARRY CLARK is best known for Tulsa, a photo-narrative about the drug culture that was originally published as a book in 1971. In some respects, his new works—posed portraits of teenagers who live on 42nd Street in New York—continue explorations begun with Tulsa: both series describe the lifestyles, emotions and psychological defenses of adolescents. Yet the differences between these two bodies of work are crucial, since they indicate an important shift in the photographer’s perspective.

Tulsa was, in many ways, autobiographical; even though Clark himself was present in very few of the photographs, the pictures recorded the activities of people he knew well. This intense intimacy is missing in the “42nd Street” series. For although Clark spent several years with the teenagers depicted in these photographs and obviously gained a working knowledge of their life-styles as well as their trust and respect, he remains an “outsider.”

Unlike Tulsa, which unfolded primarily in enclosed, private spaces, the denizens of 42nd Street project their self-images in the midst of the hustle and bustle, the neon and graffiti, the trash and the decay that characterize “The Deuce.” On the surface, these adolescents wear social faces as aggressive and full of bravura as their surroundings. But Clark’s photographs both reinforce and undermine this superficial impression, by focusing on the dichotomy between the street-wise external projections of these young people and their tumultuous internal lives. Contemptuous sneers and mocking expressions begin to seem superimposed on these childish faces, belied by eyes that seem searching, almost confused. Threatening stances and postures mask a physical as well as an emotional vulnerability. The machismo of tight pants and cock-grabbing gestures is undermined by the pride and playfulness with which these teenagers relate to “their” women in the few pictures (all of couples) in which women are present. And flamboyant displays of clothing and accessories (glitter T-shirts, studded belts, broad-brimmed black hats, tattoos and quantities of jewelry) begin to seem less like assertions of individuality than like desperate attempts to conform to social expectations and norms.

This social network, forged and defined by “uniforms” and by a limited number of conventional gestures and expressions, is the real subject of the “42nd Street” photographs. And yet, for all its astuteness of observation, the series has neither the power nor the impact of Tulsa. In Tulsa, Clark’s immersion in his friends’ experiences enabled him to perceive entire life-and-death cycles in a single frozen moment of their existence, and as a result the photographs resonated with a significance that generalized, and thus transcended, the particulars described. This resonance is not present in the “42nd Street” photographs, which are unremittingly specific in their focus—and which are correspondingly more limited in scope.

Joan Casademont